Charles Cowling

I’m not an expert in grief therapy—or therapy of any kind. I was sent to boarding school when I was six. Sounds privileged, I know, but think upmarket orphanage. Boarding schools pride themselves on teaching children to be independent. Don’t children become independent anyway? Whatever, a good British boarding school teaches you the art and craft of emotional self-defence—and not necessarily in a good way. You can become emotionally fortressed, profoundly private, a no-entry zone. You learn to protect your privacy by playing parts. Okay, so everyone learns to do that a bit. But British boarding schools bred some of the most brilliant and deadly people ever to spy for Russia. I’ve been trying to unpick the habits I learned ever since. I undoubtely need therapy.

Back to grief therapy. There’s a school of thought, isn’t there, that the goal of it is a wound closed over, a working through, a putting behind, the shutting of a door and a moving on? Something like that? Call it the Let My People Go school of grief therapy.

And then there’s probably a Stayin’ Alive school of therapy. If so, that’s the school for me. I talk to my Mum all the time, and she’s still a strong influence on my opinions and behaviour. Her absence is not negative space, it’s a species of presence. No closure for me, thanks.

Back in June Norm (I love Norm) posted a blog which moved me. It’s a letter. In his own words, I wrote this letter for my grief support group several years ago trying to help them realize the one who is gone is their greatest cheerleader. That person still loves them deeply and wants them to succeed in their grief journey. As Jack Lemon said, ‘A person died, not a relationship.’”

Here it is:

Sweetheart,

It’s wonderful to be able to write you and let you know how I feel. To begin with, I’m fine. The pain is gone, the suffering is over and so many things that seemed important are no longer so.

I must tell you immediately, once again, how much I love you. That was true then, now and forever.

It’s good to see you making steps toward discovering who you are and how you feel about the life you now have. You always had inside you what you are discovering now. How happy I am that you are seeing the “you” that I have known for a long time. You are also finding many strengths I did not see in you, but were there nonetheless.

I know things changed dramatically when I died. But you have been remarkable in making progress in your grief. I am so proud of you. No one could be prouder or love you more.

I’ll never forget our lives together, just as you won’t. Know that I am pulling for you and loving you all the more from this side. I love you.

Your Love, forever

In the Guardian last Saturday there was this letter from a daughter to her dead mother:

It has been a long time since I wrote that first letter to you the summer after you died. I wrote several letters, and of course you never replied, so I carried on writing to myself, for myself. Without you there to guide me, I studied every memory of you and analysed every facet of my own grief. I’ve dissected my own character, identifying which components were you, which were Dad, and which combinations were the best way to decipher the puzzle of grieving. I’ve read my notes all over again, to try to unravel the mystery of you not being here any more.

I keep your spirit alive: retelling your stories, proudly wearing your jewellery and perfume. I have your sense of humour, your style and your creative flair and I sprinkle them around so that everyone I know will unwittingly know you too. And much as I cannot replace the wholeness of you, I have found “other mothers” of all ages who have bolstered me, soared with me and stood beside me at various points in my life, each having some quality I missed in you.

Always, I wish for you to be here. The success and happiness I have achieved in life are for ever tinged with sadness, because I want so desperately for you to share it. The good times we have are shadowed by your absence, because you would have been here, the first to take to the dance floor, cajoling all my friends, twirling in a red dress.

As I grow closer to you in age, and even surpass some of your experiences, I feel closer to you than I have done in years. It seems crazy, but our relationship is full of an energy that I haven’t felt since you were alive. And although it is a bittersweet realisation, I’m sure that somewhere beneath the ether you are smiling too that I have finally come back to you.

But now I must explain the reason for my writing to you. Often I have wished to have one more day with you: one golden day to ask the questions, hear your stories, hold your hand. Last night a question entered my head like a bubble bursting. We were watching a beautiful film, having spent a wonderful night together. I started to cry and I said to him: “I never thought I could be as happy as this.” Instantly, the bargain entered my head: “Would you swap this for a day with your mum?” I knew the answer at once, and it sunk to my stomach like a lead weight, because without hesitation I chose my future over my past. I’m sorry, Mum. I haven’t deserted you, but I have found a love, an affection that is real and palpable. And in spirit, I have found you again, so this is as perfect as it can ever mortally be.

All your love, for ever in my heart, your daughter, Anna xxx

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