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Anticipatory grief: losing my mum at 22

Helena explores the anticipatory grief she felt before losing her mother, and how she is coming to terms with this grief now

It was March and we were on the precipice of a new beginning that nobody had wanted or planned for. My sister and I were sitting in a restaurant in Cervinia, in the Italian Alps. Plans for the family skiing trip we’d already postponed once had dissolved.

A week earlier we were told mum’s cancer was terminal. It was and still is a crushing reality, so making it there, to a restaurant in an upmarket ski resort felt like an accomplishment, as absurd as that sounds.

Meals were where we spent our time discussing what happens ‘After’. We adopted that word in all our conversations. It was a futile attempt to make shape of what losing our mum would mean. I think part of it was knowing that life was being torn down and would have to be rebuilt and that this new version of living would be completely separate from our old lives; our even little unit of four.

It’s a funny thing to split your young life into two distinct halves. At that time the ‘After’ felt abstract, foreign, and too big to understand. It still feels that way most of the time. But we were already drawing the outline of an unknown world, both dreading and feeling a need to be inside its more certain lines.

We speculated about the ‘After’ from the outside in. Edging ever closer to its borders from March until May. From fears over life’s big moments to worries about the everyday. We talked about it all. Two things I thought of in March after dad called were my first baby and my wedding. In that order. I anticipated how it would feel to need mum when I was expecting my first baby. To need her sure advice, her sense of humour, her hugs, and I love yous. I thought of wedding planning, wedding dress shopping, and the day itself. I could already feel the weighty sadness like a stone, coupled with rising anger that I deserved those days to be simple in their happiness.

We were living in limbo. A no man’s land where you know the awful thing that’s coming but have no way to gauge its arrival.

And we felt guilt. Guilt for imagining the ‘After’, for feeling out its motherless frame.

February 2023

Life crept soundlessly into the winter months. I didn’t want the world to keep spinning because my hurt felt endless. Displaced love took up every corner of my heart and my head; Loss, a lodger in the middle of my mind. As time pressed on, the certain lines of the ‘After’ grew blurry and its borders expanded out of sight.

I lived on through the haze of missing mama. A haze that became so dense I couldn’t find the people who had been there in the beginning. They went back to their lives and shut their doors. They’d carried my pain but could offer no resolution. I lost their attention because I stayed sad.

I held on tightly to those that remained. I was relieved by their patience, how they sat with me in the instability, how they held my sorrow in their hands. We explored the ‘After’ together, we walked for miles. Felt the freezing blue sky days of this new world, found the sun for an afternoon, and turned our faces towards its rays of hope.

Slowly but surely Spring pushed her way through thawing soil. Vibrant seedlings erupted and life ticked on, never missing a beat. I grew into myself with each lengthening day. I became lighter in the soft breeze, could breathe with the rustling leaves.

I still keep her close. She envelops each moment of joy and pain; she’s there in the ever present ache. I learned that you don’t carry grief, you absorb it. To live with loss is to accept it as part of you. To weave it through your weary limbs, wrap threads of love around your bleeding heart. The ‘After’ is a sweeping landscape to be explored with mama’s love as my guide.

My name is Helena. I'm 23 years old and originally from England, but I've lived in Amsterdam for the last five years. I have always loved to write, it's the first thing I reach for to process my emotions in difficult times. I lost my mum last year to cancer and started writing about living with grief as a way to keep her close. I decided to start a blog and Instagram page: @whatcameafterblog on IG to hopefully offer some comfort to others through my writing and help people feel less alone in their loss.


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