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Lessons from a year without Mama

Helena reflects on a year without her Mum.


I became an adult in March 2018. I was 18 years old. I became an adult when my worries grew infinitely bigger than my next university exam, or the boy I liked. Your cancer diagnosis changed me in ways I could have never prepared for, Mama. It changed our family. Life as we knew it crashed down and almost crushed us. We tried for over four years to get out from under the rubble. Every day we found cracks of light, a hope to drive us forward.


It’s been one whole year of trying to exist in this world without you. I heard a quote the other day, ‘Pain and death are the only teachers. And are they worth it? No. Are they worthless? No.’ Rabbi Steve Leder said this on Kate Bowler’s beautiful podcast, Everything Happens.


I’ve been forced to grow up and rely on myself in ways I never wanted to over the past year. None of it is worth losing you. No amount of evolution in any of us could warrant such a huge price. But I’m determined that if I have to live through hell, it won’t be worth nothing at all. I’ve learned that death gives meaning to life. Life’s precariousness first crossed my mind when you became ill. When it was no longer a given that you’d be here to see your future, or mine.


You didn’t get to meet 23 year old me. But, oh you would’ve given anything to. Watching you cling to life was the bravest thing I’ve ever witnessed. It was a purely loving act, to see how much we all needed you, and to stay for as long as you possibly could. You went through enormous physical and emotional pain to give us that. Mama, I am grateful that I never had to question your love. It radiated from you through your cheeky sense of humour, your hugs, and how you were fiercely in my corner. 23 has been the hardest year because I’ve lost my anchor; your grounding presence.


One summer, autumn, winter, spring since we last spoke. One trip around the sun. Time moves cyclically. The seconds pass at a regular, unfaltering pace. But my perception of it is wildly irregular. It feels like just yesterday I came home to be with you in your final days. At the same time, I’ve forgotten how it feels to have you standing next to me. The sense of certainty only your life could give.


There have been painful buds of newness in the last year. Life has a way of rudely pushing on, despite our cutting loss. I got a new job and I moved into my own place. I wish you could see my apartment. I wish more than anything that we could have decorated it together. Keeping you at the centre of everything has been bittersweet. It was your advice that I experience living on my own. Now I’m doing just that without you to share it with.


Mama, I knew you so well when you were alive. But I think I know you even better now. So many people love you. They keep their love wrapped up in stories. Stories of you before the possibility of my existence ever crossed your mind. I love hearing every single one. I came home recently and found a letter one of your friends had written to us after you died. She said you wanted to study ‘anything but the Law’ at university. It’s ironic that you studied exactly that. Another told me the story of how you asked her to be my godmother at a swimming pool in Manchester. I could imagine the scene. I could feel the giddiness.


Stories keep us close. I love getting to know previous versions of you through them. I look up to the girl you once were and wish I had more of her independence and self-assuredness. She felt most herself in her own company. At the same time, she made deep and lasting connections with those around her. That’s all any of us can ever hope for: to be loved and seen fully, both in life and in death.


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: @whatcameafter_poems 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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