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Benedict and his mum at his master’s graduation in 2018.
Benedict used to work as part of Macmillan’s Community Team, he got in touch recently to send us a piece he wrote about coping with the grief of losing his mum on Easter Sunday last year. We wanted to share it with you all today, and we want to thank Benedict for writing such an honest, open, and powerful piece of writing for us.
I’m not really sure why I’m writing this. Aside from a few tentative forays into journalism during a post-graduate career crisis, and some student essays of questionable quality, I’ve never been much of a wordsmith. But for the best part of 24 years, I do know that I have been somewhat of an introvert; an introvert who on the whole finds it difficult having difficult conversations with real human beings and real human faces. I guess picking up my figurative pen (typing on my keyboard) comes more naturally.
My mother died on Easter Day 2019, which seems like both yesterday, and a decade ago. A lot has happened since then: I have successfully sold her house, fallen in love, seen my sister get married, shed quite a few tears, and even been to collect her ashes. But one thing has been constant since that day: trying to make sense of what grieving has done to my brain. Not in some neurological or scientific sense (disclaimer), but instead trying to figure out the messy entanglement of my thoughts, memories and feelings, which just seem to come out more naturally when splurged onto a page. If nothing else, writing about loss is – for me at least – quite cathartic and a good way of finding some order and grounding in turbulent times. I guess that makes this blog sort of a convoluted reflection on grief.
For those people lucky enough not to have experienced the death of their closest family member, it is difficult to articulate quite how it feels. The words ‘fucking’ and ‘dreadful’ don’t seem to hold the necessary gravitas. In lots of ways, coming to terms with my mother’s death over the last eight or so months has been the worst period of my life. Initially it is quite scary what the shock of grief and witnessing a human being die in front of your eyes can do to your brain.
The prospect of making it through the day, and then the next one – let alone remembering to zip up your flies and not wearing two pairs of boxers back to front at the same time – seems unbearably daunting. Over time your brain starts to move onto the lighter stuff: questioning the very nature of human existence. How could this possibly happen to someone you love unconditionally? Why does it seem, in the words of Billy Joel, that only the good die young? Not an easy one to answer. But I’m still trying…
Grieving is also completely exhausting, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been more tired. It has felt like my brain is constantly full and whirring away, with more capacity for sadness than I’d ever been aware of. The seemingly random nature of my emotions if as frustrating as it is tiring. The speed at which your mood can change, set off by the smallest reminder of your loss, or even nothing at all, is difficult to comprehend. One moment things can be fine, in blissful ignorance of what you’ve gone through, only to find yourself almost immediately back at a very low point.
Other difficult things are the sporadic moments when your brain doesn’t quite line up with your mouth, like speaking about your mother in the present tense, as if she is still physically present on earth. You wonder whether or not to correct your grammar to the person listening – who knows full well about your loss and seemingly sees your brain wondering whether or not to correct itself – as if acknowledging your mistake will make the fact of their absence more real.
More than anything, I’ve realised that grief, for me at least, has not been a linear process. It has seemed meandering, fragmented and disjointed, and as of yet there is still no end in sight. Unlike how I may have naively assumed, the grief process is not a case of starting at the very bottom, and slowly and neatly working your way back up the line to reach the point you were at before this all happened. Ultimately, I will never be the same person that I was before my mother died, but nor do I expect to be.
It is an inescapable fact that the death of my mother has changed me. Not having her around anymore is monumentally shit (she always told me to save my swear words for the moments for when they’re really needed, of which I think this situation qualifies). But I have tried to allow the grieving process to change my own perspective on life, which I hope on the whole, it has done for the better. I see this sort of how my mum managed to take the good bits out of having a debilitating incurable disease (which I know sounds far-fetched and a tad oxymoronic).
One thing she valued, perhaps above all else, was spending quality time with the people she loved the most. Whether that was doing completely everyday things with her two children, like watching the unrivalled daytime brilliance of Pointless on BBC 1, or taking her friends to play crazy golf and proceeding to wipe the floor with them, she really valued the people around her.
A few years before she died, she wrote me a letter to read upon her death. It is, and will probably always be, the most profoundly moving set of words and sentences I will ever read. More than anything, it brings home in the sharpest of focus how she thought about the fundamentally important things in a human’s life. In it, she told me that no expanse of time is sufficient to equip anyone to face the messiness and unpredictability of life fully, but that in continuing to live the rest of mine, I should choose to act out of love, respect, hope and generosity, rather than out of fear, hurt or anger.
She told me that it is okay not to display strength, but to be curious about, and not fearful of, my emotions. The few words have given me the impetus to reach out and go for grief counselling, and to confront my emotions properly for the first time in my life. Previously I have definitely been guilty of locking difficult things away in the furthest recesses of my head, but her death has made me begin to think seriously about my own mental health and how best to take care of myself. That is, after all, what she would want.
She also told me to be tolerant with my own weaknesses and gentle with my failings. She was painfully aware that nobody is perfect and that she herself was no saint (even though she died on Easter Day, which apparently guarantees a fast-track to heaven…which she would’ve found funny).
Our mother taught us that to be imperfect is to be human, and it is still possible to love other people because of these flaws. Nobody is perfect, but my mum was about as close as it is possible for a human to get, and I miss her every day.
Thank you again to Benedict for sharing this piece with us. If you have lost anyone and need to talk, the Macmillan Support Line is open 7 days a week from 8am-8pm for emotional support, or simply to be a listening ear. You can call the Support Line free on 0808 808 00 00. You can also talk to an advisor via an online webchat by clicking here.
Ah Benedict. Your mum was a wonderful woman who helped me immensely when I was struggling to come to terms with being told I had incurable cancer. She’s not completely gone, you know. She shines through in your words in this brave blog. You are your mother’s son and I think she’d be proud of you and how you’ve faced your grief head on. It does get easier, I promise
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