Based in Wicklow, Ireland, Shapes of Grief is a Podcast/blog by Liz Gleeson, Bereavement Therapist. Her conversations with guests explore grief in all its facets, with an aim to normalise the grief experience and share the many ways that people manage and transform their suffering.

My Mother's Nightdress, a personal reflection by Liz Gleeson

My Mother's Nightdress, a personal reflection by Liz Gleeson

It started in September when I arrived home. I had been in the States for a training workshop without the kids. That was quite a milestone for me, getting away for two weeks, something that us separated mums can usually only dream of. After months of procrastination and jumping over the self-imposed hurdles of ‘I can’t afford it’, ‘I can’t leave the kids for so long’, ‘who do I think I am’ – I bit the bullet, roped in four friends to help out with the children and got myself on the plane to Seattle. The trip itself is another story, but suffice to say that it recalibrated me. Once my nervous system settled, (being the primary carer of four primary-school aged kids is often stressful), feelings like joy and gratitude and curiosity found their way to the surface again. I was resourced, refreshed and ready to shift gears, once again, in my life. 

On my return home, this new energy resulted in filling twenty black sacks with old clothes, books, toys and uncategorizable ‘stuff’. This clearing was answering a need in me to shed the heaviness of belongings in the house, long before I’d even heard of Marie Condo. I’ve been at it, the house clearing, on and off since then. The shed was emptied straight into a van and brought to the recycling centre. The children’s books were culled and gifted to grateful strangers at our gate. One man came up the drive and knocked at the door the other day, asking me ‘what’s the story with the stuff at the gate?’ I told him that I had done a clear-out and he was welcome to take any of the books or dvds that he wanted. ‘You aren’t looking for money for them missis?’ he asked me. ‘No, happy Friday. Help yourself and enjoy them’. He looked bewildered for a minute then said to me ‘I’ve been saying my whole life that you don’t get something for nothing. I’ll have to rethink that now’.  It gave me a really good feeling, that the stuff formerly collecting dust on my shelves was now ‘sparking joy’ in the gifting of it. 

And something happens then, when you’ve got rid of the first layers of your stuff – the extra clothes, books and never-liked wedding presents. A new layer emerges. The memorabilia, the nostalgia, the keepsakes. I came across much-treasured projects I had proudly completed as a young child; The American Revolution and The Life and Times of Christopher Columbus. Also, a book review on ‘I am David’. They sat on the living room table for a few days before I took a deep breath last night and put them into the bin with the fury of a mad woman, pouring yesterday’s dripping carrots all over them least I change my mind. The buzz I got from releasing all of this ‘stuff’ previously clung to was intoxicating and I found myself scanning every shelf and cupboard looking for more things to cull. And that’s when I saw it. 

Under the chest-of-drawers, a shoebox containing the nightdress that my mother died in, nearly fourteen years ago.  I haven’t looked inside it yet, but I know it’s there, along with all the cards I received when she died, a cd of the music we played at her funeral and a cd rom with photographs of her dead body that my brother took and emailed to us all shortly after her death. I don’t know why. I neither wanted them nor didn’t want them. I’ve never looked at them. Looking at her body with no life in it was shocking enough at the time. I’ve never been drawn to look at the photographs and I’ve never asked my brother why he took them. Was it to help him integrate his grief and to come to truly accept the reality of her death, his loss? 

But back to the nightdress. She had it for years, maybe decades and even now, I can see her pottering around in her bedroom wearing it. It had some sort of faded image or design on the front of it, flowers I think and two pretty lace straps keeping it up on her. She was a slight woman and quite physically beautiful. It suited her.  She wore it in the hospital bed during her last few days of life. I remember her clawing at it in discomfort, pulling it up and throwing her modesty to the wind, as if she wanted to leave the earth as she had entered it, naked and screaming. It’s only now as I conjure up the image of the nightdress that the distress of those last few weeks of her illness comes flooding back. She wasn’t an easy woman, she wasn’t an easy mother and she certainly wasn’t an easy patient. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t have an easy death. After five long weeks of being told ‘any day now’, she finally let go. It was during my shift. My daughter was just three months old and thankfully such an easy baby. I would put her down to sleep after a long feed at 8pm and I knew that I had until 2 or 3am before she would wake for her next meal. So I always did the evening shift at the hospital; 9pm until 1 or 2am. She didn’t want to die. She wouldn’t talk about her illness or her impending death, so it was distressing for us all to have to keep up the charade. But this night, she was close and I knew it. And I wanted it, I was exhausted. My baby needed me back and I needed me back. I remember holding her hand and watching the veins spidering through to her fingers, being hyper-aware that life force was flowing for now, but soon it wouldn’t be. We were at the edge of life and death. I scanned her body for any sign of consciousness. I sang Eric Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’ to her (if that didn’t kill her, nothing would!) and I could swear that a muscle in her face moved slightly; I like to think she was connecting with me. The wind was howling outside and the pelting rain was audible against the window. I leant over to her face and whispered in her ear that it was a good night to let go. Her work was done, we were all fine and she didn’t need to stay any longer. I lied and told her that she had been a great mother and then I thanked her for giving me life. The enormity of that last statement made my insides feel as though my organs were swapping places with each other. But I quelled my own emotions to stay present to her journey instead. She was alive and then she was dead, just like that. 

She was buried in a hideous-looking bright blue shroud with some giant image of a saint printed on top. I hated it, it wasn’t her, but it was what my father wanted. Tradition was the done thing and like good catholic mindless sheep, we did the done thing. Somehow, the nightdress ended up back at the family home and I took it, along with her handbag which pathetically only contained her coral-colored lipstick, a hairnet and her thin-strapped gold watch. These were the last possessions that she had with her and it seemed crazy that she would no longer be needing them. I took them, her precious things. Her handbag is still hanging up under my stairs among my kids coats, hockey sticks and skateboards. As I write about these items now, I know it is time to let them go; the nightdress, the navy bag along with the coral lipstick, the hairnet and the thin-strapped gold watch. They don’t spark joy, just a sense of ambiguous loss; I both loved her and resented her. 

This lead me to my daughter’s bedroom. Like any other teenager, shelving cracking under the weight of too much stuff. As I cast my eyes around the room, I saw so many of my old belongings. Toys that were once mine many decades ago, old picture frames with my dead dogs and cats, books, clothes. The burden of belongings really hit me hard. The items themselves are nothing special, but they are infused with the energy of a childhood that was lacking. And here was I, now passing the weight of these things on to her. Together, we filled three black sacks. Neither of us need carry the weight of the past. The lightness and flow is tangible in the house now.

As I come to the end of these ramblings, I know that I will go into the kitchen, take a black sack and begin with the handbag under the stairs. When that is done, I’ll go upstairs and take out my old laptop that has a CD drive in it. I will look at the photos of her dead body and then they will join the handbag inside the black sack. I will also release the music, the cards and the nightdress. I wonder if it still smells of her? Maybe I will check that, maybe I won’t. Perhaps now it’s time to let go of the long-held grief I’ve had for the mother that she wasn’t and instead reawaken the gratitude for this flawed, vulnerable human that she was, who gave me the most precious gift ever, life. 

Liz Gleeson is a bereavement therapist who runs a private practice in Greystones, Co. Wicklow. Liz also teaches on topics related to loss, grief and bereavement, communicating in difficult circumstances and self-care for healthcare practitioners. 

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