The Blog

Things I Learned From My Parents' Deaths

No one loves you like a mother. One of the things that preyed on my mind after Mum's death was that I'd lost the person who loved me most, but then it came to me in a powerful flash of insight that I still have her love and always will do.

My dad died while I was writing my latest novel, and death seeped its way into the pages. It was inevitable because for months after losing a loved one, thoughts of death are foremost in your brain. While friends chatted about politics or recent films, I was thinking "What does that matter? My dad has died..." It proved cathartic to focus on different kinds of deaths in my novel - in battle, in a hospital bed, expected and unexpected - and it made me realise how much I had learned about bereavement since my mum died ten years earlier.

That was a shocking death, when she was far too young. I spoke to Mum the morning she died, when she seemed in peachy good health. She started listing the dishes she was cooking for a friend's birthday dinner at the weekend, whereupon I cut her off saying I was at work and would call back later. But two hours after we spoke she collapsed with a brain haemorrhage so catastrophic that the doctors told us she was most likely brain dead before she hit the floor.

I went to see her body twice - once in the mortuary, once in the funeral home - and rationally I knew she had gone but somehow my brain wouldn't accept it. A few weeks later I was walking through Victoria Station when I became convinced I could see her on an escalator up ahead. Heart pounding, I rushed to overtake, turned to hug her - and realised the only minor resemblance was an auburn curly perm. Several times a week, I'd look up from work and think "I must call Mum" before remembering I couldn't do that any more. And every night she was large as life in my dreams.

It's so odd the way people one day just cease to occupy space. You could look the world over and won't find them once they're gone. I tried, all the same. I went to a psychic, who gave me hope with what I now realise were a few lucky guesses followed by a load of clichés. At the time, I persuaded myself Mum's spirit was trying to communicate and I was prickly with friends who expressed scepticism. I'm not knocking spiritualism if anyone else finds it helpful, but with hindsight I think it held me back from the acceptance stage of grief and made the whole process slower.

There's a pull towards self-anaesthetising after bereavement, which can be a dangerous path. I drank too much for a while, before realising that booze made me maudlin. There are different types of crying, and the kind you do when you're half-cut is neither healing nor respectful. Besides, you have to watch your health because the loss of a loved one is a massive blow to the immune system and it's easy to get rundown and susceptible to every bug doing the rounds. In the end, I channelled my addictive urges into swimming, and swam daily for as long as I could manage, feeling the water hug me like a blanket, like going back to the womb.

No one loves you like a mother. One of the things that preyed on my mind after Mum's death was that I'd lost the person who loved me most, but then it came to me in a powerful flash of insight that I still have her love and always will do. Death can't take it away. A parent's love is a gift you get to keep for life, and I was incredibly lucky to have it.

When Dad died a slow, winding-down, old man's death at a respectable age, I was able to use all the techniques that had helped me through my grief over Mum. I put photographs of him with his characteristic glint in prominent places round my home and looked at them often. I collected happy memories by thinking back through all the holidays we'd taken together and locating photos and diaries from those times. I talked about him to the good friends who were interested enough to listen, and I still tell his grandchildren funny stories to help fix him in their memories. I make an 'absent friends' toast when drinking his favourite tipple and retell his corniest jokes. On his birthday, Mum's birthday, and the anniversaries of their deaths, I buy an extravagant bouquet of flowers for my sitting room. And I've arranged memorial tributes for them both. This way, they stay alive in a very real, palpable sense.

I often 'hear' their voices in my head: for example, Dad telling me to clean out the filter in the dishwasher, or Mum urging me to buy a new pair of shoes (she was a raging shoeaholic). This is not them speaking from spirit world; they are speaking from inside me. And I hope they will never stop.

Gill Paul's novel No Place for a Lady, set during the Crimean War, is available in paperback and ebook