I hope you will indulge me here as I share my news and dedicate this week’s writing to my dear grandmother who passed away recently. Having lived 98 years, one could say she had a good innings. But in some ways, the mere fact she lived so long also means she’s been part of so many people’s lives for so long, something is simply missing from our world now that she’s not here.
Affectionately known as Mamou to almost everyone that knew her, my grandmother was what we call a strong Ardennaise woman. In fact all the women on my mum’s French side are pretty strong, and we’ve often said in our family that we would be lucky indeed if we inherited even half of her strong genes. At 85 years of age, she was one of the 50 or so friends and family who made it over to Costa Rica for our wedding there. When she got off the bus after a gruelling seven hour bus journey from the airport, it would not be an understatement to say she looked more spritely than most of my friends 50 years younger! At the local nature reserve, they still have a picture of Mamou at the top of the rainforest canopy, as she was the oldest woman to do that particular tour. Bless her! And it wasn’t only her strong genes that we all admired but also some of her amazing skills. She could make the most delicious jams and was renowned for her apricot one in particular. Her gaufres (waffles) were light as a feather. And when it came to her tartes – whether abricot, sucre, or rhubarbe – she baked them to perfection, and they were simply divine. We would even relish the times as children when she would shoo us out of the kitchen so as not to create drafts for her rising dough, it meant delicious food was just hours away. She always appeared to look the same to me – from my earliest memories until very recently. It is this unchanging presence, this quiet matriarchal force in our family that somehow provided us all with an anchor. A strong thread of consistency in our lives. I didn’t see her as often in my adult years as I had in my childhood but still, when we hugged, I knew that my love of a good hug comes from her, and our connection was always strong. She didn’t have an amazing life, and I know from my mum that at times things were very hard indeed. But she did live her life well and she was someone we all respected and loved.
They say that in the second before our death, each of us understands the real reason for our existence, and out of that moment, Heaven or Hell is born. Hell is when we look back during that fraction of a second and know that we wasted an opportunity to dignify the miracle of life. Paradise is being able to say at that moment: "I made some mistakes, but I wasn’t a coward. I lived my life and did what I had to do." Paulo Coelho
We were fortunate to have some time with Mamou before she passed. She spent four weeks in the UK at my mum’s, and even enjoyed her 98th birthday with us – the same day as the Queen’s Jubilee. Our family celebration was warm and relaxed, and she seemed happy as she watched the pomp and pageantry of the Thames flotilla. It gives us all such comfort: we had enjoyed quality time with her and she was smiling to the end. She died just a few weeks later back in her home in France, after a good day, having had a steady stream of visitors to come say hello and enjoy her stories of her UK trip. Now each of us in her extensive family, both here and in France, will find our own way to grieve for her.
Grief affects everyone in such different ways, it hard to generalise about such a subject. It is a subjective and very personal journey and will touch us each differently. Having some kind of commemorative ritual – be it a funeral, cremation, memorial – I believe is a worthwhile part of the process. It’s an opportunity for family and friends to come together and somehow help conclude the last chapter and close the proverbial book of someone’s life, or at least their physical presence on this plane. It doesn’t mean it completes the grieving process though, no, the reverse is true. I personally feel these rituals bring forth the reality of the loss of someone and so only after can the emotional and spiritual processing happen. It is the beginning of letting go, of healing. And for all the philosophising, beliefs and understanding we may have around death, such as feeling someone’s spirit continues to exist, or that their soul is now heaven, the stark reality of their absence hits most of us during the funeral or parting ritual. It is bitter-sweet also to be both happy and sad to see friends and family we haven’t seen for a time; to get to grips with the fact that we are all gathered because someone we love is no longer here, someone who was always there…
So, each of us who knew Mamou will find our own way to let go, to say goodbye. For myself, I would like to think of her as always being with us; her beady eye watching over us, in the way she used to in life. Whilst her passing leaves a vacuum in our family, new life has also entered our circle with the birth of a cousin recently and I’m sure many more new lives will come from Mamou’s dynasty – in that sense, combined with the love we all felt for her, she will live on forever.
"Love is a fabric that never fades, no matter how often it is washed in the waters of adversity and grief". Anon