Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 September 2019

Moving forward with grief: 'How I’ve learnt to live a year after losing my mother'

Grief is not linear, and coping with losing a loved one sometimes means believing that they're still there

Nada El Sawy with her mother, centre, dad, right and her two brothers in April 2018 in Los Angeles, California, where Nada grew up and where her dad and brothers still live. Courtesy Nada El Sawy
Nada El Sawy with her mother, centre, dad, right and her two brothers in April 2018 in Los Angeles, California, where Nada grew up and where her dad and brothers still live. Courtesy Nada El Sawy

My mother is still on our family WhatsApp group, even though it has been exactly a year since she died of cancer.

We thought about removing her from the group when she was in the intensive care unit and we started using the app to discuss what the doctors were telling us – her white blood cell count was out of control, her kidney was not functioning. We then thought about removing her from the group when she was placed in an induced coma: we didn’t want her to read about our panic and fear after she came out of the coma, when she got better.

But she did not come out of the coma, she did not get better. She had been admitted to the ICU on a Tuesday, I arrived in Los Angeles from Dubai on a Thursday, and on Sunday morning, June 24 – barely four months after being diagnosed with lymphoma – my 60-year-old vibrant mother was gone.

Rationally, I know that everybody dies but emotionally, there are moments when I still cannot believe or accept this has happened.

The next day, one of my two brothers forwarded a message of condolence on our WhatsApp group. I mistakenly sent a reply from my mother’s mobile: “from who?” I wrote. When I realised my mistake, I hurriedly tried to delete the message, but before I could get the chance, my dad wrote, “WhatsApp working from up there in the Cloud?”

It was a lighthearted moment in a time of deep sadness and shock. Those first days were the toughest, but there have been many difficult days over the past year. When I find myself thinking: “I wish my mum were here”, sometimes I feel the only way to cope is to believe that she still is.

My Muslim faith has guided me somewhat in this belief, although there really is no knowing what comes after death. We learn about the soul leaving the body, about Judgment Day, about heaven and hell. But no one knows what actually happens to our souls upon death, regardless of religion.

We had to simplify things for our three children then aged seven, nine and 12, telling them that Nana is in heaven, that she is in a better place. My husband had the difficult task of breaking the news to them and through everyone’s tears, he assured them, “Now you can talk to Nana whenever you want, because she’s always with you”.

I look to my wise grandmother, who was devastated to lose her daughter, but remained spiritually strong. On my mother’s birthday on May 20, she gathered family at her apartment in Cairo. Although it was a sombre occasion, my grandma chose to honour and celebrate the 60 years of my mother’s life, rather than lament the year since her death. She gave a short speech in which she thanked God for her many blessings and said that she dreams of her daughter, and it’s as if she is visiting her in her sleep.

I am not sure how long we will keep my mother on our WhatsApp group. It could be seen as being in denial or not moving on, but symbolically, it feels difficult to remove her.

Friends who have lost parents have told me to watch for the signs. One close friend, whose father died from lung cancer when she was in her twenties, told me “energy never dies, it simply changes form”. Another friend, who lost her father to cancer a couple of years ago, said she feels her dad’s presence all around her and assured me, “You will be amazed at the signs you will see.”

I do believe in that. My dad feels my mother’s presence in the bright yellow roses blooming outside his home office window in Los Angeles, their long stems stretching to peer inside. I have had dreams of her, some comforting and some melancholic. Mainly I feel her when I think: “she would have done this” or “she would have wanted me to do this”.

These small things give me consolation, but it is not easy to “move on” with one’s life. The so-called stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – are not linear. Rationally, I know that everybody dies and everybody has lost someone close to them or will lose someone close to them at some point. Emotionally, there are moments when I still cannot believe or accept this has happened.

So how does one cope? Another friend, who has lost both of her parents, sent me a Ted Talk that resonated with me called: “We don’t ‘move on’ from grief. We move forward with it.” And another friend, whose father and sister died in the past two years, advised me “don’t think about her death, think about her life”.

It is not easy to force yourself to change your perspective, but once you do, things become easier. In December, we decided to go on a ­Luxor-Aswan Nile cruise with my grandma and dad. He had hesitations at first: this is the same trip we did as a family in 1991 when I was 12 years old. When we took the view that she would be with us on this trip in some way, it shifted the feeling away from sadness.

This summer we will take another trip that will undoubtedly be emotional – a road trip up to Palo Alto, California, where my parents began their married life nearly 41 years ago and where I was born. My mother had wanted to do this road trip two summers ago. She wanted to show our eldest son the Stanford University campus, and I said, “It’s too early for that.”

I could now wallow in regret that I did not take that chance, or I could take the view that she will be with us this summer.

I am not sure how long we will keep my mother on our WhatsApp group. It could be seen as being in denial or not moving on, but symbolically, it feels difficult to remove her.

Besides, it is a nice way to keep her up to date with all our news, while she is up there in the Cloud.

Updated: June 24, 2019 10:08 AM

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