Transformed by grief: my ‘bonus year’ at the side of my late mother

There is no ‘getting over’ a loss: we have no choice but to live on with grief thereafter. This sense of finality and inevitability gives this particular emotion a strong transformative power

Death feels like another one of those stages in life; “everyone is getting married”, “everyone is having babies'' and “everyone is dying”. As we grow up, we seem to move from one of these stages to the next.

My first real and transformative loss only came in July of 2021, when I lost my mother. She had the purest of hearts, a strong will to live and a gentle smile that radiated nothing but kindness. This is not to say that I have never lost people I cared about before, but this was definitely the one that changed me.

In “Atlas of the Heart”, Brene Brown describes Grief as one of “the most complex and universal emotions”. Brown quotes an Instagram post by Elizabeth Gilbert: “Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.”

There is no ‘getting over’ such a loss - we have no choice but to live on with grief thereafter. This sense of finality and inevitability gives this particular emotion a strong transformative power.

My personal journey with grief allowed me a small window of opportunity to brace for its impact.

For many years our mother had been struggling with several rare diseases, including Pulmonary Fibrosis. Each time she was admitted to hospital, she was visited by many medical students asking questions about her various conditions and taking a good look at her hands to study the symptoms of “Raynaud's disease”. She was quite literally one in a million. Despite being tired or exhausted, she was delighted to be helping students prepare for their exams. She joked about becoming rich by charging €1 for every such visitor.

The frequency of these hospital admittances heightened our awareness that mum would not be around for much longer. We knew this, and she felt it. We remained hopeful by witnessing mum’s endurance and her extraordinary regimen of medical care and treatment.

One year prior to mum’s passing, she had once again been admitted into hospital and we truly thought this was the end. We created a 24/7 schedule to ensure that she always had someone by her side and we held her hand during what we believed to be her final moments.

As she struggled with the significant pain, sadness and distress, I remember another patient approaching her, grabbing hold of her hand and saying: “Take solace knowing you always have your family around you. We [other patients] cannot help but feel envious of your achievement - keeping such a family together. I never have any visitors at all yet you always have someone by your side.” Mum nodded, smiled in my direction and continued to endure her pain.

Around this time we were asked to prepare for the worst as the incredibly talented Dr. Bernard Coleiro instructed his team to “give it all we’ve got” - and they did just that. Against all odds mum made a remarkable recovery and blessed us with a year of relative good health - featuring many smiles, motherly words of kindness [which I had thought I would never hear again] and other memorable phrases such as “Taf xiex? Illum inħosni kuntenta. (Today I feel happy)”. The below photo was taken on this beautiful occasion.

Illum kuntenta

This bonus year allowed us to clearly, verbally and practically demonstrate to mum that she meant the world to us - that she was not alone in her journey and she had successfully led an exemplary life. While the vast majority of my life has been one big blur, rushing from one thing to the next, the most vivid moments are those when I sat side by side with mum and listened to her stories. She loved it when I climbed up her hospital bed and lied next to her as she tried to get some sleep - these are my clearest and fondest memories that I will forever hold dear.

Some stories are sad, some endings we can never get over. Some stories are more saddening than others - not everyone gets a bonus year, not everyone is fortunate enough to have close relatives to take care of them and whatever we do, grief will also come back to haunt us at some point or another. Irrespective of our philosophical beliefs, we must accept that life is finite and short-lived. Each of us must endure through several “end-of-life” events as the people around us start fading away.

The good news is that right now there is someone you can help - even by simply being present. You are never too old or too young to make a clear and unequivocal act of kindness. I am certain that we can all agree that we need to appreciate and enjoy one another’s company sooner rather than later.

Every moment gone increases our risk of being unable to continue enjoying the many beautiful facets of life. Your attention is probably focused on work, politics, money, love, pain or even Grief itself. I would like to invite you to put your life, and your troubles, on hold every so often.

Take a moment instead to give your full attention to another human being - be present and lend them a piece of your heart with any gesture of kindness. I can assure you that you will never regret using some of your time this way.