Growing up it was just me, my mum and my nan. We lived together since I was one, and we lived just us three just before I turned four. Due to both of their previous poisonous relationships, we became a unit. Nobody could mess with us. Because of the nature of how we came to be living together we never really had any money, not that we needed it, we had each other. But unfortunately, the world doesn’t run on unconditional love so my mum worked hard day and night for most of the week and my nan turned into a second mum. When I think back to that little flat, the weather is always sunny in my memories of us together. When my mum met my stepdad my nan moved out from our little flat in London to the countryside in the midlands. It was noticeable that I missed her. I’d cry at family parties when we’d leave separately, and yearn for the weekends we spent with her.
Then one day my mum told me that she’d got ill. I didn’t really understand what cancer was at that age, but it never entered my head that it could potentially kill her. Thankfully, it didn’t. But she had some pretty gnarly radiotherapy for a while. Soon after my mum packed us all up and moved us 20 minutes down the road from her. I was 9 and I honestly couldn’t get enough of how much Tish & nanny time I was getting. Every single weekend I’d be there, watching Murder, She Wrote and CSI on the couch with her. I’d spend most of my time in the summer holidays there too. My nan couldn’t drive but was fiercely independent and absolutely loved nature so we’d walk for miles out of our way through fields, just to get the paper. Again, all my memories of these times are always basked in sunshine.
Eventually, the day came for me to move 100 miles south for university. It was us three again, on the road down to Surrey to move me into the dingiest student flat in the world. She was noticeably weaker as we unpacked all my things, but I just dismissed it as old age and carried on being a selfish 18-year-old and hoping none of my housemates were weird. Fast forward to a month later and I’d come home for the weekend. My mum picked me up from the train station and the journey home was noticeably quiet. Mum and I always joke that we have a weird sixth sense with each other, so even though she told me she was fine, I knew something was up.
That night my mum sat me and my brother down, turned the television off and held our hands. She fought back tears as she delivered the news that my nan had cancer. Again. This time, I fully understood what cancer was; and upon learning it was pretty much everywhere, I knew that she wouldn’t be getting better. Have you ever been told something and literally physically felt the world around you crash down? That’s how I felt. I always knew that she’d pass away eventually but it wasn’t meant to be yet. She was meant to meet my children. She was meant to be at my wedding. At my graduation, at least. Surely this strong lady, who has overcome so much in her life, who laughed and saw the good in everything (except my dad) couldn’t be dying?
Three Christmases went by and she was still with us. Then it happened. For those of you who don’t know about the stages of cancer, one day something just snaps, and you deteriorate pretty rapidly. It’s like a one-way ticket to certain death but you’ve got no idea when the train’s going to arrive. Despite her being bed bound and not even being able to feed herself, the day before my graduation she was still adamant she needed to pick out and outfit. Hearing my mum break the news to her that she wouldn’t be able to go (despite us all toying with the idea of getting a wheelchair – but it would’ve just been too much for her to handle) was one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever heard. But with the wonders of modern technology, she saw me graduate, from the comfort of her own bed.
Shortly after that, she passed away. Even though I’m recalling this to you now, it still doesn’t feel real. And it’s been nearly a year.
The reason I’ve given you my life story is because a lot of people don’t sympathise with the death of a grandparent. They’re old, and people die when they’re old. It’s not likened to a tragic loss of a partner, or parent or child. But all death is the same. Nobody’s pain is easier or worse than another’s. Processing the loss of my nan is one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done. I live away from home so 90% of the time I feel like she’s still here, it’s me who isn’t there. But when I go home it’s like she’s on one of her day trips with her over 60’s club.
Coping with death is, in a word, shit. I fell into a pretty deep depression, which worsened existing anxiety because I felt guilty knowing that my nan wouldn’t want me to cope this way. Just before my nans funeral as I felt sorry for myself at my work desk, my incredibly amazing boyfriend told me he was driving me to Disneyland on the weekend so I could feel happy for a little while. And all of a sudden, Disney became my crutch. If I’m feeling sad, there’s little else that will de-stress me. I’m a bit of a control freak and planning my September getaway to Disney World has been so therapeutic it’s pulled me out of the dark headspace I was in for so long. I also decided that it was fucking boring being sad all the time. If any of you EVER suffer a loss or tragedy, you just have to take the good with the bad. Let yourself be depressed, angry, sad. But don’t forget to let yourself be happy, too. Don’t feel guilty for being happy – it took me a long time to work that one out. And find something healthy to direct your emotion at, let someone’s passing bring a little sunshine into your life by doing something you love, and always know that was the last thing they ever helped you do. I still cry at little things that make me miss her, but that’s good, because it means she’ll always be alive in my head, in my memories and my heart.
Although death is inevitable, it shouldn’t make you live in fear. Instead, it should make you live in love. Someone doesn’t have to have a long-term illness to pass away. We’ve all got an invisible sell-by date on us that will arrive sooner or later. We just have to make sure we treat people like theirs is always tomorrow.