I’ve been thinking about how we talk about grief and death. By “we” I mean Pakeha New Zealanders, I know I’m not well qualified to explore this for anyone else.
Dad and I were in Christchurch over the weekend, celebrating his 70th birthday with our extended family who’d rocked up from all over the place. The last time we were all together was my mother’s funeral last year, and the reason Dad and I were in Christchurch was to make sure his first birthday in 44 years without Mum would be surrounded by love from other family members.
It was, and the fact that Dad and I frequently talk about Mum in the ordinary day-to-day living thing was not that big a jolt for my family, most of whom began to do that too.
Now I still have moments of rending grief about my mother’s death, times where I cry and feel like my insides are twisting so tightly I can’t breathe. Part of that grief is much less tidy than “wish Mum was here to talk about that”. Sometimes I grieve aspects of mothering which Mum found difficult, and the pain I hold around that as her daughter. I talk about that grief with close friends, not my family, with the exception of my brother.
What triggered this musing on grief was visiting my grandparents graves in Christchurch with Dad. It reminded me of the day of my grandmother’s funeral. I was eight, and none of the children had been allowed to go, because that’s one of the ways my family did grief then, out of sight of the children.
I’m not sure I really understood what had happened. I remember watching my mother cuddle my father when he came home from work and she told him about the earlier phone call. I remember she was crying and Dad wasn’t, and I wondered if he ever cried. I remember neither of them actually told us what had happened, but we travelled down to Christchurch knowing Nana was dead a few days later.
After the funeral I guess, we were in a very packed car, and we pulled up to a place with rose bushes and grass. My cousin and I wanted to get out and play, we were bored and crammed in. When I asked Mum if we could, she yelled at me and told me I was selfish. No doubt she was embarassed that her heathen child was asking such an inappropriate question at what I now know was the cemetery. I felt ashamed, and because I didn’t know why I’d been selfish, I felt sure I’d done something wrong.
Trying to talk about grief differently now feels a bit like that, all the time. I’m aware that when I bring up my mother’s death with people who don’t know me very well, that those who respond without discomfort are almost without exception Maori. The exceptions, interestingly enough, are people I know through work who are experts in trauma and able to sit comfortably with others expressing pain. Most people either ignore what I’ve said, or look horrified, or struggle for words.
And I wonder about my responsibility. Is it to stop other people feeling discomfort? Or is it to tell my truth about grieving when it’s relevant to me, rather than when it fits Pakeha social norms? If I’m sad at work one day and I’ve been crying because every single reminder of mother’s day this year was torture, do I say that? Or do I pretend everything is fine?
Unsurprisingly given my almost pathological honesty (you’ll have to trust me on that), I’ve been choosing to talk about it. And if I’d been my mother that afternoon in the car, I’d have said “No sweetheart, you can’t play here. This is a special place for nana and other people who have died, and some people would be upset if you were playing. Maybe we can go somewhere you can play later.”