My mother, Berrell Jensen, died on the 25th of July at Mercy University Hospital, Cork, Ireland. Nine weeks ago, today. She was 83. Losing her has been profoundly devastating for me, perhaps all the more because we had a complicated, often estranged relationship.
In the last years of my mother’s life I would sometimes wonder how I would feel when she had gone. I imagined relief, mostly. She was physically suffering and lived reclusively. I felt, for the most part, burdened by these facts. Although I admired and appreciated the extraordinary things she’d done in her life, I could not locate feelings of love for her.
Perhaps I ‘lost’ her when I closed my heart to her, aged 13. Perhaps it began earlier. At critical times in my life I felt my mother failed, betrayed or abandoned me. Although being a rebel and a feminist, and a role model for many people, she did not prepare me for the challenges of becoming a woman. When my first period came, I thought I was dying. I waited for her to come and ‘make it all better’ but she did not and I washed my sheets in secret, and from this moment viscerally felt myself shut her out. But the seeds of this process started earlier, when she unwittingly – or uncarefully – exposed me to her sexual life and to her brief but violent second marriage. The list goes on. Her inability to help me through depression and bulimia, although in her work as a community centre director, she was instrumental in assisting others who had mental illness; her subtle chauvinism in her behaviour towards me; her endless and lengthy advice on what I should be doing with my life, without asking me what I thought; her rage when I wrote to her about a deeply transformative experience I had which concerned my father’s death in a family car accident.
The truth is my mother felt guilty for all these things. She felt she’d neglected me when she had had to work. She believed my father’s death was her fault: she should have driven, he had drunk too much. She blamed herself for my bulimia, and even, I suspect, for my decades long chronic illness. However she lacked the skills to talk to me – to anyone perhaps – about her feelings. In my 20s, during the worst stages of my bulimia, she wrote to me and said I needed to pull my socks up and get on with things, that I could not blame her or my father’s death for what was happening to me. Words that can only have been written because of her feelings of helplessness and remorse. I know this now, I have known it for some time. I went on to work on my issues with therapists and healers and spiritual teachers, and I learned so much: how to truly feel what was going on for me rather than rationalise it, how to talk honestly and directly with others. I learned how to take responsibility for my life.
But at no point did I choose to use what I learned when I was with my mother. I remained resolute in my early decision to exclude her from anything that was tender or vulnerable. Even in the few years I lived in the same country as her, I only made sparing visits, focussing on accomplishing any ‘jobs’ needed around the house. I gave her advice on nutrition, and made her monthly orders for supplements. I helped her out with her computer.
I would cry when I left her, acutely feeling her loneliness. Nevertheless, I did not choose to spend Christmas with her, which she spent alone for decades. She said she hated Christmas, and preferred not to do anything, and I pretended I believed her. I did not choose to visit her on her birthday, not even her 80th. Her birthdays were also generally spent alone.
I would cry when I left her, acutely feeling her loneliness… Now that she is gone, I understand this: we were close. So very close. I felt everything that was going on for her, and she me. Perhaps in this one way it is understandable that I found it so hard to spend time with her. It was too painful. She did tell me once, that she woke up in the night weeping.
My mother had much to weep about. She might have been one of South Africa’s most famous artists in the 50s, 60s and early 70s; she might have marched with women in the Black Sash against apartheid, she might have changed people’s lives with her social work in Belfast and London, but she was also a child of an alcoholic mother and she experienced her father as emotionally distant, a man who thought women should be wives and mothers, perhaps secretaries, but not activists or artists (she paid her own way through university in South Africa by driving a taxi). As a young child she was confined to her bed for a year due to meningitis. Also as a child, she was raped by a member of her family (now deceased), and fought off another rape as an adult. She dropped her aspirations to study for her Masters degree in order to support her family. She inadvertently witnessed one episode of her husband’s several affairs – this one with her best friend. She survived a horrific car accident that killed him, an accident that occurred the night of her son’s 11th birthday. She single-handedly raised her two children and supported her mother-in-law, often taking on work that was gruelling and very poorly paid. She lived frugally all her life and, in her last ten years, in difficult circumstances in a damp and isolated house.
She died in hospital, from kidney failure, lung congestion and heart-related complications. I was with her for most of the last two and a half days of her life, two and half days that changed everything I’d ever felt about her.
I arrived on a Wednesday evening, a late flight. The moment she saw me she tore off her oxygen mask and a monitoring device stuck to her forehead, and she opened her arms and said, “I just wanted to see you.”
The moment I saw her, my heart opened. The heart that had been shut for forty years.
During those short last days, we frequently gazed long into each other’s eyes. We talked little. Her mind had been failing and I don’t know what she was conscious of, but it seemed to me that she was in a state of grace, that the language spoken between us was deep and profound, there were no words needed. (She did once say loudly, “I love you my darling” – silencing a discussion of bodily ailments between two other patients in the emergency ward.)
She would smile if I smiled, but otherwise there was no need. We both felt our love for each other, of this I am certain. And I told her I loved her, often. Words I had never said before. She would nod, and smile, and I knew she was telling me the same thing.
On Saturday afternoon she started to fail rapidly, and the nurses and doctors made me leave the room while they ministered to her. I had only one wish at this point, which was that I would be with her when she died. I was not.
And so began the grief. I felt as if someone had taken a hacksaw to my chest. The pain was unbearable. Is still, when it visits. When a dear friend told me, It is unbearable, I knew she understood.
Pain made greater by remorse, by regret.
I regret not listening to the voice inside me that said, I should be there now, I should be there now, for the five days prior to my actual arrival before she died. I regret not listening to the intuition that told me, also five days prior, she would die on Saturday and so stopping the doctors from putting the feeding tube down her nose on Friday. I regret not removing a suction tube on Saturday morning from her other nostril, a tube that caused her so much discomfort. I regret the hours I did not spend at her bedside in the hospital. I regret the many things I did not tell her during the hours I did.
But these are small compared to my remorse for not overcoming my decades-long resistance to being with her, talking openly with her; my remorse for not spending time with her in her last years when she suffered so much and was so lonely; my regret for not doing the many things I could have done to make her life a little easier, a little less lonely. I needn’t have done anything drastic, but on my infrequent visits I could have sat quietly with her, asked her gentle questions. I could have given her the space to share with me, if she so chose. Or we could have just sat, and gazed out the window at the birds she loved.
Perhaps those two and a half days of precious connection have put into sharp focus what I have lost, what could have been, had I managed to set aside my list of accusations.
Many have said my mother was always a difficult woman, independent and stubborn, and so I should not blame myself for her situation. I have been told that had I taken more time to truly be with her, it probably would not have made a difference. Perhaps so. But knowing these things does not change how I am feeling.
I have been told I shouldn’t be feeling regret and remorse. For me I sense these feelings as a kind of teaching, a way to deeply remind me again and again to be truly present to what is, to live my life in such a way that I never again cut off emotionally as I did with my mother; to remind me to keep my heart open. I thought I was protecting myself from pain. I know the pain I feel now is all the greater because I closed myself to her.
There is more to write. The grief that we die at all. The incomprehensibility of this fact.
More mundanely, the catastrophe of what is expected of next-of-kin when someone dies. The amount of work involved is so contrary to what is really needed at such a time, work which brought me to my knees. The first thing one nurse said to me after my mother died, was: “You have to contact a funeral director.” I could barely breathe, let alone begin to know the steps involved in just this one thing, let alone navigate what was required for probate (the meaning of which I only learned after my mother died).
I am sharing my experiences and process (if you are still with me!) to encourage others not to make the mistakes I made, to be prepared, if just a little, for the death of someone close. To prepare for your own death.
I ask you now: think of those you love, are close to – in spite of difficult or complicated or estranged relationships. Is there anything you would regret not doing, not saying, should they die? Do it now. Do not wait. Do it now. It might feel too uncomfortable, it might feel it would cost you too much – financially and emotionally, it might feel as if it would take too much time, but please, do it now.
And, if you have not yet had to handle the post-death affairs of someone, find a friend who has and ask them if they might be on stand-by should and when the time arises for you to do it.
Write a will. Make sure it’s legal and valid. Put it in a safe place, known to your nearest and dearest or lodged with your lawyer, along with a list of all your accounts and financial institutions and all important documents – passports, birth certificates and so on. There are a number of websites which outline what you should do to prepare for your death, things that will make it a great deal easier for whoever has to handle your affairs, for example: One Day, You’re Going to Die. Here’s How to Prepare for It
Last but not least, what do you do when a friend of yours is grieving? The thing most people seem to be concerned about is intruding. I am sure everyone is different, but for me, all expressions of concern or love were and are much appreciated. It means a lot to me, the hundreds of little notes, the ‘Likes’, I receive on my Facebook posts, the emails sent. I may not be able to reply, but believe me, I see and have read every one and have been comforted.
Other things to do if a friend is grieving: if you can, cook a meal and drop it by. Offer to clean the house, go shopping. Even just getting basic groceries seemed an impossible task sometimes. If you can, do these things without asking. Send cards, little silly gifts.
And ask questions about the person who died. Perhaps I am unusual in this, but I so desperately needed, still need, to talk about my mother. About everything – the horrors that happened at the hospital. Her last moments. My remorse for the things I didn’t do in her life.
I need to share these things over and over again, not to wallow, but to help the emotions flow through and out. To keep my heart open. I need to talk, to honour my mother’s memory, to tell the world how much I truly loved her, even though I only discovered this love in the two and a half days before she died.
Note: I have been honouring my mother every Saturday on Facebook with posts about her artwork and her life. If you would like to see more please visit me there.
The Guardian Obituary: Berrell Jensen
Architectural Association Obituary is on this page, scroll a bit:
Architectural Association Obituary
Or as a PDF on the ART ARCHIVES – SOUTH AFRICA website which also has a listing of my mother’s exhibitions and other references: Berrell Jensen