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Death is part of life – let’s talk about it

When Lilly Elbra’s Mum died, she felt loss at a primal level. But she thinks her Mum would be proud of what that led to.

Lilly Elbra with her Mum

Lilly with her Mum, Kath Elbra.

There is no escaping grief. It is universal yet unique.

But despite the undisputable commonality of grief, many people feel the need to keep it to themselves, lock themselves away until they have processed their emotions and are again ready to come out to face the world. As a community and as a culture we need to do better because, by embracing grief, we may find that it can be a life-affirming experience, one that helps us evolve and grow.

My Mum was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) in 2019, confirming her worst fears and plunging the family into shock as we all struggled to come to terms with the prognosis. None more so than my wonderful mother. At 81, she had had a very happy, healthy life until this point. As you would expect, the diagnosis shook her world, causing her to fall into a depression from which she never really emerged. My Mum had always been so strong and positive. MND robbed this from her for her final two years.

I was fortunate in that I had two siblings and a Dad who pulled together well, processing our emotions and uniting to provide Mum (and Dad) with excellent support. The pandemic added significant levels of complexity to the situation and increased the anxiety we were all feeling tenfold. As restrictions were relaxed we fell into a rhythm, coordinating our visits so we could spread our support as best we could.

Over the months, Mum deteriorated at quite a pace. Her movements were reduced but thankfully she kept her speech throughout. Most noticeable was her changing relationship with food and the subsequent dramatic weight loss. She had always loved food but, bit by bit, the list of what she found palatable reduced, until for the last few months she was subsisting on a few mouthfuls of soup, half an egg and calorie-packed drinks and pastes. She was diminishing by the week; in her weight, her words, her character and her passions.

She spent her last days in a hospice, a relaxed, calm and pleasant space that freed us all from the anguish of care and enabled us to purely be with Mum. The hospice had only just begun to let visitors return, so it was an honour to be with my Mum when she finally passed. There were no significant last words to cling onto, but she went out of this world knowing that she was supremely loved and that we were so grateful for all she had done for us.

I remember thinking the next day, in this strange period of numb calm that this was the start of life without Mum, that I wanted to hold onto that day. Soon it would be day two, day three, month one, month two, month three, until it was well and truly in the past. I wanted to feel that emotional rawness and I couldn’t imagine a time when it would simply be assimilated within me.

In the depths of grief, though, I found great strengths. I felt reborn, seeing the world through new eyes and understanding loss at a primal level. In a world where we are shielded from the extremes of life, grief will make you feel profoundly human.

With my siblings and Dad, we managed to pull together an incredible send off for Mum. Attending funerals had only just been allowed, but we were limited in the number of people who could come. My sister and I both wrote and read our own tributes. We also really wanted a wake, so we struck upon the idea of having an event tent in the back garden and inviting Mum’s friends and family in two batches so that everyone who wanted to come could. The logistics of sorting the day out gave us something practical to focus on.

In a week that was deluged with rain, the sun shone and the garden looked beautiful. Mum would have loved it. My sister said to me the other day, “I know it’s strange, but Mum’s funeral was one of the best days of my life.” I know exactly what she means.

Although I am not religious, I feel that as a family we have a lot to be grateful for. In her life she gave us unconditional love, a happy childhood and relentless support in everything. Even in her death she gave us a great gift – the strength and the unity we have as a family, the opportunity to give her a great send-off and a profound insight into what it means to lose someone you love. Significantly, this experience has also inspired me to train as a funeral celebrant, to help people give their loved ones a fitting send-off because I know just how cathartic that can be.

I think Mum would be very proud of her legacy.

Kath Elbra
11/4/38 – 5/5/21

Learn more

Compassionate Sheffield are hosting free events throughout May to encourage conversations around death, loss and grief. There are over 20 events across a range of venues exploring the subject. Have a look at their website if you would like to be part of the conversation.

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