Mastering the Art of Loss

Losing someone you love isn’t a one-time lesson, it’s a process that one must endure for the rest of their lives.

‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master’ Elizabeth Bishop, ‘One Art’.


No-one will argue with the statement that in 2016, we’ve lost a lot of people from the celebrity world. People who had such an impact on our lives, even though we never knew them. People who we looked up to, maybe idolised. Some people that we felt we knew personally. There’s no sugar-coating it: bereavement is cruel. Nothing can prepare you for that sudden void that it creates, and nothing ever fills that void, even if you try to.

Grief doesn’t believe in having a timespan, either. This will be our eighth Christmas without our beloved mother (and today is her fifty-ninth birthday) and I’ve already spent four weeks steeling myself mentally against crying like a sap every time I hear ‘Fairytale of New York’ because it was her favourite Christmas song. And this year particularly I’ve felt her slip further and further from me, because I’ve had to grieve for her repeatedly over the last twelve months. My brain frantically clutches onto fragments of memories I have of her like a man overboard clutching onto an inflatable raft.

First, there was David Bowie, on the tenth of January. I’m not a diehard Bowie fan, but Mum was. She used to tell stories of how she styled her hair like his, and there’s photos of her wearing a cross around her neck as he did. According to Mum, Bowie dictated what Mum wore in her late teens/early twenties, one outfit (if I remember correctly) was an orange top with yellow trousers  (which she got caught wearing by one of the Sisters in the hospital in which she was working at the time). Bowie’s death brought those memories back instantly and that day I mourned for time that couldn’t be recalled.

Four days later, Alan Rickman died and it brought back memories of a family tradition long forgotten: the four of us ‘kids’ meeting on St. Stephen’s Day in Mum’s house, eating crap and watching Harry Potter. Some years that would be the only day that we were all together. Alan Rickman was also in Love Actually, where he plays a love rat. I watched that film with Mum and there’s a scene where Rickman’s wife (played by Emma Thompson) has discovered her husband is having an affair (she discovered some jewellery in his pocket but she was given a Joni Mitchell CD for Christmas instead). In this scene, she listens to Both Sides Now, one of mum’s old favourites and even now, even though I’m expecting it, this scene breaks my heart.

In between the deaths of two absolute comedy legends (Frank Kelly’s on the 28 February, my husband’s birthday, and Victoria Woods’ on 20 April), another absolute comic genius, Ronnie Corbett, died. Every Christmas my mother snuggled on the couch and tittered at the antics of The Two Ronnies reruns. She’d probably seen every episode before, but she still laughed until she cried at them.  And after she died, whenever I saw Ronnie Corbett, I saw her and the big smile plastered across her face.

More recently, the passing of Leonard Cohen (11 November) suddenly reignited that sense of loss that each day, I try to keep buried inside me, along with a sense of panic. I explained in last year’s instalment of Mum’s Birthday Blogs that my way of dealing with particularly stressful things is to push them into a black hole and pretend they’re not happening. Thanks to the nervous breakdown I had two years ago, I now deal with what I’m feeling as it comes, though I must admit old habits die hard. And this year, what I’ve been wondering is how much I actually remember. How much of it is real, and how much I’ve fabricated.

For example, her voicemail message which I rang incessantly for a year after she died. What was it exactly? Was it ‘Sorry I can’t take your call?’ Was it ‘Sorry I missed your call?’ Not important, I know, but you’d think I’d remember that much. Her favourite singer as far as I’m concerned was Joni Mitchell but it might have been Alison Krauss, Elaine Paige, Mary Chapin Carpenter. I’ve no idea what her favourite dinner was because she cooked so many. Every year, as the sense of loss heightens, my memory of who she was becomes entangled with who I would need her to be today.

Of course, there are things I remember. Silly, insignificant things. Like the way we used to stop at KFC in Newry every time we went to Belfast (there was no KFC in Tullamore at the time). The time she bought a collection of Harrods Beanie Babies in the pound shop in Athlone. How she used to paint her pictures slowly, using bold primary colours, giving them thought, time and care. How you weren’t allowed to talk during Casualty or Holby City (we didn’t have Sky+). How glamorous she looked after putting on makeup and how she was the envy of so many women in town. How she had a brooch to go with every outfit, even in the noughties.

And today, on her fifty-ninth birthday, I remember thinking how she was invincible, how she’d be around forever, how I couldn’t see my life without her in it nagging me. And yet, here I am, fielding questions from her almost five-year-old grandchild who would’ve loved her Nana Una.

‘Mummy, was Nana Una pretty?’

‘Yes she was honey, very pretty.’

‘Was she a good cooker like you?’

‘A brilliant cook, she did lovely stews, lasagnes and roast dinners.’

‘Did Nana Una like art?’

‘Yes, she did, and she did lots of paintings and drawings like you do.’

‘I bet you miss her very much.’

My dear Alison, you have no idea how much.

Happy birthday Mum. I was never going to be able to stop you slipping away from this world, but you will never slip away from our hearts. And I know that even if all the other memories fade, we will always be left with love.


3 thoughts on “Mastering the Art of Loss

  1. Oh Sarah my heart is aching. Your mum was so proud of you. Another of her favourites was Janis Ian. It was your mum who introduced me to her music, almost forty years ago…….I was a precocious child! I’ve loved her music ever since and always think of Una when I hear Janis. I’ve seen her live twice……! Love and hugs, Aideen. X

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