February 10, 2012 10:15 pm

Rules of bereavement

As a death approaches, grief blurs our eyes and makes the world a bit foggy; it’s traumatic, but it is a known unknown

When should I take down the condolence cards? It’s been a month since my mother died and the subdued florals are starting to stare back from the mantelpiece. We would never have birthday cards on display for weeks. Yet I feel shy about removing anything sent “in sympathy”. It seems wrong, as though, by putting the cards in a drawer, we will be forgetting my mum.

Inevitably, one bereavement-etiquette question leads to another. I agonise over whether one is meant to send thank-you letters for these cards. I haven’t. Is this rude? Or are the bereaved excused from normal rules of polite engagement?

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While obsessing over this question and many others, I join an office trip to the David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy. The paintings make me very happy. But by Room 11, the Yorkshire trees recede into distant blue skies. Even a giant yellow and purple canvas can’t compete with the nagging in my head.

In the Hockney shop, I ask a wise colleague about the thank-you letters. She says, somewhat elliptically: “Have you had cards back when you have sent condolence letters to others?” I confess I have never sent a condolence card. She hesitates, perhaps weighing up whether or not to tell me how callow and rude I am, then says: “I think, if you want to, you could send a postcard ...”

It’s the right answer, of course. Sick of the muted palette of grief, I buy lots of cards showing trees in bright colours, and we leave. Later, I wonder if it’s OK to send a condolence-thank-you postcard without an envelope. Layers upon layers of unknown rules.

Generally, one gets to mid-life with a fair idea of how to go about it. We hash on through its vicissitudes and dilemmas using past experience as our guide. When white sauce is lumpy, I no longer bin it, but sieve it and stick it in the blender. When the eight-year-old says, cross his heart, there is no homework, I now text another mother to double-check. Problems have solutions.

Or they did. What has been the most unsettling, unexpected change since my mother’s death has been that questions without answers or solutions come into my head all the time. And not just about etiquette. I have to make sense of my puzzling new life.

As a death approaches, grief blurs our eyes and makes the world a bit foggy. It’s traumatic, but it is a known unknown. We drink endless sweet tea and measure out the end of life in days, hours, nursing shift changes, saline drips and oxygen masks.

At the hospital’s café I saw heavily pregnant women talking to their partners and mothers about birth plans, worries, pain relief. Waiting for the start of life just as we were waiting for an ending.

I looked at them and thought back to childbirth. It’s painful, I thought, but it usually takes up just a single day of our lives. The next day brings motherhood, which lasts a lifetime. Yet no one thinks much about that in advance. How can we? It is too much to take in.

. . .

It does not occur to me that the preparation for a death, and the endless arrangement-making that follows, is another kind of distraction from an unknowable new reality. It is not until the moment of burial, as I throw a handful of soil on to the beautiful willow coffin, that I realise I am motherless. My sister and I have crossed to another unknown place, where we’ll spend the rest of our lives.

Learning to be a mother is a noisy business. There’s always talk in the house, a snuffling baby in the crib, friends and family visiting and phoning. Learning to be motherless is about silence. It’s the silence of coming home and not hearing those cheery, bossy answerphone messages. It’s the silence of friends who are keeping a bit of a reverential distance.

I may be new in the land of the motherless, but I learn fast. From now on, I will be sending condolence cards to everyone of my acquaintance who loses a loved one. And, realising my past etiquette blunders, I start confessing them. It’s a sort of grief-based 12-step recovery programme.

“I am really sorry I was so crap when your father died,” I say to a close friend as we hide in a café among chirruping young people. “Oh, don’t worry at all,” she says, briskly. “I was the same. When he died, I realised how insensitive I had been before.”

I phone my father to ask what he has done with the many cards and letters he received after mum’s death. “I’ve put them in a tin box and I am going to read them from time to time.” Good plan. The cards are coming down today. I’ve got a box and I’ve decided it’s OK to keep it in a drawer. The motherless have to make up the rules as we go along.

Isabel Berwick is the FT’s associate Life & Arts editor

Susie Boyt returns next week

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