Walking Through Grief
At 7.40am on the 28th February I lost my dear mum to cancer. She’d been
fighting this illness for over a year and we were left bereft and confused as
to why such a healthy, clean living and fit 76 year old should die of such a
cruel and unforgiving disease. Mum had had a late diagnosis by which
time the chemo was ineffectual.
At first there were so many practical things that we had to deal with. The
whole family worked like ants, pulling together and using the many
different and complementary skills that we have, seamlessly working
together to give mum the best send off we could. The world had lost
someone very special, someone who had touched so many lives that we
were determined to get every detail right. I felt mum with me steering me
towards what she would have chosen.
The day of the funeral came. Everyone said that adrenaline would carry
me through. I took pride in my appearance with a new outfit and a trip to
the hairdresser, again selecting something that I knew Mum would have
loved. I met people at the church door thanking them for coming and
welcoming them - almost like a wedding. Hundreds of people turned up
and as a family we felt humbled and immensely proud.
Mum was a force, but a modest one. We used the funeral to truly
celebrate her life. We told people of Mum’s achievements, of which there
were many. Far more than most people knew. My sister, Jess, wrote the
most beautiful tribute from the three daughters, which I delivered. I can’t
really remember reading it, other than the fact that I knew that I wanted
to do it well, for Mum, to make her proud. I faltered, but only at the end
when I glanced over to the front row of grandchildren. Mum had been an
incredible mum and even more incredible grandmother to her six
grandchildren, all of who adored her. They all looked so sad and after
their quiet grace of carrying the coffin into the church I think that their
palpable grief took over. Their pain and sadness was hard to see.
I had a few key people positioned in the church that I looked at to give
me the strength to get through it, and, coupled with my sense of humour, I
finished and felt proud on behalf of everyone. The rest of the day passed
in a bit of a blur, supported by my dear friends and family. We received
hundreds of cards and letters after the funeral with such lovely comments
about the day that I knew that we had done Mum proud. People often
inadvertently referred to it as a wedding – despite the absence of bride
and groom the day had that wonderful positive energy and the church
was full of Mum on every level. The sunlight flooded in and, at the funeral
party, felt at times almost ethereal.
Up until this day I had sort of felt numb. I’d sobbed but on some days I just
couldn’t even bring myself to think of the reality, as it was just too painful. I
didn’t want to give in to my grief as it was just too hard. The rhythm of life
soon took over and back at work I slipped back into the same routines.
I adored my mum. I hadn’t always and at times our relationship was
turbulent. We were very similar which I guess meant that we clashed. Our
biggest similarity was our often-irreverent sense of humour. We could laugh
at situations hysterically for hours and always got the funny side of things.
Throughout her last year we had most certainly laughed more than we
had cried. Other people may of thought that our humour was strange
given the circumstances but we had had a lot of practice of dealing with
tricky situations and humour had always been our saving grace.
Mum was graceful, stoic and brave. We questioned everything and
shared the responsibility for the impossible life or death decisions that we
were presented with daily. The doctors were patient and I’m sure felt that
as a family we were very involved. Mum’s consultant was charming,
sometimes brutal but we always found a way of laughing through the
hard conversations. It wasn’t the right time for Mum to die, she had so
much energy, so much life and vitality, but that was the reality that we
were all having to face on a daily basis.
The whole family pulled together and we constructed a rota meaning
that Mum was rarely left alone for any length of time. We were there as an
additional pair of hands: to help, read to Mum, make her laugh, listen
quietly to the radio with her or just be able to hold her hand. Her interest in
the outside world never faltered. I was constantly amazed at her depth of
knowledge. She loved life and people and people loved her. She knew all
of the staff by name, their personal situations and would make certain
that even when she was clearly in great pain she showed such respect for
everyone, whatever their role. She excused the occasional surliness of
staff and put it down to them being tired.
Mum’s gift to get the best out of everyone and to be able to talk to
anyone was legendary.
We were able to get Mum home for the last few months of her life and
once home, surrounded by the love of her family, Mum was able, partly,
to come to terms with her situation. She was undoubtedly cross, why
wouldn’t she be? Some days were easier than others but what was clear
was that she was where she wanted to be.
After a few months I took Dad away for a few weeks to Cape Verde
where I felt the first need to walk and be by the sea. Finding ourselves on
a deserted part of the island meant that we literally had nothing to do
and we were very much in nature. I felt for the first time in a long time that
I could just breathe. It was too hot to walk for miles but one day I set off,
saying to Dad that I would be about three hours. I set off with no plan
other than to get from a to b. The walk was incredible with crashing waves
on one side and enormous sand dunes on the other. I didn’t see a soul
other than a group of fishermen and their yapping dog who, I was
convinced, wanted to take a chunk out of my legs. I had set my
destination point and despite the incredible heat was determined to
reach it. It felt like an obvious landmark and involved a small climb at the
I reached the point and just looked out over miles and miles of ocean.
Mum was with me, smiling down at me, I felt her warmth and arms wrap
around me like a comfort blanket. The feeling was overwhelming and I
cried and smiled at the same time. I just knew that Mum was with me. I felt
her in every bone of my body. It was a hard feeling to explain. Mum and I
had always shared the same love of walking and the sea so it seemed
obvious to me that she would be with me at that moment. I felt the power
of the sea and of Mum in equal measures.
A few days later, I didn’t say anything to Dad but asked him if he wanted
to do the same walk. It was hot and at 80 he didn’t want to walk as far
but, as it was slightly cloudy, he agreed. After about half an hour he
turned to me and asked if I felt Mum with us. I was overjoyed, but not
surprised that he had the same sensation as me. We both felt her with us.
We sat down and just watched the sea for some time contemplating
what we felt.
After this trip I went to Devon with some friends for a long weekend. During
an early morning run I looked out to sea and there was a mirror-type pond
in the sea with a direct shaft of white light shining down on it. Both my
friend Jo and I commented that Mum was with me again.
I had planned to go to Canada during the summer with Benjy but
circumstances changed and I had this overwhelming urge to go to
Cornwall, a county I hardly knew. As usual, I didn’t have a plan, thought I
might camp and invited a few friends down to join me as and when they
The first night I arrived in the pouring rain, a small car rammed to the
gunnels and had no desire to set up camp. I was tired and overwhelmed.
The campsite was lovely and run by a charming lady but it just didn’t feel
quite right. It soon became clear that I needed to feel a sense of space
and be by the sea.
I made my excuses the next morning and left with no real plan. I phoned
a B&B to see if they had any space, but with it being mid August the
answer was, as it turned out thankfully, no. The kind lady told me of a
friend of hers who might have spaces. I phoned Mary who luckily said that
she could fit me in. She had a kind and friendly voice on the phone so
without knowing where I was going I set off. As it turned out, this was
wonderful coincidence number one. Mary lived in the most beautiful
manor house, which had been in the family for years. Driving down a long
drive my first thought about the house was just astonishment that I had
found something clearly so special. It was in a small village called
Constantine and I was made to feel very welcome and immediately felt
part of the large extended family. I arrived tired and stressed with no clue
as to what I was going to do. The weather was pretty grim so options
The year had been so hard that I realised that I just hadn’t given this
holiday enough thought. It was quite like me, by nature, to be a free spirit.
I had a habit of falling on my feet and if I didn’t I had enough initiative to
get myself out of situations.
Over breakfast I planned my first walk. My ability to get lost is legendary. I
basically got kitted out with walking gear and just set off. This suited me
perfectly. My dad’s advice was sound – the sea must either be on your
left or right, just don’t deviate from the paths and you will be all right. I had
no idea about distances, didn’t own a map and invariably just had my
water, strong walking legs and a steely determination.
I absolutely loved my first day, I did about ten miles in the rain and came
home soaked but content and revitalised. Each day that followed was
the same pattern. A ‘quick’ map chat over yummy homemade brekkie
and fresh eggs from the chickens as Tony, Mary’s husband, looked on
bemused. He wasn’t a great walker at 82 and Mary I think had my blind
and positive naivety, or optimism over distances and how far I could
travel. Some days, I would inadvertently plan walks of over 30 hilly miles!
I always met people whilst walking, another similarity to my mum. People
seemed drawn to me and in turn I was genuinely interested in them.
Complete strangers were so kind, sharing walking tips, gently suggesting
that my intended route was too far and suggesting alternatives. All the
time I walked I knew that mum was with me. I often chatted to her or sung
along to my music. There were surprisingly few walkers. I never felt alone -
either physically or mentally.
Due to awful mixed weather I ended up staying with Mary and Tony for a
week in their gorgeous home. We chatted like we had known each other
for years, regaling each other with stories and laughing. It turned out that
like mum, Mary had been a speech therapist and had then been very
active within the charitable sector. She had the same energy and interest
in life and people. I felt like I was spending a week with Mum and Dad.
Tony was an accountant, same as my dad, who spent most of his day
with his nose in the paper, watching his favourite sports or doing his daily
walk down the drive and back. I thoroughly enjoyed his dry sense of
humour. They bantered cheerily away like a couple of 60 or so years. They
had eight children and 22 grandchildren. Mary showed absolutely no
signs of slowing down, seeming to be steaming through life and taking
any opportunity that came her way.
I think that I covered about 60 miles that first week, walking around the
Lizard Peninsular seeing such dramatic scenery that at times it took my
breath away - sheer black cliffs on one side and much gentler coves,
gorse fields or golden barley and corn on the other. I didn’t mind what I
saw, or what the conditions were like, I just felt compelled to carry on
Once I’d started, I literally couldn’t stop. My walks got longer, my
milestones further. As soon as I reached one headland I pushed myself to
get to the next one. I felt Mum cheering me on and encouraging me all of
the time. I imagined the daily conversations that we would have had,
each night telling the one person that you could guarantee would always
be interested in listening with genuine interest to what you had done. I
knew that she would have worried about me but she would also have
known that I had enough resilience to get through just about anything.
Technically, given the distances and hills that I was covering, I should have
been exhausted each night but after a good night’s sleep I was always
keen to set off again. I could hear her laughing at my determination, a
trait that again, I shared with her.
It hadn’t started off as a journey to remember my mum but the more I
walked the more I realised that that this was exactly what it was all about.
Mum had walked the same paths a few years before and I loved the fact
that we were treading the same ground. I was following in her footsteps
but treading my own path. Life feels like such a journey, so many different
experiences and one just leads on to another. I have been trying to live
life more and get some balance in to my pretty hectic schedule and this
sense of freedom and adventure was helping to ground me, help me live
in the now and have a real sense of my priorities.
After I left the comfort and security of my ‘adopted family’ I went off to
camp - after all this had been the original plan. I hadn’t camped for a
few years and realised that I had no clue how to put up my one-pole bell
tent. My friend, Jenny, had come down for a few days so between us,
mostly Jenny, three hours, a lot of laughter and two beers later, we had
put it up. The door didn’t close properly but we’d managed to avoid the
rain and it looked ‘good enough’. The site was stunning – a field with a big
heart. The simple compost loo and warm shower, decorated with fresh
wild flowers was just what I love about camping. The site was small with
just a few tents. People had been put off by the weather so it was very
quiet. The views were breathtaking, overlooking St Michael’s Mount in the
The next day I planned the walk with Jenny - well, I told her where we
were going, making sure that I planned in breaks and food stops. It turned
into a bit of a mammoth walk, almost 19 miles in bright sunshine.
Breathtakingly beautiful, it took in tin mines, fishing villages, and miles and
miles of bright white sandy beaches. The hills seemed endless and we
arrived home exhausted but hugely satisfied with our efforts. Jenny, luckily
was used to me and knew what I was like!
The next day we went for a small sedate walk down around the stunning
coves of Treen. As we were walking back I spotted a stunning peninsular
that I just knew I wanted to walk to. Jenny went to the pub whilst I
scrambled down to it. The view from the end was stunning - again miles
and miles of ocean and Mum smiling down at me, at one with the nature.
Whenever Mum and I had travelled together we had always walked for
miles. Luckily the previous Christmas, when mum was well, we had gone to
Iceland for a week. Mum and I had walked round for miles in cold but
clear blue skies. The scenery was stunning and Reykjavík a lens-lover’s
dream. I remember then being amazed at Mum’s capacity to walk,
hardly ever showing signs of tiredness. How strange to look back now and
know that just three months later she would be admitted to hospital to
start her final journey.
After Jenny left I carried on doing different parts of the coastal path and
came to discover the Roseland Peninsular. The terrain was much more
gentle than the Lizard and the paths were once again so quiet. It was still
hilly but didn’t feel as arduous as previously.
As I liked it so much I dismantled the tent and moved campsites. The new
site didn’t have a pitch but a ‘snug’ think rabbit hutch. I loved it, as did
the stream of kids who came to see what it was like. I’d started this journey
off in Poppy the caravan then moved to the Manor house, the one poled
bell tent and ended up in a wooden snug. All unplanned, but all exactly
what I loved and needed at that time.
Walking around this area meant that I could walk straight from the site
and back again; more satisfactory then driving somewhere and having to
do a loop. The first day I covered about 14 miles, passing the Hidden Hut,
a fantastic and healthy beach café serving up yummy food. I’d once
read an article about it and obsessed about finding it ever since. Mum
would have absolutely loved it: big wooden tables with fresh flowers and
not a diet coke in sight. The expereince did not disappoint.
Filled up with red lentil dahl I set off to reach Nare’s Head. It was quite a
climb so for once I was pleased that I was prepared. The peace I felt at
the top was fantastic – I lay on the grass without a care in the world. My
breathing slowed down and the views took my breath away. I spoke to
Mum and she answered with the sound of the sea beneath me. I hadn’t
felt this sense of calm in a long time. The walk home was fast. I had
unexpectedly been given a much-coveted ticket for the feast night at
the Hidden Hut, consisting of lobster and chips and I didn’t have long to
get back for this. I arrived surprisingly refreshed and was invited to join an
eclectic table where we ate and drank bubbles overlooking the ocean in
bright sunshine. It was magical.
What I’d realised was that even when travelling alone, I was never alone
for long and someone always turned up at just the right moment to scoop
me up. It seemed that I kept meeting the right people at just the right
The family next door to my hutch were gorgeous – we soon became close
and spent hours chatting and laughing into the small hours. We watched
the stars, some shooting, and the skies were crystal clear. The moon shone
like a jewel and the reflection in the still sea was magical. It was almost
surreal it was so beautiful. We walked one night down to the coastal path
just to see things even more vividly. The stillness, lack of noise and light
pollution all made me so excited. I felt so at home at that moment.
Throughout my trip I’d talked about Mum to various people – some days
easily and others when it had been hard. I didn’t want to cry with
complete strangers or make them feel uncomfortable, putting my grief on
them. What I soon realised, however, was how many people were going
through the same thing. I realised that losing someone you love as much
as I did my mum was hard and would take time; just as even after time
other people’s grief is still real and palpable. I began to understand that
grief doesn’t disappear. Memories remain and mum’s spirit will continue
with me forever. I now see that the calmer I am about believing that Mum
is with me, the more she is. I just needed to open my heart and let her in.
Perhaps it is even easier for me to do this now rather than when Mum was
Throughout my walking adventure I had been able to give myself the time
and headspace I needed to just be with my feelings and emotions. I still
cried at times but sometimes I allowed myself to think about her more,
without being afraid of the pain. The harsh reality is that Mum has died in
the physical sense but is very much with me spiritually. I believe that this is
as powerful as if she was with me now, if you just let it be. I feel her guiding
me in a direction, which, in life, I might of resisted or got annoyed about.
She was invariably right and me stubborn, and so the combination could
sometimes be sparky. Never from her side, she was exceptionally patient
with me. At times I deserved a good old-fashioned slap!
On my final morning I woke up early to leave Cornwall before the traffic.
I’d never felt such a reluctance to leave anywhere, especially as the
sunrise was quite exceptional. I walked back down to the path with my
pot of yoghurt to breathe it all in. I hovered on a gate eating my pot,
crying with joy and taking in the sight in front of me. I had learnt so much
about myself this trip and knew that life needed to change, I wasn’t
entirely sure how but I loved the feelings I was experiencing and wanted
to savour and remember them. I felt Mum even more strongly with me
that morning and literally turned round twice as I thought I heard
footsteps behind. It was such a powerful feeling that I honestly believed
that she was going to turn up with her beaming smile to enjoy the sunrise
My joyful tears also felt like ones of acceptance. I’d accomplished a lot,
probably about 140 miles in two weeks, and all of it accidental. Obviously
I love to walk but I hadn’t set out with this plan. My walk had allowed me
to see things differently, to feel mum’s presence and to experience
sensations on a much deeper level. I had met some exceptionally kind
and lovely people, I had laughed a lot, something I can’t do without. I
don’t believe that it was a coincidence that I met these people at this
time, all of them perfectly placed for different reasons. I believe I was
meant to meet them and that some of them will remain in my life forever.
As I drove home I realised that the one person who I wanted to talk to
and tell them about my adventure and the people I had met was my
dear darling Mum. I chuckled to myself as I realised that I didn’t need to,
as she had been with me every step of the way.