Perhaps the only thing that can impact and shape a woman’s life with the same power as her mother’s love and guidance is her mother’s death.
In Without My Mum, Leigh Van Der Horst candidly shares the story of losing her mother to cancer and raising her young family during this awful time. It’s a heartbreaking story and yet uplifting, because her grief and loss ultimately lead to her transformation.
In addition to her own story, Van Der Horst includes heartfelt contributions from a collection of encouraging mothers worldwide – ‘a sisterhood of motherless mothers’ – including moving additions from popular personalities, such as Jools Oliver, Lisa Wilkinson, Megan Gale, Amanda de Cadenet and Natalie Bassingthwaighte.
We spoke to Without My Mum author Leigh Van der Horst about the transformative power of grief:
Better Reading: In Without My Mum you describe how you change over the course of your mother’s illness – ‘a soul-shifting upheaval’ you call it. Why do think her illness and death made you become a better person?
LV: I think ultimately witnessing someone trying to stay alive is enough inspiration to remind you that you should be grateful for your life. All through my mum’s illness she would give me little snippets of advice, mainly based on gratitude and how we can choose our attitude and how we respond to what is happening around us. I never really took any of that onboard prior to her illness, but as she fought her disease and remained so grateful and calm throughout her cancer journey, I realised just what we were capable of as humans. After she died I was completely lost. I could barely even dress myself but over time I built up strength and opened my heart to the world again and acknowledged my own courage. I see things now through different eyes. It was a real awakening. I no longer sweat the small stuff, that’s for sure!
BR: There are diary entries interspersed through the narrative about your mother’s illness. Are these based your real diary entries at the time?
Leigh Van Der Horst: Absolutely. I have a tattered diary that is full of words from this time in my life and I literally just chose the relevant content for my book. Word-for-word. I am so glad that I recorded the memories, even the sad ones, as I otherwise probably could not recall them. Over time I think you block memories to stay safe. It hurts to read them as I put myself back in that place, I know where I was when I wrote them, in her home, in the hospital, in the palliative care facility… But on a positive note, I love reading about life with my mum. The days I spent with her. The conversations… I miss that so much.
BR: You talk a lot about appreciation and enjoying life while we can. Your mother said that lessons are meant to be learned form life, and we should enjoy life each day. Do you think it sometimes takes illness or loss for us to appreciate what we have?
LV: In my case, it certainly did. In the time that we lost mum, we lost a dear friend also, a few months earlier. He was my age and suffered from melanoma. It was horrendous to watch his decline, especially as he was young and had a whole life ahead of him. After the loss of mum, we sadly witnessed another friend lose his life, again due to cancer and again, far too soon. I think the least I can do to honour them is live my life to its fullest and respect the fact that I am alive. The lessons in life are never ending. It is up to us to have our eyes and hearts open to learn from them. It is awe inspiring to witness the courage of those who fight for their lives.. They are so strong. They have a real appreciation for the little things in life; they are not concerned by money or popularity. All they are focused on is waking up and enjoying the day with the people they love. We can all learn so much from these lessons. Especially in the current, self obsessed world that we live in.
BR: What is it emotionally challenging to re-visit your mothers illness to write Without My Mum?
LV: Honestly, yes it was. I had to read the events over and over to make sure that it all made sense to others who would be reading it for the first time and of course I began to ask myself if I had done enough to help her… I guess that is just a natural reaction to losing someone you love. But, I was uplifted by the stories that poured in from all over the world and this gave me hope. I knew how useful this book would be so I just kept going. There were many tears but that’s ok, crying is good. Keeping the emotion all bottled up is not healthy.
BR: You’re honest and open about your grief, your parenthood and relationship struggles through this difficult time. Did the process of writing Without My Mum help with this?
LV: I think it showed me that I didn’t have to pretend to be perfect and that chaos is a normal part of living and that it is completely fine when we fall in a heap and need help. As a woman, I can often be my own worst enemy when all the balls I’m juggling start to fall but then I remind myself that no-one has it sorted, we are all finding our way, every day and there is something truly admirable about honesty and I LOVE real people!! I had to tell my story with transparency; there was no other way.
BR: How much did counselling help with your grief process?
LV: I credit my psychologist for literally saving me! I have never opened up to anyone as much as I did with her and it was just so cathartic. I was given an opportunity to sit with her and just talk, cry, sob, ask questions… Whatever it took and sometimes she cried with me. I got lucky, I had a perfect match in a psychologist, and that is so important. It was a natural process the entire time and as I offloaded emotionally, she would give me some options to take to move forward. It honestly pulled me out of the most horribly morbid rut.
BR: You also include many valuable contributions from other mothers who have lost their mothers – ‘a sisterhood of motherless mothers’ – some of them high profile women, some not. How much can talking with others and openly discussing our experiences help us through grief?
LV: I strongly believe that by relating with others about such a devastating topic and knowing that you are not alone, you have the best chance at healing. There is strength in numbers and I have gained so much strength from others who I can relate to and I have been inspired by so many stories of courage. If we went about everything in our lives alone, we would not succeed. Sometimes you need to lean on others to get you through. That is why I created the private Facebook group ‘Without My Mum’ to continue the support. It is a beautiful space full of women from all over the world who have lost their mothers and it is very supportive and comforting.
Better Reading: Your experiences in Without My Mum show that good can come from even the most profound grief and loss. Was this your intention?
LV: Yes, it was. I am proof that you can be happy. I now live a life I could have never dreamed of due to the fact that I don’t give up on my dreams and I have gratitude. Neither of these traits existed in me when my mother was alive. It is not all doom and gloom. Life does go on. Events in our lives can occur that are just plain old unfair but we owe it to ourselves and those we love to live good lives and that is impossible if you have a negative attitude or you fail to thrive. It is ultimately a choice but it is integral to have good, solid people around you that you trust and that will help guide you, and you, them when needed. I miss my mum, there is no question and I truly think of her every day but I refuse to be miserable and I choose to be at peace. Life is not always roses but the response you learn to have when curveballs are thrown will ultimately determine your experience.