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Coming to terms with grief and the death of your mother

Music mogul Simon Cowell was 'heartbroken' this week after his beloved mother Julie died from a stroke. The 89-year-old former dancer was very close to her son. As the family prepares for her funeral and the lonely days that will inevitably follow, two Belfast Telegraph writers tell us how they coped with their own grief after losing their mum.

Published 08/07/2015

Simon Cowell and his mum Julie
Simon Cowell and his mum Julie
Frances as a child and her mum
Alex and his mum with Santa

'Despite all the calls I hadn't said half of what I wanted to her'

I was very sad to hear of the death of Simon Cowell's mum - particularly because they were so famously close, often being photographed together at restaurants or on the red carpet somewhere glamorous, which I always thought was really sweet and showed a softer side to him than his uncompromising public persona we all saw. I even remember reading somewhere that he had a house built for his mum directly inside the grounds of his new place, so that he could see her every day. That kind of bond isn't broken by death, but he will feel the loss forever.

When my own mum Margaret died, in 2007, I was extremely calm. Although she had been diagnosed with cancer in October, she passed away just before Christmas, so I suppose I was in shock at how quickly it had all unfolded. Things had to be done. Christmas wasn't going to wait for example, so after the funeral arrangements and all the incessant travelling back and forward to England, my attention was taken up by keeping all our Christmas traditions going.

As a single parent I didn't have any alternative. I even invited my sister from Manchester and her family to spend it here with us because she just wasn't coping at all well with the bereavement and needed some respite herself.

Then the dogs broke into the pantry on Christmas Eve when I was out at the airport and they'd eaten the turkey and all the trimmings by the time we got home, and we'd had a mad panic on to replace it all before the shops shut.

So you could say my mind was so occupied with domestic stuff that the impact of the loss didn't strike me for a while. But once everything had returned to normal, Santa had been and gone, the tree was taken down and the new school term had officially started, that was when it properly sank in.

Ever since I had moved to Northern Ireland from England in 1990, mum and I had worked out a routine. Every Monday morning without fail, come rain or shine, she would phone me at 10am to tell me all the news from back home including what she, dad and all my seven brothers and sisters had been up to. She used to keep her address book in front of her, open on B for Burscough's page so that she didn't miss anyone out from the weekly roster of events, birthday notifications, births, marriages and deaths. Sometimes the conversation could go on for over an hour, depending on who had done what with whom, when, where and why. And if there was any really big news, then I'd put the kettle on after an hour then phone her right back.

The day the kids went back to school was a Monday. I walked in through the door after the school run and, as 10am came and went, silently, suddenly the magnitude hit me and I broke down and cried for the whole day.

I tried to remember what we had been talking about the last time she'd called me, before the bombshell diagnosis sent her straight into hospital never to return home. Cutlery. We had talked about cutlery of all things.

Top of the agenda that day was to tell me that she and dad had been walking through Debenhams in Manchester when she spotted the perfect set reduced to less than half price in the mid-season sale. It was the exact match to the design they had used for "best" for years and which, after thousands of uses, had started to look a bit lack-lustre.

Of course she snapped it up. "What a bargain! Now we can use the old-best set for every day use and chuck away all the tat. You should see it though; it's in a beautiful wooden box lined in satin, like something you would get at a top hotel or win in Tatler magazine.

A Viners classic, no less, with lovely beaded edges and so shiny you could do your hair using a knife as a mirror! Fifty eight pieces in all, even including dessert forks, for goodness sake…We'll be like the Royal family every Sunday lunchtime from now on. I ought to get a butler, or - better still - get dad to dress up as one and wait on me hand and foot…Silver service here we come!"

Sadly that never happened. A couple of days later she collapsed and was admitted to hospital. After numerous tests she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer; the one they call the 'silent killer' because it has no real symptoms until it is too late. In mum's case it certainly lived up to its name.

The next time I spoke to her over the phone she was barely capable of a full sentence. I did my usual trick of masking distress by talking incessantly, cracking jokes and being the telephone equivalent of a bull in a china shop. Apart from a few faint attempts at laughter, she hardly spoke.

And now she was gone forever and despite all those years of phone calls and visits I hadn't even said half the things I wanted to tell her and often I've looked at the phone, almost willing it to ring.

Nine years later and I still think of mum every day.

But now at least I can get through Monday mornings without breaking down.

By Frances  Burscough

'My mother gave me my voice ... and she never gave up on me'

I met my mum, Adelaide, for the first time in the late summer of 1960. I was five years old and had been in an orphanage for about 18 months. She was an orthoptist -specialising in lazy eyes and squints - and I had been sent to her to see if there was anything that could be done with my right eye. I didn't speak to her. I didn't speak to her the next three times, either. I didn't speak to anyone: and I hadn't spoken to anyone since I arrived at the orphanage.

She was in her early 40s at that point, happily married to Sam and didn't have any children. She told me years later that they hadn't even considered adoption until she saw me for a second appointment. I knew I was terrified during those visits, because I was nearly always terrified about everything until I was about 10. I was a stressed, traumatised, scared, bed-wetting boy who didn't speak, because something had happened to me when I was about four and not speaking to, or looking at anyone, was my way of coping with it. I'm still coping. I still wake up screaming some nights.

But she saw through the fear. Maybe it was something to do with her job and having to stare into my eyes for a few hours during those three long appointments. Yes, she saw a terrified boy. But she also saw a boy who she believed could be rescued with love, patience and somewhere he could call his own home. She saw a boy she was willing to turn her comfortable life upside down for: a boy she was willing to take a chance on.

And it was a very big chance she was taking. Social workers, psychiatrists, educationalists and assorted professionals warned her against adopting me. Their collective view - and I have seen the file that accompanied my adoption - was that I was insular, unstable, almost certainly "educationally subnormal" and would probably have long-term mental issues. Hmm. Even a rescue centre for dogs would have found a gentler way of putting off a potential new owner!

Anyway, she ignored all of them. She even saw off the doubts that Sam had raised with her about me. He was 11 years older than her and fairly set in his ways. But she wore him down. Thank goodness, because he was a wonderful father.

I moved from the orphanage in July 1961, three weeks before my sixth birthday. The next few years were extraordinarily difficult years for both Sam and Adelaide, because I didn't settle easily or quickly. I still wasn't speaking to them and hid when people came to the house. And I'm pretty sure I hid because I was terrified that someone would come and drag me back to the life I lived before I was placed in the orphanage. You can give an adopted child a nice house, his own bedroom, new clothes, toys, birthday parties and a family Christmas: but the most important thing they need is the certainty that they won't be given away and returned to that "other place." The other thing they did was read to me and talk to me - even while I remained mute and motionless. They were readers and radio listeners, so I grew up in a house where words mattered. And even though I didn't respond - even a nod of the head was beyond me - my mum told me later that they both knew I was listening and, more importantly, they both sensed that I understood most of it.

Sam died while I was at Queen's University in Belfast, and I like to think he was quietly proud that I got there in the first place. Adelaide died in November 2003. There isn't a day I don't think about her, because every time I lift a book or a newspaper, or write a column, or do a radio or television commentary, I know that it's her doing. She gave me my voice. She gave me the confidence to raise that voice. She never gave up on me, even when I was at my most difficult.

And even now, when I get the odd jibe about my squint, I just thank the universe that I had it: because if I hadn't had it she would never have been there to rescue me. A wonderful person. My mum.

By Alex Kane

Belfast Telegraph

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