Morven Mulgrew, 35, was seven months pregnant with her second child when she lost her mother (pictured above) very suddenly. That was 18 months ago. After a period of intense anger, Morven who lives in Tottenham, North London, with her partner, Joe, and their two children, August, 3, and Cleo, 1, reflects on the loneliness of loss in pregnancy, postnatal depression, and the importance of talking openly and angrily about your grief, and being heard.

CP: I was moved when you got in touch and said you were ready to tell your story, one that is not only deeply personal but still extremely raw. I can remember every detail about the moment the call came, nine years ago, to tell me my dad had died. It was a moment of total devastation, relief, shock and disbelief rolled into one dislocating package. Do you remember where you were when you heard about your mother?
MM: My mum died of a heart attack on Tuesday 21st June 2016. It was the Summer solstice. She had had a kind of fit the day before in the car with my sister, but when the ambulance arrived she had come back round, and although they wanted her to go to hospital she instead went home promising to go to the GP the next day for a full check up. The next morning we had an argument because I was so worried about her and angry that she hadn’t gone into the hospital. I then phoned her back at lunch, a bit more reconciliatory. I said she needed to take better care of herself. She said ‘spare me the lecture’.
The next thing I remember is my sister phoning just after we put my son to bed at 7pm. She told me there were paramedics in the house. I couldn’t believe it. I think she hung up to ring my dad, I had moved into the bathroom by this stage and there I sank onto my knees and shouted a prayer to a God who I don’t believe in because I could not believe what might be happening and I was desperate and I didn’t have anywhere else to turn.
When my sister called back, I heard the paramedic come out and tell her my mum had died. It was the most terrible moment of my life. I had the simultaneous feeling both of pins and needles and of time standing still. I called my dad and we were both crying. He was being driven from Glasgow where he had been at a meeting, back to our family house in Edinburgh. Joe and I were in the living room and we were both on our hands and knees. I remember making noises I could not control. My friend came over to book flights back to Scotland and make me dinner. I felt very far away.
That night in London was long, and I was afraid to go to sleep because every time I woke up I realised over again what was happening. My heart physically hurt, heavy and painful. On the flight up from Stansted I was crying so much that a stranger came up to me and asked what was wrong and all I could say was ‘my mother’s died’.

CP: In our recent correspondence, you mentioned that your experience of grief has been ‘not poetic like “life gives, life takes”, circle of life shit, but angry bitter jealous stuff which eats away at me’. I’m interested in the rawness of that feeling…
MM: In the first months, I couldn’t understand this dream/nightmare state I was living in was a real thing. I am also aware now that it was a very pure state that wasn’t impacted by money or time or work. I remember feeling relieved to be at Edinburgh airport, physically nearer my mum. So many weird things happened then. I remember snippets, like the next day I took off my clothes in the garden down to my bra and pants and felt really happy. I felt weird because all the painful feelings totally disappeared. I kept saying ‘I can say “my mum’s dead” and it doesn’t mean anything!’ In that moment I actually no feelings about it at all. And then the painful feelings swam back in.
It is the deepest feeling I have ever felt; very pure, very ancient, with no cynical or rational aspects. Like how I imagine faith in God would feel, perhaps. I remember doing this howling noise at the end of my mother’s funeral – a wailing noise, very over dramatic. For months after I would sometimes cry like that with my mouth open in a kind of grimace. Because my mum died suddenly with almost no warning, I believe that I was in a state of some kind of shock for months afterwards. I don’t know if this was related to my pregnancy and the fact that I had to get through the birth eight weeks later so in some way I cushioned myself from it.
I felt very bitter at the funeral people kept looking at me and then at my bump, asking me how many weeks pregnant I was, and I would say ‘33 weeks’ over and over again. Some people mentioned life coming in, life going out. I felt angry because to me, I did not want to be pregnant. I wanted the baby to go away. It wasn’t a one-in one-out policy. When my mum’s friend read this very moving, kind and funny eulogy about, I felt like saying ‘FUCK you’ to everyone in the room. When people were laughing at how outrageous she was, I felt so angry at the thought of her as a memory. When the friend published the eulogy later on Facebook, I felt humiliated; I felt like my mum had been reduced somehow. I was really angry about it. I re-read the eulogy about a year after her death and it was wonderful and moving. But three weeks after her death I couldn’t see it like that.

CP: You say you never saw it as a one-in, one-out policy; how did you feel about the prospect of the impending birth?
MM: I got no solace from being pregnant. I was actually very frightened because I was so sure I would not love the baby. But when I saw Cleo, I found I instantly did love her, in some ways more purely than I had when I had my son. And I felt so relieved. I kept saying to people, ‘It’s weird, because I actually do really love her’ and everyone was like, ‘of course’, but to me until then it was not a done deal.

CP: How have things changed over time?
MM: It has been a very hard 18 months. I was so close to my mum, I spoke to her everyday. The things I missed about her are innumerable. Without her, I felt very unconfident about being a parent suddenly. It was very hard to separate grief and tiredness and what I believe now to be postnatal depression. At the beginning it was better in some ways, because people take care of your day-to-day needs and you just wander about, in shock, grieving, feeling love towards those you care about. But as time went on, and other people went back to their lives, I felt left in the limbo. I became very sensitive to any small thing, for example I would take something a playworker said to me as criticism, believing it to be proof of my poor parenting. There were a lot of chaotic moments in the family. In some way at the beginning I had loads of energy to deal with lurching crises. I consider myself quite a self-reflexive person but something happened during the grieving process where I was not able to assess how I was behaving and why. I felt and still feel a complete loss of identity.
I am a sociable person, but since my mum died I have found it difficult to be in groups of people having fun. I have felt very lonely. I couldn’t face going to mother and baby groups as I couldn’t talk about ‘boob or bottle’ when I had death permanently on my mind. People went quiet when I said, ‘oh my mum’s just died’, and then they don’t know what to say to me. I think I probably looked quite ragged at that time. I have found it hard to be around my friends and their mothers. The word granny is very hard to hear coming from my son’s friends because my son doesn’t have any grannies. The only way I can describe this is bitterness. I have had to talk to him loads about death even though he is only three. When he was only 2 years old I remember him having to comfort me on the carpet when I couldn’t get up. And I felt so guilty about it, but I needed someone to look after me. I felt very bitter on behalf of my son, and I felt so sorry for my mum all the time. It felt weird to feel sorry for mum because she is the one who is dead, but I felt so sorry she never met her grand-daughter, that she never finished the little white jumper she was knitting for her that I found in a bag by her bed after she had died. I felt so sorry that she only got 18 months as a granny because she absolutely loved it.
I still feel bitter about my experience that year, that I had to do this big life-changing event of having a baby just eight weeks after my mum died. I wasn’t permitted a grieving period because I had to move on before I was ready to. My life changed into a new life with a jolt, not a settling of the dust. The counsellor I have worked with described a kaleidoscope which was shaken up and which would then resetlle to a new picture but I didnt feel like I was allowed a gentle resettling period, I was thrown into the new life without mum violently because I had a new baby and everything became different instantly.
I felt really upset when autumn came around in 2016 because I felt I was leaving my mum behind in the summer.

CP: You also mentioned that people don’t know what to say to grieving pregnant women, that there aren’t systems in place – what do you think needs to change?MM: I felt like others wanted to see my pregnancy as a positive (new life) to balance against a negative (death). People said ‘at least you’ve got the baby to focus on’, but this struck fear into my heart because I did not have the capacity to focus on these two enormous things at one time. To me it was these two parallel experiences which were moving along beside eachother, so that it was like having two heavy weights to deal with at one time, which made it very difficult and confusing. I felt very isolated because I felt that other pregnant people did not understand what I was going through. I felt ashamed that I didn’t feel good at this time in your life where you are supposed to be so overawed by the miracle of life. I felt guilty that I was distracted by grief from mothering my baby. I have worried that this has fucked her up in some way. It’s hard to say what should change because it’s unusual; at one point I was searching for a ‘bereaved whilst pregnant’ group on Facebook, and I asked my counsellor, but of course no group existed which served to make me feel even more isolated. And I didn’t have the energy to start one up.

CP: Were there any systems in place within your maternity care services that helped you cope?
I wasn’t very well protected and if I didn’t have the personal resources of a loving partner and a good education, I would have been left to fall through the cracks. Simple things like, I had to retell my story every two weeks within the six weeks after my mum had died) to each new midwife, when potentially they could have shared this information. As I mentioned above, the midwife who delivered Cleo had no idea about what had happened so when I burst into tears she was confused and then shocked. The midwife discharging me and my GP both asked me if I felt “down” in such a way that even when I said, ‘yes, sometimes’, or ‘up and down’ they chose to see that as I was OK rather than I was crying out to them for help, which is actually what I was doing because I was too ashamed to say ‘No I’m not coping, help me, I’m drowning’.
There was one midwife who really listened to me, though, and gave me her private phone number. That phone number was a small bit of support I clung to before the birth, although I’m sure it wasn’t part of protocol. In fact when I called the head midwife in my team 6 months after the birth because I lost my mat 1b form – she asked why I lost it, and when I said, because my mum died when I was 33 weeks, she was so shocked and it was clear she didn’t know that this had happened to a patient under her care, because I hadn’t specifically seen her.

CP: You have recently started to work in a way that provides some sort of therapy…
MM: Joe signed me up for a pottery class when Cleo was 4 months old, and I dragged myself there very tired, mostly not wanting to go in the first few weeks, but as the months progressed, I found there was an art therapy aspect to it, where it was soothing to make things out of clay, with an abstract approach. It has actually been a salve to my soul; in a weird way pottery has saved my life. It has brought a calm solace into my broken heart. I learned how to throw clay, which I find soothing. I have also been writing, or at least writing down things in sentences that come into my head. I got this idea from Joan Didion’s book about her husband dying. I started jotting down all these memories and one-liners. I can only really write about grief right now but I’m hoping once I write down all my grief my mum will be there underneath it and I’ll find her properly again, because right now I feel like I remember her dead not alive so heavy-coated is my grief.
I plan one day to make a big filmic artistic work about my mum, to include readings of my writing, pottery, costume, my children – and destruction. When my mum first died I felt a lack of desire to do anything but now I have energy to do work for my mum, to be open and exposed about my grief. I have become an oversharer. I feel a bit embarrassed of it, like talking about my grief is a form of boasting. I joined Instagram recently and every now and then I have an urge to post about my grief – sometimes to say ‘hey! Look how amazing my mum is, guys! Please don’t forget her!’ And sometimes to say ‘hey! I’m not OK! I’m still grieving!’
Mostly this is why I wanted to do this interview because to talk about this is healing for me in a very personal sense. I have no idea why and no idea if that is healthy but I need to share these feelings.

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