Without my Mum: How to overcome the utter grief of losing your mother
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Without my Mum: How to overcome the utter grief of losing your mother

Leigh Van Der Horst thought she may never recover from her loss, but instead, she reached out to motherless mothers across the world to heal her sorrow.

"The death of a mother is the first sorrow wept without her" – Author unknown. On March 8, 2005, Leigh Van Der Horst received a late-night visit from her mum at her home in the foothills of Victoria's Dandenongs.

It was bowel cancer. The two cried and embraced and vowed that the odds were stacked in Joanne's favour. At just 52 she had so much left to live for.

Leigh Van Der Horst, author of <i>Without my Mum</i>.

Leigh Van Der Horst, author of Without my Mum.

From a selfish point of view, Leigh needed her mum's care and guidance. Even though she had three young sons of her own, Leigh relied on her mum to continue mothering her - from the meals she cooked, to the wise counsel and unconditional support she had delivered to Leigh throughout her life.

"It's not my plan to lose her early," Leigh wrote in a journal she began the same time as the diagnosis.

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"Never have I felt such emptiness." – Leigh Van Der Horst.

"Never have I felt such emptiness." – Leigh Van Der Horst.

But, as the journal entries replicated within her newly-published book Without my Mum chronicle in stark and tear-wrenching certainty, Leigh's beloved mother would die just three years later, with Leigh by her side. Too early, too loved and deeply missed.

When a mother is lost, the child is forced to face independence – however ready they are.

In Leigh's case, she wondered whether she could actually move forward. Some days she did not feel strong enough to survive her grief. She struggled to care for her sons and she lost the will to care for herself.

That's when she sought out the stories of other women who had survived the same loss – in the hope there was a key to getting through it.

<i>Without My Mum</i>, by Leigh Van Der Horst.

Without My Mum, by Leigh Van Der Horst.

While she received a supportive embrace on social media, there were few books which specifically addressed her emotional void.

So in a moment of madness, Leigh decided to write her own book. To honour her mum, to chronicle her experience, and to invite other mothers to share their journeys of loss.

Along the way, Leigh gathered some influential supporters.

The bizarre informality and domestic focus of Instagram saw Leigh and Jools Oliver – wife of Jamie – strike up a friendship early on.

We are all connected by our loss – Leigh Van Der Horst.

Both mothers of four, Jools had published her own book on her struggles to fall pregnant and had both practical and psychological tips for succeeding in the field of publishing.

Leigh sought out other prominent mothers, approaching them, sometimes over and over, to share their experiences. Her persistence paid off, with contributions from Deborah Thomas, Livinia Nixon, Lisa Wilkinson, Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Amanda de Cadenet, Rebecca Judd, Megan Gale and Georgie Gardner – among others.

"Jools believed in the concept of my book and loved the examples that I shared with her and insisted that it be something that I begin, and finish. During the process she not only continued to support me with encouraging words but played a huge part in seeking contributions as she selflessly used her online presence to gain the attention of mothers worldwide who may have been interested in sharing their stories."

They flooded in from around the world. Women retell of their own heartbreak at losing their mums, as well as sharing wisdom their mum's passed on to them and practical tips for coping with motherhood from newborns to grown children.

For example: "Most of all, they have to do it their way. The best you can do is love them and let them know you are there and will catch them if they fall," says Louise, an Australian mother of an 18-year-old daughter and two sons aged 13 and 9.

Leigh was overwhelmed by the response.

"I knew that for many it would have been an opportunity to honour their mums. We are all connected by our loss and we are all able to find our way out of the grief and live on with purpose. "

The way in which Leigh retells of her grief-stricken path through her final days and hours with her mother is by no means easy reading.

"Never have I felt such emptiness. I feel like I am a shell with nothing inside. My stomach hurts so much. Or is it my heart? I feel sick. I am lost. I want my mum…

"When I woke, only seconds passed before I was reminded that my new reality was not a bad dream. My reality now did not involve my mother."

While Leigh began the writing process assuming a major publisher would take on the book, the reality was a series of knockbacks. In the end she invested many thousands of dollars of her own savings to see the book come to light.

"I decided to just do it all myself, which by the way, scared me so much. But, as I am one of those people who doesn't believe in the word 'can't', I just kept putting one foot in front of the other."

As well as reliving the pain of her mother's illness, Leigh found the writing and editing laborious – taking almost four years to complete as she cared for her family and worked part-time as a nurse – a career she was inspired to take up after caring for her mum.

"My head was literally always full of book related stuff and I would forget such basic things like making sure that the boys had clean uniforms or missing out on handing in that really important school notice, things like that slipped a bit. It is a lot of pressure creating a book and the volume of emails and phone calls was consuming and kept coming in a constant flow."

But the writing process was ultimately cathartic, and enforced Leigh's belief that she wanted to live with a grateful heart.

In the aftermath of her mother's death, she ultimately grew up. No one is more surprised that she published a book on her experiences than she is.

Now she is able to check Amazon's top seller list and see Without my Mum sit at number 2 position in the death and bereavement category – following Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which is the subject of Reese Witherspoon's latest movie.

Leigh can only imagine how proud her mum would be to know she has picked up the pieces and moved on – publishing a book along the way.

These days she is able to think of her mother without tears – mostly.

"The hardest part is definitely when I see other nannas with their grandchildren. I feel so jealous when I see that. It's the one struggle that I have not been able to let go of, I may never be able to, time will tell."

Emma Macdonald's own story about losing her mother is one of the stories featured in Without my Mum.

Without my Mum, by Leigh Van Der Horst (Available at bookstores or online from Vivid Publishing $32.95.)

Emma Macdonald is a senior reporter for The Canberra Times.

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