Living with Grief

Morgan's Story: I lost my mother, father, and two sisters, when I was 9 months old

I’ve censored myself for most of my life, avoiding mentioning that I’ve grown up without most members of my biological family, all but erasing them from my narrative in order to appease the feelings of others.

Portrait of a Motherless Daughter
I often find it difficult to divulge my experience of mother loss; namely because my loss coincided with the death of my father and two sisters; my brother and I surviving them. It’s been 29 years and I still haven’t mastered how to share this without people feeling awkward and unsure. I’ve censored myself for most of my life, avoiding mentioning that I’ve grown up without most members of my biological family, all but erasing them from my narrative in order to appease the feelings of others. Though is this my responsibility? Or have I enabled a culture that is uncomfortable with grief and loss? Have I inadvertently contributed to people not developing the skills needed to adequately support and connect with their own friends and family who are experiencing grief? These realisations have allowed me to be more open about my loss and explore what this has meant for me throughout my life. Slowly, I’m becoming more at ease with honesty.

I lost my mother, father, and two sisters, when I was 9months old. My brother and I were also in the car when an out of control semi-trailer collided with us. My father’s last effort to protect us allowed my brother and I, miraculously, to survive. My father attempted to veer our car to the side of the road that the semi-trailer was leaving, though the rear-end jack-knifed and there was nowhere my father could go. I can’t imagine how terrifying this would have been for my family – having no control over their last moments. I’ve since been told that my father was alive for a short period after the accident happened, asking whether we were okay. My Uncle attempted to reassure him before he let go. My mother and sisters died instantly on impact.

I still don’t understand how an infant is able to survive a car accident this significant without any life-long physical injuries, yet here I am. My brother was in Intensive Care suffering from internal injuries following the accident, though he eventually made a full recovery. It’s not always been an easy journey for us, but I’ll always be grateful to have had my brother’s love and wisdom while we navigated our grief.

Every year, our family would holiday in Queensland, driving up with our Aunt, Uncle and two cousins. We would stay there for as long as possible, soaking up the sun while everyone back in Victoria would be freezing in the cold and rain. I’ve been told that usually we would drive up as a “girls” car and a “boys” car, rather than as separate families. Though on this occasion, they decided against it. It almost feels like my family was fated to die that day; each moment a butterfly effect leading up to the accident that ended their lives. My Aunt and Uncle’s car had been driving in front when my Uncle received a phone call. They pulled over while we continued on. Soon after, we were faced with a semi-trailer that lost control.

My brother and I were placed into the care of my Aunt and Uncle. My brother was encouraged to call them “mum” and “dad” in order to reduce the confusion I experienced growing up. It’s taken me a long time to see how wrong this was, putting my brother in a position where his parents were replaced shortly after they’d died. As an adult, it doesn’t sit well with me, knowing that I, too, was made to call my relatives by these roles; all in the name of stopping other people from feeling unsure of how to respond to our blended family. Our last names were changed to assimilate to the new family, and that part of our history was removed as well. I understand that these decisions were made with good intentions and based on the advice of therapists at the time. However, this highlights the need for people in therapeutic settings to be adequately trained in grief and loss – an area that is incredibly complex and nuanced, misunderstood and stigmatised.

Grief riddled our upbringing and bled into every facet of our family. In-fighting ensued regarding where my brother and I should have been placed – other relatives believing they were the best option for us. Of course, the only option that would have been right for us was taken away and nothing else would have ever compared. The loss of my parents changed my extended family irrevocably and their grief meant we didn’t have the only thing we needed: love.

After living most of my life without a typical mother-figure, I never really knew what I was missing. I didn’t understand when other people would talk about their relationships to their mum and what this meant for them, because I didn’t really have much to compare it to. The woman who raised me, was also motherless. She had lost her own mum at the age of 9,shouldering much of the responsibility of her family and working out how to keep her own family afloat. This woman is driven and motivated, but with hindsight that I’ve only gained in recent years, lacking the nurturance that you would typically see from a mother. I grew up trying to emulate mother-daughter relationships that I would see on TV, asking for hugs and to cuddle on the couch watching a movie. I asked whether we could have “mother-daughter” nights on Friday evenings, though this was short-lived and I always got a sense that my Aunt felt uncomfortable at these times. Hugs weren’t often offered up, I didn’t grow up hearing, “I love you”, and it didn’t feel like a warm environment. Eventually, I emotionally withdrew in an effort to self-protect, though I didn’t realise this was what was happening at the time. To this day, I struggle to completely connect with others and there’s only a handful of people that I feel completely at-ease with.

In the family home, I grew up getting shivers up my spine when my Uncle would walk behind me, scared that I would have done something to anger him that would result in him hurting me. My Aunt didn’t protect me at times when I was harmed, sitting still and staring ahead, ignoring me as I cried and as my Uncle would tear apart my bedroom and throwing items down the hallway – including my dead sister’s guitar. I now know that she would have been trying to placate him by not responding, but a child needs parents to protect them, to make them feel safe and heard. It was rare that I would feel happy, and the overwhelming feeling in the house was negative. My brother was labelled a “problem child”, being grounded in his room for months on end and isolated from his friends. He was forced to wear my cousin’s school dress and do his paper round as a way of humiliating him. His bedroom would be trashed and he would be woken up by having a bucket of water poured over his head. He would be pushed around and verbally abused. I was left to my own devices, wetting myself until I was high school aged, not showering for weeks at a time, not brushing my teeth, and secretly eating comfort foods. I didn’t know that these behaviours were wrong because I wasn’t taught how to care for myself. Instead, I was told I smelled, that I was disgusting, fat and stupid. We were both grieving in our own ways, seeking out love and being met with an impenetrable wall. It’s no wonder my brother ended up with substance abuse issues, and I ended up with Anorexia Nervosa and traits of OCD.

My brother and I have accessed our own supports as adults, and (truly) we’ve had a lot of success. We’re both resilient and have made our own way in life. My brother has a beautiful wife and 3 incredible children(that I’m obsessed with), he works in a trade and is a talented creative and musician. My brother is an artist, taking after my late sister who was described as a “free spirit”. I have a husband, a rescue dog and a life that’s taken me (strangely) to Queensland. Back to the region where my family would holiday – a place that they loved and where I feel the most content. I’ve worked as a Social Worker, mainly in the area of domestic violence (funny where life takes you…), and I feel fulfilled in ways that I’ve never experienced before.

As a child, I didn’t know who I was. When you’re always looking over your shoulder, there’s no time to reflect on your personality, your hopes and dreams, beyond getting to safety. It’s taken years of introspection and exploration to connect to myself and feel that I’m worthy of love, but I finally feel that I’m there. So many beautiful friends along the way have assisted in this, ex-partners have served their purpose, but it’s been the love of my life – my soul mate – who has shown me what a loving relationship is meant to look like. He has role-modelled this for me and opened me up to stability. It was his mother that demonstrated what love and care from a parent should be. It was her that made me realise what I’d been missing, and her that I will thank for the rest of my life.

Now that I’m nearly 30 years old, my mum creeps into my mind often. It’s funny, I have no memory of my mum’s voice because she was gone before I was even a year old. But recently, at the age of 29, I heard her for the first time on an old home video my brother sent me, and she sounds exactly how I knew she would. In recent years I’ve sought my mum out, going to psychics in the hopes that they would share something about how much she loves and misses me. But it was only last week, after a particularly crappy day at work, that I thought to myself, “I wish I could call mum.” I’ve never been the kind of person to unload onto anyone else – I’ve never had this space held for me, so I didn’t recognise that it was a normal thing for people to do; calling their mum and sharing about their bad days, seeking comfort and advice. But that day, all I wanted was to finally have someone to call – to hear my mum’s voice and be reassured that it would be okay. I’m finally starting to understand what other people are experiencing; and once they’ve lost their mother, what they’re missing.

I don’t hold resentment towards the people who raised me. I actually have a very positive relationship with my Uncle as an adult and we catch-up over the phone often. He’s a different person now, and I can see how his grief affected his ability to be available to us as children. It’s been healing for me to accept him back into my life in a new way and I’m thankful that he’s been able to change and demonstrate that this might be for good. I know that this isn’t an experience everyone can (or would want to) have, but it has been mine and that’s okay for me.

Something that has recently brought me closer to my mum is a passage written by Catherine Newman in “We All Want Impossible Things”. I hope it’s something that brings my brother closer to her when (if) he reads this.

“All that caretaking,” I say. I lean back so I can look at her. I’m crying too. Crying and talking. “All of it’s in his bones. It’s the actual stuff of his body and brain. The placenta you made from scratch. Your milk from nursing him. All those pancakes and school-lunch sandwiches, all of that food and care.” She’s looking into my face, nodding, even though I am fully winging it now, panicking, words pouring out like I’m a hose on the weepy consolation setting. “Everything you’ve ever fed him,” I say. “His whole self is made completely out of your love.”


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Motherless Daughters Australia acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the traditional owners and custodians of the land, sea and nations and pay our respects to elders, past and present.
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