Real Life

'Love her to pieces, treasure her...' How to navigate your first Mother's Day without your mum

When Sarah Ferguson’s mother died she discovered what was left behind was a perfect, unfrayed love.

Respected investigative journalist Sarah Ferguson has dedicated her life to exposing injustice, but when her beloved mother died suddenly in circumstances that raised questions about the care she received, she was shaken to her core.

In a raw and moving reflection on mothers and daughters, On Mother, Sarah details her grief, her love, and how she came to understand and appreciate the woman beyond the mother.

In your book, you talk candidly about the raw grief in that moment you learnt of your mother's death. How has your grief changed over time?

You don't believe then that it can change. The fragility created by the sudden loss lasts, is still with me but it does change. It deepens somehow - as the brilliantly intuitive Andrew Denton told me at the time, the conversation continues.

At the time I couldn't find the thread of the conversation but now I have caught a little end of it. I miss her and I miss knowing she is there. You know it's a strange thing but she makes me laugh more now than ever before. I realise how much of our conversation was funny.

You won't believe it but the best other piece of advice was from Andrew's wife Jen Byrne who told me a story that showed how our love for our mothers grows after they die. She was right. Why is that? The pity of humanity is that we all face these sadnesses but the day to day scrappiness of relationships disappears, leaving in the best cases something perfect and unfrayed. A beautiful whole cloth.

How did investigating the circumstances around your mother's death impact your grieving process?

It was lived on a different track, mostly in parallel. It felt like an important duty. My husband made a huge difference too, he was by my side in every moment and every thought. It was painful when the investigative mind hit the hard truth, like reading the hospital report or the moment of the coroner's final verdict. You wish that no one would have to experience those things.

Mother's Day can be a hard time for those who have lost their mothers. How will you be marking the occasion this year?

I look a little bit enviously at people whose mothers are alive - not resentful just wistful. I was a hopeless daughter at remembering key events - so this year I will find a way to be kind to someone that day and think of my funny, lovely mother as I do.

Sarah and her mum Marjorie at the White House.
Sarah and her mum Marjorie at the White House.

What's your favourite memory of your mother?

Impossible question. Its not single memories, its the whole warm, eccentric picture. Waiting for me after school at the gate. I liked her tennis serve, her smile, her love of trench coats and fast cars. How much she loved my husband Tony and our wedding. She had so many funny expressions, she laughed so much.

Her honesty and loyalty. She loved her friends and knew how to be a true friend. She had not an ounce, not a gram of snobbery or meanness in her, apart from the odd stinging joke.

And she made the most beautiful gardens. My favourite memory is of her lovely face.

Any thoughts on how we as individuals can look differently at the often complex relationship with our mothers that may help when we are faced with no longer having them around?

Listen carefully anyone whose mother is still alive. Love her to pieces, be with her however she is, treasure her, get her to tell you all her stories, her childhood, her adulthood, her middle age and beyond.

Ask her how the world looks through her eyes. Write down the recipes somewhere safe and get her to teach you how to garden or do what she loves. I failed a little bit in all of those things and you can do better than I did.

What can we expect from your appearance at the Sydney Writers Festival?

This is new territory. Open to all sorts of questions. It's time to open up a bit, tell the truths, the hard ones and the soft ones. If you want to hear my story, come and listen.

An exclusive excerpt from On Mother appears in this month's Australian Women's Weekly, on sale now. On Mother is available in bookstores from May 1.

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