“The only people who can see thestrals,” she said, “are people who have seen death.”
Harry Potter and The Order Of The Phoenix – JK Rowling
The day after my Mum died Oldest Son gave me a hug and said quietly: “you can see thestrals now”.
In those five words Oldest Son encapsulated the most profound change we have all ever experienced, and in the days, the weeks, the months that have now passed without my Mum in our lives, they become more and more true.
Thestrals are dark, skeletal, winged, horses that only visible to those who have seen the reality, the finality, of death. I found the book in which Harry Potter saw the thestrals for the first time the most difficult of all seven to read. For years I thought this was because JK Rowling was painting a perfect picture of a stroppy teenager, but now, I think it’s because the whole book is over-shadowed by Harry’s confrontation with and acceptation of death.
Seeing, and beginning to understand, death makes Harry angry, difficult, recalcitrant, and stubborn. Looking back over the last seven months, I think I have to admit, my Mum’s death has affected me in a similar way. My Mum was my world. She was the person I would text or call to share funny moments, sad moments, boring moments, any moments. Just hearing her voice would make me feel better. Seeing her smile lit my world. Knowing she was there, even if I couldn’t speak to her or see her, kept me grounded, assured me that the world was a safe place, made me feel loved whatever was happening. She validated every moment of my life. Without her, I feel strangely unanchored, drifting, negative. I also feel angry, recalcitrant, stroppy and like I’ll never take quite the same pleasure in life without my Mum to share it.
Since Mum died, so much has changed, so much should be for the better – I don’t have much money, and the small amount of savings I had when I sold the house are gradually dwindling (Oldest Daughter has needed help with her rent, I tried to ensure that all four kids finally had enough clothes, I bought stuff for the house, I treated us to takeaways, I even bought myself a few nice things), but I don’t have any debt. I have a job (ok, it’s a job that means I’m spending all day dealing with customer complaints and some quite startling abuse from keyboard warriors), but it’s a job working with a lovely team. I have a house (this is tainted slightly by the fact that I only have it for a year, and in six months we’ll have to move again, but I still have a house). Everything is ok. But nothing is ok.
I’m not the only one affected by this new ability to see thestrals. All of the kids are trying in their own way to come to terms with the loss of their Grandma alongside everything else that’s happened, but Oldest Son in particular is struggling. He tends to sleep all day and stay awake all night. He’s not engaging with school, and we’ve pretty much written off his A Levels. He’s one of the kids that has been most affected by the school closures, and has gone from being a high achieving student, studying four A levels, this time last year, to facing the fact he might not get any grades at all this August. He isn’t joining his online lessons, he doesn’t see his friends. After everything that has happened, I’m just grateful that he’s here, that he’s alive, that he’s talking to me, that he’s now open to counselling, but this doesn’t make it any better for him. For Oldest Son this last year – the usual teenage ‘stuff’, plus his decision to break contact with his Dad (and his Dad’s lack of effort to try and salvage this), plus the death of my Mum, plus losing the home he loved, plus a national lockdown – has been a disaster. I know things will be ok – I know that it doesn’t matter when (or even if) he does A Levels or a degree. I know so many people who pulled everything back together in their 20s, 30s, 40s – some of us are still pulling it all together in our 50s. I know it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t do his A levels this summer. But he doesn’t. Like Harry, now he can see thestrals, he’s suddenly lost in a world that’s dark and negative and he can’t see far enough ahead to know it will be ok. He won’t listen to advice, he’s trapped in a world, in a darkness, that he didn’t create, but that he’s perpetuating because he can’t escape his negativity. He is slowly getting there, but it feels like the last year has particularly damaged him.
Of course, another Lockdown doesn’t help. We are all hemmed in, unable to do the things that we would usually be able to do when faced with such a terrible grief. We can’t see or hug family and friends. We can’t submerge or reveal our feelings in a day or a night out, where we can talk about anything but or everything about our grief. These things, this sense of the normal has gone for the time being and it’s slowing our ability to process and deal with everything that has happened.
I think, as well, that lockdown, along with not having to worry myself sick over the mortgage, the debt and the terrible reality of E’s behaviour, and the freedom that finally selling the house and moving has given me, has meant that I suddenly have time to start to process everything that has happened over the last four years. Until now, I’ve been so busy surviving that I haven’t had time to actually think about, or come to terms with, everything that has happened. I always said that one day, when the pressure is off, I’ll sit down and have a good cry, but, now that I’m able to, now that I can see thestrals, I’m finding that making sense of everything is even more difficult.
The thing is, the last four years is one hell of a lot to process. Just over four years ago, I was in my forever home, I had four children at home with me, they were happy, thriving at school, we were a family of six – ok – so E wasn’t around much, and there was always the shadow of his debts, the fear of his infidelity, but there was a balance, a normality, a future (especially for the kids). Four years on, we’re all slightly broken, a bit damaged by what’s happened. Everything has changed. We have changed. People talk about ‘picking up the pieces’ – but sometimes there seem to be too many pieces to gather and – vitally – pieces we’d rather leave behind, that we don’t want to be part of us anymore. Humpty Dumpty like we’ll never be put back together again – at least not in the form we were before. We’re a Picasso of ourselves – fragmented, full of meaning, beautiful, but hard to understand.
Of course, the thing about thestrals is that, by the end of the book, they had (literally as well as figuratively) flown Harry to a point where the truth was revealed, a point from which he could move on. The world he now lived in would never be the same again, but he was able to take it on, understanding it in all its awfulness and beauty, and I kind of think that’s where we’re heading – I can’t fully comprehend everything, but I’m beginning to. For me, seeing thestrals means accepting that I can’t magically make everything ok, that this will take time, but that we will get there.
I also think there was a reason why Rowling made thestrals the invisible force that transport the Hogwarts students to school, to a place of safety, to where they need to be. Seeing thestrals means you’ve seen the heartache of life, but acknowledging their presence involves understanding that life will go on and might (even with the heartache of loss) perhaps get better. When you’ve seen a thestral, you can’t ever go back to the innocence of a life where they were invisible, but you can live alongside them and I think that’s what I’m slowly beginning to do – learning to live a life where I will always be conscious of loss, a life that will always be bittersweet without my Mum, but a life that can be good again.
I can see Thestrals now…