Re-claiming life after grief

5 May 2016 | Leigh Van Der Horst

Leigh Vanderhorst

When I lost my mother to cancer in 2008, then, a 32 year old mother of 3 young boys, I was devastated to say the least. It literally felt as though I had become hollow. Everything I knew about my world, my ‘safe’ world was gone, lost, and never reclaimed. I remember soon after the passing of my mother, sitting on the outside step of her verandah at some ridiculously early hour of the morning, drinking a glass of wine and just feeling utterly numb. Staring at my mothers flowers in her garden trying to process the huge change that had just occurred only hours earlier. The cold hard fact that I had just been deemed ‘motherless’.


Leigh VanderhorstI won’t lie, grief is a bastard.

One of the hardest moments for me was to simply accept that it was up to me, and only me, to process the loss of my mother. That no one was going to do it for me. It frightened me knowing that I had to acknowledge mums death and find some way to move forward. From the beginning it seemed impossible. The sadness actually hurts. Each day my chest would ache. My throat would feel tender as I tried to swallow the emotion. I had no interest in eating, drinking was hard enough and continuing on the role of caring for my boys was almost like going above and beyond my capabilities! I could barely take care of myself. I was in a robot-like state. The days became very structured. EVERYTHING was written down, even things such as ‘hang out the washing’. There was no room in my head for the mundane.

One day, after I became very tired of the way I was feeling, I sought out a counsellor to talk to about my feelings and try to properly process my grief.  I was very lucky to have found a lady who was a perfect match for me. I remember walking into the room on the day of my very first appointment and stupidly thinking to myself that it was all a waste of time until I began to tell my story.

As I discussed the death of my mother, my stomach began to flip! The noises coming from my intestines was actually louder than my voice. I apologised over and over until we both just ended up laughing about it. All I can assume is that I had managed to hold onto so much emotion that my body found a way to release its own pressure and tension due to me opening up about how I was truly feeling. It was remarkable.

Over time, after visiting with my counsellor weekly, I began to see the beauty that life could offer and a sense of hope started to creep back into my heart. I understood that I was safe to allow the raw emotion to surface and I would be alright if I sat with the pain and cried and let the sadness peak and then drop again. I learned that after giving myself the permission to experience these waves of emotion, I could wipe my eyes, take a deep breath and rise up to face the next round, whenever it decided to surface.


During this process of healing, I took the steps to piece back together who I was.

Leigh Vanderhorst and her son

I was seeing life in a whole new way. As though I had a new soul—a more appreciative one and a heart that cared deeply for those I loved. I realised capabilities and celebrated my strength. I felt truly grateful for each sunrise and sunset, regardless of what life threw at me. I became a person who took on the important lessons that my mother taught me about life during her illness and crafted those into my soul along with a newer and better version of all I stood for.

Yes, grief is a bastard, there is no denying that and losing someone you love is one of the most traumatic of life’s experiences but, you do have a choice with how you react to the circumstance that you may find yourself in. I chose to LIVE life, in my mothers’ honour. I CHOSE to strive for all that I wanted, chase each dream I desired, love fiercely, be REAL, and honest and compassionate. It’s because of losing my mother that I have the life I live. A life I love. A life that is not perfect and certainly has its ups and downs but I live it with ongoing gratitude and see clearly now just how special it is.

You can learn a lot from the process of grief. And amazingly, great things can come of the experience, you just have to open your heart when you are ready and allow yourself to feel again. And you will, when your time is right. And your life will have new meaning, one that you know will make your loved one very proud. Be strong, and remember you are not alone.

Leigh Van Der Horst is the author of Without My Mum. A book she wrote to connect Motherless Women worldwide and to help heal broken hearts.  


If you have lost someone close to you our booklet Understanding Grief may provide you with suggestions on ways to help you cope with your loss.

You can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20 Information and Support to speak with health professional about available support services.



If you would like to do something to honour your Mum this Mother’s Day consider donating to Cancer Council. Click here to donate.