Emelie & Mum
Could you tell me a little bit about the original photograph?
"My name is Emelie Hill-Dittmer. I'm from Sweden, I've been living the UK for 10 years now, I work as a freelance journalist and the photo of me and my mum was taken outside my house, at my new home in Deal, Kent, last Christmas."
Could you describe the picture for me?
"We took it just as we were leaving Deal actually, we were on our way to Gatwick airport, and it was on New Year's Day. There were a lot of emotions in the air, because I wasn't sure if she was going to come back. I remember thinking I wish she could stay longer, or why did we agree to go back on New Year's Day? I was then going back to Sweden with her because she was anxious about travelling on her own, but yeah, it was a very emotional day for me."
Can you describe the day?
"My mum had taken the decision that she was going to move out of my family home, basically she was returning to Sweden to basically pack up her life and leave my father who she'd been married to for 45 years. I could sense this, I don't know, like she had found some other power to take a decision that had been on her mind. It was very dramatic day in one way, like it was the start of something completely new."
So that felt like a significant time?
"Very much, yeah."
Was that very much an independent decision on her part?
"Well, I think my brother, he'd been to us too, we'd spent Christmas together, the three of us, and we'd talked all together, because I guess in a way, yeah, we were not pushing her, but we were supporting her. Yeah, I think 50/50."
The place in which the photograph is taken, that's significant as well?
"It's the door to my new home, so now, looking back on it, yes, it is quite a powerful shot, because it was that one and only time she came to see me and I'd just pretty much moved in to this new house, our first home."
So she was leaving something that was very well established and you were just trying to establish something new?
"Yes, exactly, so I think that in itself, I hadn't thought about it like that, but yeah, so it is quite a powerful shot as a family."
This is your new home, is that image one that comes to mind very often, do you walk in the front door and picture of it?
"Yes, I do think about it actually. I almost feel like I can sense that she's here at times, or that I see her, because she spent a good two weeks with us. It made quite an impact on me because it was that one and only time. I think of her every time I step out of the door."
Could you tell me a bit about your mum, who was she and what was she like?
"She's not easy to sum up. My mum. I think I was the one that knew her the best. I think if you met her you would say she's a very gentle character, and she is, absolutely, very careful, very shy, although that's how she comes across. Very thoughtful, she wouldn't just open up her mouth and babble, but that also has to do with the way she used to live, she was quit suppressed I suppose, but with me, I feel like she became who she truly was and there was this cheekiness about her, a lot of humour and a lot of laughter. We had fun and that's how I want to remember her really. A very caring person, very warm."
In that sense do you feel like your relationship was unique?
"Yeah, I think so, yes, definitely. Once there was a compliment that she said to me when I was about 16 or 17, she said, Emelie, 'You awake the wild in me, or this wild woman is coming out', and I haven't thought about it until now, that I think she, I don't know, maybe it's because I had been quite brave, going out in the big wide world and I think that was what she dreamt of possibly. With me I think she got a dose of that, that was like her true self that she showed to me."
That's a magnificent thing for her to say. For me that shows the connection that you had together. In that sense, do you feel like there are things in yourself that you see you've inherited from her? Or maybe there are things that you'd like to assume from her character?
"I think I'm very similar to her actually. I like to think I'm a very thoughtful person, I think before I speak and if I accidentally speak without thinking I often analyse what I've said, and I remember my mum doing the same thing, so very self conscious. I think it's perhaps nervousness, I don't know. She really saw people, and she cared for vulnerable people, and I think that I have that in me, incredibly sensitive, highly sensitive to sounds and the world around us. It's difficult I think to go through life when you are that sensitive and there was this pain in my mum that I can relate to a lot."
Do you ever see the side of her that you bought out coming out in you?
"Yeah, of course, the humour and seeing the comical things in strange situations, yes that ability, I have too."
What was it like when I asked you to find a photograph? Did you instantly know which one to choose?
"It would have been much harder if we'd done this in Sweden, because there would have been many more locations to choose from, so I think it was pretty straight forward really, she only came here once and I think the one by the door was a significant shot for many reasons. So yeah, that was the one!"
What was it like retaking that photograph? Did it evoke any response?
"Yeah, it did. It felt so real actually. Like, here I am now, almost a year later I still can't believe it because it's still so new to me. It's been 11 weeks now since mum passed away and sometimes I feel like she's gone travelling, that she's going to call me now or in an hours time. I still can't believe that she's actually gone, maybe because I'm abroad and I'm used to not seeing her so often. A very surreal experience."
Have photographs played a significant role in your memory of your mum? Do your memories still feel very strong, is there the need to go back to photographs to evoke memories.
"I'm quite scared of photos to be honest. I've got two downstairs and I'll light a candle for her and that's the only photos I have. I haven't really had photos of my mum in my home actually until now, it's very strange. I guess because she was sort of, in me, and we were very close, we used to speak pretty much every day, so I didn't feel that need. Now I find it quite painful to look back at photos. I know they will be there when I am ready for it, but I guess when I was asked to pick a photo for you, I found it upsetting when I went through the album, it's like I'm not ready to see her yet if that makes sense."
I think for me, photographs will transport you back or at least evoke the memory of a previous time and if you don't feel equipped to take yourself back there, it can be fairly traumatic?
"Yeah, I'm not ready I think. Yet."
"I think people are very scared about asking about the person who has died, but in actual fact, I want to talk about my mum. I don't want people to forget about her."
We talked earlier a little bit about how the people around you have responded. Have there been friends that have been particularly supportive or has people's responses surprised you in any way?
"I'd say all in all that mum's death has changed everything. My outlook on the world and people that I thought I was close to, family relationships in this country, even my own life partner, I've been quite, well, I'm surprised daily by how arrogant people have been, or ignorant, I'm not sure what the best word would be. I guess people are nervous and they either avoid it all together or they come out with great big statements, that my mum is in a much better place now and she's in heaven and I will feel better tomorrow. The people who have thought to send a card or possibly even a flower have blanked me altogether and I've even had comments like, 'oh, I'm sorry your mum is dead but you'll always have me', so I've heard a whole range of very very strange and very provocative comments. It just shows that people are awkward when it comes to death and end of life."
Do you have any perceptions on why that might be?
"I guess it's just fear. We don't know what's going to happen to us. We don't know if there is this other side and it's just too painful and we haven't perhaps dealt with ourselves. A lack of personal development perhaps."
It's something that, as you said, people are afraid to engage with, and I think until you've, well, for me anyway, until I'd been through it, I couldn't have appreciated the range of emotions that you feel. I think it's very difficult for people to respond or know how to respond, maybe they don't want to make you upset or provoke things. For you, are there things that you think would have been helpful or will be helpful for people to do?
"Showing just simple compassion, how are you? Can I do anything? People taking initiatives, just by showing kindness, by making a cup of tea or take, in my case, the kids out for a walk. There's been things I've really missed, that someone would be willing to just jump on the train to go and see me, that's something I would have really appreciated. I think people are very scared about asking about the person who has died, but in actual fact, I want to talk about my mum. I don't want people to forget about her, it's not just about me, it's about her and think that has been a little upsetting, please keep her memory alive, I want to, but I think people just don't want to go there because they think, 'oh, she'll get upset', but I want to talk about my mum."
Do you find yourself creating oppourtunities to talk about her?
"Yes. I guess I'm trying to. Yeah, I do actually, I'll often refer to things that she would have said in a specific situation, yeah, I do bring her up a lot."
That's definitely something I can relate to, if there was something that I thought that my dad would have found really funny or something he used to do, or sharing the football score, I would give myself reasons to talk about him and that felt like a healthy thing to do. Do you feel like you're wanting to keep the memory alive, just because you need to keep it alive, or for any particular reason?
"I feel like somebody else has taken my arm off. I was very close to my mum, maybe some people think it was an unhealthily close relationship, but it also has to do with the relationship she had with my father, so maybe I overcompensated in a way, that I became more than a daughter, I was her friend and maybe even her guide, that sounds very strange perhaps to you, but we were very very close and we perhaps spoke about things that a mother and daughter shouldn't do. So now when she's gone and she played such an important part, I feel like I've got to keep her memory alive and she was a very special person. I think she had a very unique outlook on the world, very poetic and she had a special expression about things that she sort of made up herself. My brother and I, we created this list, almost like a dictionary, of all the things, a lot of dialect as well that was specific to this part of Sweden where I'm from, but we did this only 6 months before she fell ill or was diagnosed. I'm really glad I have that now, because I can look back."
It sounds to me like she was very considered and I feel like that is something that is lacking in our generation maybe, do you feel like that's something that you'd like to try and share?
"Yes, I guess so. I really miss that, because very few people around me are that thoughtful or will say that one comforting thing or think a little bit deeper. I really miss that, so I will try to give it to my kids."
How do you feel about the experience of going through what we've done today, finding an image, re-staging it and then talking about it?
"I feel very comfortable with you, because you've gone through this journey too, so I think that's special in itself. It's very emotional, more than I thought."
Is there anything else that comes to mind that you'd like to add?
"Something that came to mind yesterday was that I miss the Emelie I was with my mum, of course all relationships are unique, but I forget about her or that aspect of myself and that made me incredibly upset. I don't have anybody else that I can share that Emelie with.
When mum was here at Christmas she was terribly poorly from the chemo and she'd never been that sick throughout her cancer journey in terms of vomiting, we had to go to A&E a couple of times and this is typical of my mum, even in the most difficult of situations she would find humour. We would be on the roads and she would try and find a cab, and of course we don't live in London any longer, there aren't any cabs going past, but she was trying to chase a cab, 'Isn't this how you do it?' she said and she waved her hands in the air, and she said 'Oh, I feel like some luxury hollywood wife now, waving a cab', and the poor woman had just been vomiting, but she would still find humour in such a sad situation that it was. That made me giggle a little when we were outside of the house."
“I miss the Emelie I was with my mum, of course all relationships are unique, but I forget about her or that aspect of myself and that made me incredibly upset. I don't have anybody else that I can share that Emelie with.”
I've found that those sorts of moments will just pop into your mind, you'll be in a certain scenario and you'll remember something happening and how funny it was. I hope for you that those things keep returning to you and you can remember those special fun or thoughtful moments.
"We had those, even in hospital when things were really bad. It was just me and her in those intimate moments, and she would still laugh, she'd say something about the doctor, there would still be humour, right until the very end."
You talked about the thoughts you were having yesterday, do you feel like you've lost part of yourself?
"Yeah, absolutely, and I mourn that part of myself. I don't know if it's going to get better. People say it gets better with time, of course you will miss her, but I find it hard to see how it's going to get better, I think it's just going to be different but part of me will always be grieving, because I feel like she left too early and the kids are so young and they might just have faded memories of her one day and that makes me really sad."
You've said there are things that you can impart to the children?
"Yes, that's part of my mission now. The cancer certainly did not kill her spirit. Although her life was so undignified in one way, she was still holding her head up high in that hospice bed and make sure she looked ok, that her hair was brushed and she did not just kind of say, 'that's it, I'm packing it all in', and that I admire."