The Worry Drawer
Comedian Hatty Ashdown found that support from Cruse, and her stand-up comedy, were both ingredients in staying afloat and finding the joy in talking about her mum again.
My Mum died five years ago, just three weeks after a diagnosis of cancer. Even though we knew it was coming I still felt like I was catching my breath and in shock at the finality of her dying. I was a new-ish Mum myself, to a one-year-old boy, and a self employed comedian. So not a job you can just clock off from and take time out to grieve. I just wanted to sit on the sofa, drink sherry (I know a very funeral-like drink, but it’s actually one my favourites!) and cry with my sisters, who were signed off work.
Somehow I knew I was going to need support
In the early months after she died I didn’t feel like I had the space or time to really wallow in my grief. I was either working or out at baby groups. My pain was very public and I was not afraid to be seen crying and pushing a buggy, which I got away with, as I looked like every other tired new Mum!
I had lost my Father at the age of thirteen. I believe that I never really faced that grief, and buried it to look after my Mum and to be a teenager. In those days I never received any professional support from school or doctors, so when Mum died one feeling that was so strong in me was that I wanted to talk to someone, and not hide it as I did before. Which is why going to Cruse was so important to me – it was the only time I had slotted in to sit, talk, or just cry.
My Cruse volunteer showed me that it was ok to be vulnerable and I enjoyed talking about what a character my Mum (Patricia) was which has been a big influence on my comedy material.
Writing a new Edinburgh Fringe Festival show (The Worry Drawer) came about subconsciously in this need to explore the question: how do I cope with the tedious and the tough without my biggest cheerleader and anchor, my Mum?
Being ready to talk about it on stage
Talking about my mum and grief on stage was not something I could have done three years ago. My job is to make people laugh and the thought of talking about my Mum on stage made me have the biggest lump in my throat, which is not good for joke telling.
But things kept coming up about her that people enjoyed, and eventually I couldn’t deny that both her, and grief, were the hooks to hang a show from.
Introducing The Worry Drawer
One thing that my Mum was famous for having, was what she called a “worry drawer”, something that to my knowledge came about after my Dad died as a way to cope with decisions and worries as a single parent and widow. She would write down her worries, or most commonly other peoples’, and put them in her “drawer” which would some how lift the anxiety of the worry.
When I spoke about this with my Cruse volunteer she loved how wise my Mum was and thought what a great coping mechanism this was. I knew then I wanted to see if there is anything in this Worry Drawer for my audience.
People not knowing what to say
One thing that I really wanted to get across in the show was how I wanted to be treated when my Mum had died, and hope that it might help those who may have a friend or family member who is grieving.
At events or gatherings just months after my Mum died I found people who didn’t want to mention my Mum made me feel much sadder than if they did. I get that people may feel uncomfortable, but I think that’s something that we have to work on – for me not mentioning her made me feel like she was forgotten.
Here’s the thing. In those early days I’m thinking about her being gone all time, you mentioning her is not going to remind me she’s dead: ‘Oh I knew there was something that had happened, thanks for reminding me!’ If you can’t think of anything to say a simple ‘So sorry about your Mum/Dad/(insert as needed)’ will do.
You never know, that person might be just bursting to have a hug, cry or just a sit with. Often people want to fix things or make it go away, and actually with grief it’s not that easy, we just want to feel validated. A bit like my tantruming child does when he is annoyed at the wind in his face – I have to dig deep to validate that!
Having this platform to talk about something so delicate and personal felt scary but also a great privilege – to share my experience and hopefully be relatable for some. That it might help someone is my dream.
But is it funny Hatty?
I’ve had many an existential crisis before doing this show. Why am I covering a tough subject, why don’t I just take the easy route and talk about how much I love TV shows like Married At First Sight, or discuss how annoying my kids are? Then my director reminded me that is why, it’s the challenge to make these things lighter to talk about. Whilst also being respectful, of course, life is about emotions: laughing and crying.
Grief is just a small part of the show, the main part is just taking the audience on a ride of how can we find ways to live our lives with less worry and find the fun.
People might ask 'is it hard doing a show about your dead Mum every day for thirty days?' At the moment it feels a privilege to spend every day with her. But ask me in six weeks – I might have a different answer!