The Great Below

living the feeling life


All forgotten

Me and Katharine

I keep this framed photo of my mother and me on the mantelpiece, because in it we look like a happy, close pair – even our scarves are in harmony! But the truth of our relationship was far more complicated and, for me at least, often painful because I didn’t feel emotionally supported or ‘seen’ for who I was. This was in part down to my mother’s ongoing struggle with clinical depression, her anger and disappointment with life, which hung over all of us like an unpredictable storm cloud and prevented a true sense of security or trust developing.

I was never able to talk to her about our relationship while she was alive, even though it must often have made her miserable too: she would always interpret it as an attack, and either get angry or withdraw into coldness. In some way, knowing her emotional fragility, I also wanted to protect her from the truth of my feelings, so I never really expressed the full extent of them.

When she died eight years ago our relationship had begun to heal, thanks to her gradual drift into Alzheimer’s disease, which made everything much simpler between us. At the end, even though she no longer really knew who I was, I was able to just tell her I loved her, and she responded in kind. In some ways dementia felt like a tremendous gift to us both.

But close relationships don’t stop when a person dies. I’m not talking about life after death, which I don’t think I believe in, but the way someone continues to live on inside you and the attempt to understand and work things out with them persists, albeit unilaterally. For me, this came about through writing my book In the Wars (yet to be published) where I stopped looking at my mother through the lens of my own experience, and instead tried to imagine how life had been for her, from her point of view. In this I was very much aided by some of her own writing – diaries, poetry, fiction, letters – which helped me to discover the woman she had been apart from, and as well as, my mother.

Towards the end of writing the book, I had so far re-habilitated her in my own eyes, that I was beginning to doubt the truth of my own experience: had I somehow created or imagined a problem between us that didn’t exist? But no, I had lived it my whole life: the unhappiness, the miscommunication, the narcissism of mental illness.  Through writing I had discovered a different woman – a passionate, intelligent and creative person, who had somehow got lost in her own melancholy and the choices life foisted on her. It was this, combined with her own denial of her feelings, instilled in her by a wartime childhood, that made her unable to be a good mother. I understood her better, but this understanding didn’t diminish my own experience as her child.

To balance the picture I wrote a chapter from my own perspective, using my own old diaries in which I gave vent to my difficulties with our relationship. “When I read about how other people feel about their mothers I can’t relate to it.” I was in therapy on and off over many years, trying to heal the emptiness inside me that came from not feeling truly accepted. It was painful going back into those feelings, but necessary to acknowledge them if the story were to be complete.

And now something has been laid to rest. I don’t feel that pain any more, just sadness that my mother didn’t manage to break out of the (sometimes self-inflicted) cage she was trapped in and live a brilliant, fulfilling life…or even a mundanely content one. And sad that she and I, who were so alike in many ways and had so much in common in our way of seeing the world, never managed to find a way of expressing that through friendship and mutual support. Not that is, until in her final years she became more like my child than a parent, and we were at last able to connect.

Writing this book has both been my gift to her and given me so much in return: I’ve set us both free.


The Great Below

My book The Great Below – a journey into loss will be published on the 12th of June by Garnet Publishing

It is a memoir about my husband Michael Donaghy, his death at the age of fifty from a brain haemorrhage, and my subsequent journey of grieving.

The book has had a long process of gestation – ten years since Michael’s death, about four years in the writing and another three making its way to publication.  Below is an ‘interview’ I did with myself, about the process of writing the book.But first, a few of the nice things other people have said about it:

GreatBelow-v03“A forensic examination of grief and its coils. Maddy Paxman’s book is intelligent, heartfelt, clear-eyed and, as a result, very moving” Nick Coleman, author of The Train in the Night – A Story of Music and Loss

“A compelling memoir of a marriage, a death, and the long passage of mourning. Maddy Paxman is a clear, bare writer, honest to the point of harshness, above all on herself; but her intimate, hard won insights on the processes of grief will surely speak to many, while her warm memories of Michael Donaghy will be essential reading for his many admirers.”Kate Clanchy, poet and author of Meeting the English

“The Great Below” is written with great restraint, delicacy and wit, and every page shows the author’s talent for original phrasemaking; she also seems to have something of the poet’s gift for the ‘the singing line’. The book is a moving, compelling and cleverly constructed memoir of grief, head-and-shoulders above a number of books I have read in a similar vein; it strikes me as the work of a considerable new talent.” Don Paterson, poet.

“Please pass on my appreciation to the author for a massively powerful and moving book, beautifully written and full of profound insights and deep wisdom. Facing an incurable illness myself, I found it curiously therapeutic.” 

Tell us about the title.

The title comes from the opening lines of an ancient Sumerian poem, The Descent of Inanna, which starts: “From the Great Above, she opened her ear to the Great Below.” Long adopted as a story about the therapeutic journey into the ‘underworld’ of the psyche, about listening to and honouring your feelings, it seemed a decent metaphor on which to build a book about grief. (See below for the story of Innanna.)

How did you come to write the book?

After Michael’s death, I started writing a diary of sorts, knowing that if I could get some of my experiences and feelings down in words, I might at some point be able to make sense of what I was going through. At the time it was totally bewildering, and my initial title for the diary was “Unacceptable feelings”; I didn’t seem to be feeling either what I or anyone else expected, or not at the right times. For example, I did not feel particularly sad at the funeral, although I have cried plenty since. Also it seemed that the experience of grief is very solitary – that as a society we have somehow forgotten how to grieve or how to support others who are grieving, so that I couldn’t find a mirror of my experience out there in the world to reflect what was happening to me.

A couple of years later, we were on holiday in Cornwall and I suddenly decided that I would try and turn my miscellaneous collection of outpourings into a book. Partly, I wanted my son to have a coherent record of what had happened around his dad’s death, as he was only eight at the time. Also, I thought that perhaps I could, in writing, create that mirror of grief for others to look into and see something of their own experience.

How long did it take to write?

It took me several years to finish the book, during which many other things happened to distract me from the writing, but which also contributed to the end product. I got very ill, with a kind of M.E. that laid me low for long stretches of time. However, this proved to be fertile time for writing as every day, after putting my son on the bus to school, I spent the morning  in bed with my laptop. The illness also became a major part of the narrative, as it was clearly in part a reaction to the shock of bereavement.

Then my mother needed to be moved into a nursing home because she had developed Alzheimer’s disease; we had to clear out her house and put it on the market to pay the fees. At the same time, my son was being thrown out of the Steiner school he had attended since kindergarten – he had got into a spiral of bad behaviour, which they simply did not know how to handle. It was a very painful, confusing time and although much of this initially found its way into the book, I later decided to cut it out again in order to concentrate on the main narrative.

What period of time does the book cover?

I thought it important to show that grief is not over and done with in a few weeks or months. I’ve read several books about the first year of bereavement, but in some ways I feel the real work does not start until after that period of total shock and confusion. I even wonder if, in a strange way, writing can be a way of postponing the inevitable facing up to your feelings. Bereavement is a long, long process – in fact I think it lasts a lifetime, which doesn’t mean the intensity of the grief remains the same, just that it becomes part of who you are now. You are forever changed.

The story in the book extends over quite a few years, but I have somewhat compressed the timeline because it began to seem like an endless log of events and trips: a “wandering in pathless pathways ”  (the OED definition of ‘bewildered’). I needed it to have a conclusion of sorts, an ending that allowed for hope rather than despair – both for myself and the putative reader. But I hadn’t quite lived that part of the story yet. In my mind I held onto “The Descent of Innanna” as an overall shape, because I knew that eventually she returns healed from the underworld, and even while I was still trudging through the darkness, I hoped that I would one day see light in the distance.

Did you show it to anyone?

When I had finished a first draft I sent it to a friend who teaches life writing at university, who was also a great friend of Michael’s. I knew that she would be honest, but also kind, in telling me what it needed. She explained that I needed to think of how to turn it into an ‘artefact’ – a piece of work that had it’s own inner logic and shape. That’s quite hard when you are still, as it were, living the narrative. But I knew what she meant: I sometimes compose music and I learned early on that it’s not the individual tunes or bars that make a piece work, but the overall structure.

I also showed it to my sister, which raised another issue – when you write about your own life, you inevitably write about other people’s part in it. I had been careful throughout the book not to name names, particularly when I was describing some less-than-helpful encounters, but also because I didn’t feel that I ‘owned’ those people as material for my own writing. My sister was very central to the story, though, and I needed to make sure I represented her in a way that she was happy with. (She’s also a punctuation demon, though we argue about the correct use of colons and semi-colons.)

How do you feel now that it’s being published?

Great pleasure mixed with some trepidation: I am quite an introverted person, like many people who write, and the material is of course very personal. But as a friend said to me – ‘You can’t write a memoir and then not want to talk about yourself!’ Enough time has elapsed since Michael’s death that the subject no longer feels so raw and vulnerable. And maybe it’s time to tell everyone a little bit more about him – he was also a very private person, so I haven’t completely “spilled the beans”, but I am undoubtedly the person who knew him best in the world.

My biggest hope for this book is that it will reach out to others going through bereavement, loss and trauma, and offer them a path of hope and healing. After all, it’s something we will most likely all have to face at some point. It’s a book about sadness, but I don’t think ultimately it’s a sad book – a book about strength and resilience, but also about staying true to your feelings and finding a way to live with them.




InannaInanna, the goddess of life and the heavens in Sumerian mythology, descends to the underworld to appease her sister, the furious queen Ereshkigal who is mourning her dead husband. On the way she must pass through seven rocky gates; at each of these she is stripped of one of her royal garments or attributes, until finally she is killed and hung naked on a hook like raw meat.

Up above, her handmaiden Ninshubur goes to the father gods to ask for help, as she has promised to do should Inanna not return within three days. At first no-one will comes to her aid, until Enki, the god of wisdom and the waters, fashions two creatures from the dirt beneath his fingernails who he sends to rescue Inanna. These creatures are able to slip through the earth into the underworld, where they meet and sympathise with the unhappy Ereshkigal. They bear witness to her pain and grief, and in her gratitude for being heard she softens and allows Inanna to be freed and restored to life.

Innanna is pursued out of the underworld by evil spirits who want to find someone to replace her – they seize upon on her husband, the shepherd Dumuzi, who has been enjoying his life on the throne without appearing to mourn his missing wife. But Dumuzi’s sister, out of love for him, offers to spend half the year in the underworld in his place. Thus are scores settled and the spirits of the underworld appeased.