Red dragonfly

On the weekend, while celebrating a birthday, there was a pause in the chatter, as a friend and I realised our mothers had passed away on the same day in April. The pause was filled with the “who goes first” of a story to be told, each instantly aware of the complexity of the passing of a parent. We gently gave each other space for that telling ,  comparing  notes as far as was appropriate to the circumstances, as the general chatter recommenced around us. That pause is what leads me now to reflect on the story-telling of death and grief. It takes time to create the story to be told and it has different form in different places.

At the beginning of this year I rehashed a practice I’d tried for the first time during the Twelve Days of Christmas between 2016 and 2017: the Omen Days. On the fourth Omen Day, corresponding to April for 2018, I saw a red dragonfly on my car aerial as I was leaving for work, a second red dragonfly as I crossed the stream from my car parking spot and walked to the hospital, and had a third red dragonfly zip closely past my ear.


When I got home, I looked up the symbolism of dragonflies – death and transformation, said the interwebs.  It doesn’t really matter by whose tradition. Meanings are formed by consensus and the life of a dragonfly from nymph in the water to predatory flying creature of the air makes the symbology fairly inevitable. I noted in my Omen record that perhaps April would be the month of my mother’s passing.

By the beginning of April my mother, who had been struggling with a brain tumour since October of 2016, was in palliative care. She had no capacity to lay down new memories and could barely hold a conversation as she struggled with word retrieval.  The month of the red dragonfly was upon us.

On the 4th of April, my parents wedding anniversary, I noted that my mother was no longer coherent. The palliative team has started a continuous morphine infusion and I wrote in my journal that the last coherent pieces of her mind were shattering.

I made a red dragonfly to add to the Shamble I had created at the beginning of the year, but wasn’t ready to include it yet. A piece of me felt as if the act of creating it was invoking my mother’s departure.  I noted in my journal that it was about tensions and entanglement. Letting go is never easy. The dragonfly was made of red and orange ice-cream sticks from an old school project, wrapped in red Lindt chocolate paper and wound with red ribbon from a book mark. Its thorax was made from a red Christmas card envelope, and the wings from the plastic lid of my middle son’s birthday cake container. The head was a shell of camellia seed capsule from the camellias leaning over the fence from the neighbour’s garden. This hotchpotch of bits and pieces from life, representing connection, celebrations, mundanity, growing family, and community, seemed just right. The red dragonfly is a Shamble in its own right.


On the 5th of April I added the dragonfly to the Shambles. It felt like an acknowledgement of the inevitable.

By the 8th of April her breathing had changed to the pattern of end of life. I read her A.A Milne poems so she had the sound of my voice, knowing that the words were buried deep in her memories from her own childhood through to mine and my brothers and those of her grandchildren. Familiarity is a balm. I did the same on the 9th, visiting after work, reading different poems, this time, but struggling through the tears. I organised to take the rest of the week off work.
Once upon a time there lived a girl with shining red hair and freckles. She was tormented by her brother and harassed by nuns for her wicked sense of humour, but her indomitable spirit could not be quelled…I have often imagined my mother as a storybook character. She so identified with L.M. Montgomery’s  Anne of Green Gables.

On the 10th I printed out my own poetry to read to her – every sort of poem on love and nature, children’s poems, sonnets, villanelles…

The phone call came at 6.30 am on the 11th of April. I joined my father and brother at her bedside and we began planning the next steps.

Pending death is like a pregnancy of sorts and death births the grief. Grief doesn’t want to do much at first except cry and sleep and maybe eat a little because survival matters. However, grief is a creative energy. It thrives and matures with ritual, remembrance, connection and feeding oneself soul food, through gentle connection and creativity helps the growing grief child.


I felt a deep need to express my grief creatively somehow, so I honoured the red dragonfly omen one more time in a painting. I didn’t know for sure if I could do it justice, but it mattered that I tried. I added words from my journal to explain the red dragonfly omen, and an epitaph in memory of my mother, Philippa Moira Holland.





~ by Dragonwyst on July 8, 2018.

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Julie Brett

Author - Australian Druidry - Artist



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