Last year saw the passing of two influential women in my family’s life.

My mother, a teacher and carer, one of the kindest and most honest people I knew, who with my father, taught me about love, values, culture and communication. Born the daughter of a train-driver and a domestic servant, she baulked in later life at being labelled middle class. She was passionate about her grandchildren, all children in fact. She fed their appetite for learning and relished their sense of adventure that she believed had stretched far beyond her own experience of a local, parish community in inner London. She lived in the same street for 75 years, was married from the age of 25 for 50 years, lived as a widow for 10 and died in May after a 5-year battle with breast cancer.

With an early upbringing in the British Raj and an enduring taste for gin and mah-jong, my mother-in-law could have become a staunch traditionalist, but in fact brought a refreshing touch of irreverence to the family dynamic. Widowed at the tender age of 34, and in tragic circumstances, she brought up my husband and his siblings largely single-handed and yet created a joyously secure family life that gave them a wealth of self-confidence and license to challenge authority. She lived 60 years in Surrey but remained mischievous, teaching my children nursery rhymes in Urdu and how to spit melon pips across the kitchen table, neither of which endeared them particularly to their nursery schools. She died peacefully on 29th December, having enjoyed a Christmas Day of relatively civilised games with her family.

Our mothers and our children’s grandmothers (pictured above, sharing a sofa at Christmas 2014). What our family has lost in the death of these two women is what we knew so well about them when they lived. That they had an unfailing interest in anything we were doing, whatever and wherever that was, that they had acres of empathy and an almost unique ability to listen without interrupting. But these women were more than listening ears, they were the family elders.

In Hebrew, the word for elder means, literally, “beard” and so refers to an older, more likely, male person. According to St. Paul’s letters, an elder of the Christian faith must be “a man whose life is above reproach.” In some tribal communities, the role of elder carries an important social responsibility to act as guardians of culture and values.  In a recent Australian Institute of Family Studies paper, elders in Aboriginal communities were described as “the people we hold the greatest respect for because many of them went through so much, so that now we do not have to suffer the injustices they experienced. Their guidance is often illustrated through everyday life and their teachings are often done subconsciously; we follow, we observe and we go on to teach our own families. It is through our Elders that the spirit of Aboriginal people is kept alive.” To me, that’s much closer to the mark.

I have my own grief at the loss of these women whom I have loved so much for so long but I also feel the seismic shifts taking place in my family.

How many of us are ready to take on the role of Elder?