Last week, Sarah Dunton wrote a beautiful piece for the Washington Post on the grief she still feels over losing her mother ten years ago, when she was 21 & her mother was 57. It grabbed my attention because her experience was/is so different from mine, losing Mom at 91 to my 49.
Mom had been a widow for 28 years when Dad died, at 63. It was easy to be happy when she passed – she’d turned being widowed at such an early age into a triumph of a resilient compassionate strong spirit.
Was it less than a year after Dad’s passing that Mom went to Australia to help Mike & Kerry with the birth of their first baby, Scott? It was the best thing for her – an exciting adventure, with family & friends & a host of people waiting to become friends of “Grandma L.” A few years after Dad’s death, we learned that the person Mom appointed executor of Dad’s estate (NOT the one he had selected) lost every penny of the money she’d been left – it meant she had to put her shoulder to the wheel & find work.
Over the next 25+ years, Mom went from being a pleasant person universally liked to one who earned the awe & admiration of all who knew her. In her last few years, she took quantum strides that left the rest of us gobswoggled with wonder. Mom lived fully, left a full-hearted legacy, and was looking forward to being reunited with her O Best Beloved. There was poignant rejoicing when she passed.
Sarah Dunton’s experience was so different. I can’t imagine losing Mom at 57, just as we would have started connecting as contemporaries rather than parent & child.
As Sarah writes, “The cruel irony of losing your mother is that right after her death is when you will need her the most.” I’d never fully thought about that, it being so far outside my own experience. Like Sarah with her mother, I was 21 when Dad died. Although I would not have thought to put it in these words, I saw myself – along with my sibs – as Dad’s hands on this earth; I focused on Mom’s loss, not my own.
Sarah recalls that while her mother had told her it would take five years to get over her death, it’s now ten years out & she’s still grieving. My eyes did pierce with tears reading that, remembering what Mom said about the years after my brother, Ian, was killed at eleven – there came a day when the sky was blue again, but it was never the same shade as blue.
Sarah’s mother was literally “a consummate sage” -a certified life coach. Sarah clearly inherited some of her mom’s wisdom – – today, if people approach her as another who’s gone through heartbreak, she advises, “Losing your mother is like training for a grief marathon you never signed up for. You’re best served if you start out slow and steady. With time, you will strengthen and condition your heart and mind to feel unpleasant and unwelcome emotions. Once you’re ‘through it,’ you’ll be able to fit the most unwieldy, foreign feelings into your brain.” My thanks for that tender description of an experience I never had, but so many do. I get it in my head, if not fully in my heart.
To help people get through, Sarah offers some suggestions losing a close parent:
Life without your mother will never be what it was, but she promises it will get easier. (aka – the sky will once more be blue, just never the same shade)
Start out slowly & steadily – “It’s like training for a grief marathon you never signed up for. ” – to strengthen & condition your heart & mind to handle challenging difficult wrenching emotions.
Take care of yourself ~ Stay connected with people around you; when we are grieving, it feel natural to cut ourselves off from others, for lots of interesting reasons – one of the worst things we can do, right up there with letting bills go unpaid & our eating habits go to pot. If you’re seriously going to pieces, seek help from a spiritual and/or mental health professional. “Grief is hard work. Don’t forsake your physical and spiritual well-being in the process. Above all, follow your instincts: If that means spending the day crying under your covers and eating cookies, that’s okay. But tomorrow, take a shower, put on some fresh clothes and meet a friend for a walk.”
It’s okay to fight with a ghost – Amen, sister! Sarah talks about spending “a good deal of the past 10 years arguing with my mother when I’ve felt angry, sad, confused or heartbroken. The fights are one-sided, but these imaginary conversations – which have taken place in journals, in my head and aloud in the shower – have been vital to working through the unresolved issues I faced after my mother’s death about myself and our relationship. Guilt has been a recurring theme for me. Could I have done more when my mother was alive to be a better daughter? Would she be proud of me or disappointed in my choices? As I’ve wrestled with these complex emotions, I’ve realized the value in allowing myself to process whatever feelings bubble up, however normal or absurd they may seem.” Been there, do that.
Let it all out (and carry a pack of tissues, always) – This has only rarely, maybe a couple time, happened with me, but I have friends who lost their mothers years & years ago who still find themselves bursting into tears at the sent of her perfume or the smell of freshly baked pumpkin bread. “Crying is cathartic. I still carry a pack of tissues for these moments. Don’t worry, your feelings of sadness will become less acute over time. The sights, sounds and smells that initially made you bereft of happiness will eventually bring you joy.”