Within two and half months, I became an orphan at 53.
C.S. Lewis, in his book, A Grief Observed, writes: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing…”
My father died on January 1, 2019. My mother, who seemed to be a quite healthy, mobile- if not forgetful -90 year-old, died on March 11 after a sudden and short bout of aspiration pneumonia. I suspect, however, that the main cause was a broken heart. Though it was no surprise, my favorite Uncle Denver died on March 31 after many years of heart issues. He was 94.
Grief, I’ve found through the years, is a very individual journey. No one can do it for you. No one can even understand exactly how you feel. Not even my brothers. Each of us had different relationships with our parents, different experiences, different emotions. Each of us are experiencing loss in our own individual ways.
When Dad died, we were all focused on Mom and how she was doing. That shielded us a bit from the onslaught of complicated emotions, I think. We were concerned about her and how to get her to settle into her memory care facility– and she was not having THAT! When I talked to her every other day, she was always packing. She was going home. It didn’t matter to her that she knew she couldn’t live alone in the country; she’d figure that out, she said. We pretty much had the same conversation every time.
Meanwhile, I was stumbling along, feeling all sorts of emotions with the loss of Dad. As silly as it sounds, I asked myself, “What am I supposed to feel?” And why did I feel like the wind had been knocked out of me, when he and I were never close?
Lewis talks about the “laziness of grief.” I get that. I am tired, have very little motivation. I feel a general malaise. Unfortunately, my father taught me too well that feelings are a sign of weakness, and you must abolish them, rise above them. I don’t believe that, but it is still difficult for me to just have a good cry when I need to. I was trained to keep feelings below the surface. It wasn’t safe to break down or feel deeply around my father. So now, it builds up for a long time until a massive cry-storm erupts. Not pretty.
Mom’s death happened so fast and so unexpectedly. This time there was no shield. We were all face to face with suddenly having no parents; so in a way, it felt like we were facing both losses at Mom’s funeral. She died just two months and 10 days after Dad. Other than memory loss, she was very healthy and strong! We assumed she’d go on for a long time. It seems she didn’t want to do that without Dad.
There’s something totally different about losing your mother. I think, especially, if you’re a woman. We shared flesh, bone and blood. I was created within her body, nourished by her body. I read recently that the eggs that result in her children are present in our mothers when they are fetuses themselves! I’ve been a part of her since before she was born. Literally. You don’t get more basic, more primal, than that.
I look like her. We had the same eyes, the same smile, the same laugh. I have her temper! I have her capacity to feel everything very deeply, whether joy or sadness, anger and hurt. I’ve inherited her capacity for creativity, art, teaching, poetry. Her deep desire to learn. She was the one who taught me to sense God’s presence in nature, in the world. She taught me about faith that resides in the heart and soul, not just the head.
The mother/daughter relationship is an intense one, and hundreds of books are written on it. It can be volatile, intimate, comforting, joyous. Women’s psychology says that when boys are born, they are culturally educated to move away from mother, to become individuated early on. Girls, however, are not given the same expectation. They are nurtured to stay close to Mom and to home, to move on only when it’s time to marry and have children of their own. They are never encouraged to detach or to become their own individual. Of course, that is changing, but slowly. And like much psychology, it’s generalized.
I didn’t always appreciate being so much like my mother. Now, I do. I’m guessing that’s a part of growing up; accepting your mother’s weaknesses as well as your own, and embracing her strengths. And realizing that she did the best she could do with what she had. She did what she knew.
Death is still tricky in our world. We still don’t talk about it well. I’ve had many wonderful cards and messages expressing condolences and promising prayers. The people that seem to understand most of what I’m feeling are two women friends who both recently lost their mothers. My husband, who lost his father prematurely to cancer 28 years ago and who has worked in hospice for many years, also understands.
I want to feel better. “How long has it been since your mother died?” Larry asks.
“3 1/2 weeks.”
Point taken. I’m tired. I go to bed tired, I don’t sleep well, and I wake up tired. I don’t feel like doing anything, but fortunately, I do have a job that gives me a routine. Otherwise, I take a lot of naps. I have managed to go to the gym a few times a week, but I don’t have the same endurance I had a month ago. Sometimes I’m nauseous. Anxious. I jump at loud noises. I get depressed for no reason. Well, I guess there is a reason. It’s always there. I hear news about someone back in New Jersey that my mother and I both knew and I want to call her up and tell her. Oh. Or I think of a question about our family or something that happened years ago, that I want to ask her about. Yesterday I noticed on my phone under, “Frequently Called,” was “Mom.” I couldn’t bring myself to delete her contact information.
There’s not a lot of wise things I can say right now, because I haven’t mastered this grieving thing. I know there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, but I don’t see where that tunnel ends, or even if it does at all, but just gets “lighter” somewhere down the line. The person who has known me the longest ever, is gone. I might have complained that she didn’t do this or that, or truly understand all the choices I made, but the fact is, she was there the whole time. We knew each other before I saw the light of day, before anyone else knew who I was, I was a part of my mother. In many ways, a part of me has died with her. In another way, part of her lives on in me, and will in my own daughter.
Grief is messy. I like to say “this is going on and why.” Maybe that comes from my father who so loved psychology. But it doesn’t matter why you feel something, when the basic reality, is that you do. You just feel crappy. I can have a good day and suddenly feel very, very sad. One day I laughed out loud, and my daughter burst into tears. “You laugh just like her,” she explained, as I pulled her into a hug.
I’m still new at this. I’ve lost many people in my lifetime, but this grief is completely different. As a pastor’s daughter, I never had a hometown, or the ability to go back to the house in which I grew up. I grew up in more than one house, and my parents no longer lived in those houses. So my home was my parents themselves, for better and for worse. My original home was wherever they happened to be.
I stayed in their most recent house with Larry and Sarah, when we were down to Mississippi for the funeral. Mississippi was Mom’s original home, the place she always wanted to get back to, no matter where she was. When we gathered there after the funeral with my brothers, we all went through the house and took what each of us wanted, before the rest of it is auctioned off in an estate sale. Since I’ve returned to my own home, slowly I’ve incorporated the things I took, into my house. Somehow the house looks better. We’ve lived here for ten years, and over those years I’ve painted, moved things around and decorated, trying to make it into our sanctuary. A place of welcome, comfort and safety. With things added from my parents’ house, it feels like it finally is what I want it to be.
And I can’t help but think as I muddle through this time of grief–sorting through the ashes of loss and new beginnings– I will begin to feel more whole and complete, as I incorporate the best of who my parents were. The best of them in me. Letting go of the disappointments and hurts, and allowing the grace and gifts of them to live on and blossom in my life.
May it be so.