Working through grief: a view from 4 months after Mom’s death

Much has been written about grief, most of it by people with more experience, expertise, and, perhaps, intellectual interest in the subject than I have.

What I know can be summed up thusly: there are no shortcuts; one must carry on through it, and knowing that fact doesn’t make it any easier to go ahead. Somehow, anyway, most of us do muddle through.

I’ve been muddling for about four months since Mom died.*

As often happens, I find myself abundantly grateful for my extraordinarily blessed life, even at an awful time. Because I am a stay at home parent with a supportive husband whose own parents share our New England home, I had the freedom to spend two whole months with my dad as he grieved the loss of his wife of over 50 years.

Uncountable numbers of friends and family gave generously to support Dad and the rest of us. Mom’s energy and organizational prowess made a difference in so many lives, and people made that clear with their presence and their kind messages. The congregation of my folks’ church, Vancouver Heights UMC, freely provided resources and support far beyond what I would have imagined possible, had I ever been brave enough to imagine planning a parent’s funeral before I was forced to do so.

I can’t begin to imagine how much harder coping is for those with fewer resources. Then, too, losing my mother leaves me exquisitely aware of the universality of this crushing blow. All the resources in the world are a poor substitute for the love of the humblest mom.

Though I tried to be a help to Dad, those two months with him also served as a time apart for me to process my own grief. Oddly, returning home to normalcy hit me with a whole new series of unexpected reminders of loss. For me, at least, lots of things about Mom’s death have been difficult, but the situations I anticipated as particularly challenging have rarely counted amongst the most disruptive or disturbing. Trivial moments have dealt me my most significant blows, perhaps because I couldn’t brace myself for each impact.

Processing grief requires enormous flexibility from its sufferers.

My children, troopers that they are, both spent many weeks helping Grandpa as well. We were all there before the end, Mom’s last days in hospice care being both mercifully and, simultaneously, tragically very limited. The kids needed their own space, their own home, and time to prepare for the upcoming school year, so they headed home to Papa and his parents some weeks before my departure from my parents’ home.

Though I thought often about Really Wonderful Things throughout the summer and fall, I couldn’t find the strength to sit down and commit any of them to the page. Most of the thoughts were disordered; most of the time, my mind played second fiddle to my tumultuous emotions.

Now I know: I’m made exhausted and quite stupid by grief, and also irrationally frightened. I was afraid to approach my own cherished little blog.

Exactly what I’m afraid of is still hard to articulate as autumn decays into winter, but a caring comment from a regular reader did help prompt me to face some of this grief-induced anxiety and scrawl a few words on the page.

If you find this post because you are suffering a loss of your own, I hope my words offer some comfort.

If you’re a regular reader, I hope you haven’t missed my rambling too much. Many thanks for your patience.

*Though I did, in fact, begin this post on Labor Day, nearer the two month mark. An upload failure erased half of what I’d cried over on my cross-country flight home, and I simply couldn’t find the energy to resume until today, in late November.

It turns out that starting my car after school drop off equates in my mind with “call and check in with Mom.” 12 weeks into the school year, the instinct hasn’t left me yet, and it fades so very slowly.

Books by her bedside: a novel unfinished though the reader’s life is done

The smallest tragedies keep haunting one after a loss.

Mom was not quite halfway through a novel when she died. I found it in her nightstand today as I began the process of sorting through her closet to donate what my sisters-in-law and I don’t want to keep.Paperback novel with bookmark in the middle

Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast is a wonderful read, too, though a surprisingly gritty choice for Mom. She tended to prefer a comedic or cozy murder mystery. If it had been a Mary Daheim or Elizabeth Peters caper, I bet she would’ve finished it.

In memoriam: I am at sea without her soundings

My child-heart cries out, selfishly, as I sob:

“Mommy! Mommy? I want my mommy!”

Who will help me? Who else will love me so selflessly and endlessly, and do anything for me, simply because she can?

“My heart is broken, Mommy. Who can help me now, when it is your loss I mourn?”

I feel so shockingly alone without my mother’s presence in the background, always so capable, energetic, and willing.

How is grief different from self-pity?

 Memorial display: teddy bear, eyeglasses, cross, photoBut there’s a wiser voice offering a tempering perspective.

I really need my mother! I’m hurt because I’m broken. I ache where there’s something lost.

She’s a node in the network of friends and family; connections may have been severed. All the work she did there must be taken up by another; the strings of the web must be gathered and tied back in. I am at sea without her soundings.

Vaguely humanoid stack of stones on a promontory in the North Atlantic Ocean

Mom is an intricately delicate moving part at the center of the machinery of my life. Part of the heart, part of the soul, part of the mechanism of how I function. This must be mended for life to be whole, happy, workable.

Something has broken in me, and that’s what grief is.

Repairs may be rough or patchy; some bits may never be the same.

This, then, is the work of the motherless child: to set her scarred vessel on its course again. Whenever, however, that may be.

Viking style long boat beached alongside Irish lake

And, someday, I’ll go on.

Not quite as before, perhaps, but on the same headings my mother’s guidance helped me choose so long ago. My journey hasn’t changed, but I’ve lost a dear companion.

Mom died on July 11, 2019, at home with her husband and children. She will be sorely missed.

Sometime, soon, the ironed sheets will be gone & so will my mother

Could anything be more trivial?

Someday soon, the ironed sheets will be gone from the linen cupboard, and I will know that my mother is really gone.Neatly ironed sheets in linen closet

Mom’s tidy stack of pillowcases topped by my less elegant effort

She sick now. She is dying now. But is she still here?

Maybe she’s alive so long as crisply ironed sheets grace the linen cupboard? I’m tempted to guard them with my life and body, throwing myself between thoughtless users and pristine lengths of percale. As if bed linens can define the contours of a human life!

There’s stratification where the line between Mom and not-Mom exists in history, but I’m pretty darn aware that the line is not actually important in the grand scheme of things.

Sloppy folded sheets on linen closet shelf

When grandfather and teenaged grandson put linens away

Mom is dying. The sheets are irrelevant except when we sleep on them. And, yet, they seem to signify…

One viciously toothed object is key to conquering the kitchen with arthritis

If my parents hadn’t bought a dowdy condo with an out of date kitchen configured for an elderly lady, I never would have discovered the single most useful object that empowers me to help myself to prepare food with my arthritic hands.

V shaped wooden jar opener screwed to bottom of upper cabinetIt’s a jar opener with a double row of teeth that might put a very small shark to shame. I found a modern one called a Gator Gripper online at SMC Woodworking in 2018. At $16.95 + shipping, I rate it a great bargain after many months of use.

There’s no brand name on my parents’ original jar opener, but it was screwed into dark brown stained cabinetry circa 1970. It could have been made by a friend or it might be a commercially manufactured object. The previous owner of the condo lived there for decades and the unit wasn’t sold until after her death. I’m just grateful that the lady bought this magic gripper because it makes any screw top a breeze to open, regardless of hand strength or manual dexterity.

Unless weakness of the hand makes it necessary for one to hold a jar with both, most people can easily open jars single-handedly with the Gator Gripper. Better yet, its design makes tiny lids as easy as large ones to grip. I’ve opened vitamin and nail polish bottles with this thing as well as water bottles, sauce jars, and home-canned mason jars. It works equally well gripping plastic and metal tops.

Opening bottles and jars safely before I remembered the probable burst of pain with which my hands would react was one of the longest lessons it took me to learn* when I developed autoimmune arthritis. I might be feeling fairly well, but the grip and squeeze and twist of a sealed jar almost always leads to lightening bolts of shock up multiple fingers.

Coffee bottle, Chameleon Cold Brew brand

Coffee trapped inside a glass prison!

Coffee bottle with screw top wedged into jar opener’s gripping teeth

The fight for liquid freedom!

Coffee bottle with lid off

Success for coffee lovers everywhere… in my kitchen

My husband has a more equivocal relationship with the jar opener than I do, though he’s the one that actually ordered the Gator Gripper for me. Now that one lives in our kitchen, he has trust issues. DH recognizes that I prefer being able do things for myself, and that being unable to get past a step as trivial as “open the jar” when cooking is demoralizing.

Then again, the jar opener does employ very sharp teeth to do its job, and DH is something of a pessimist. The design of the product is an open, inviting v-shape. It hangs, welcoming, beneath the upper cupboard near the fridge where I usually stand when I’m preparing food.

I see the jar opener as welcoming my tightly shut twist-off; DH sees it as welcoming unsuspecting fingers, hungry for human blood.

“Someone could cut himself,” my husband says doubtfully. “There’s nothing to prevent you from sticking your hand in there and slicing open a finger.”

It’s true. This is a grown up’s kitchen implement. Then again, I see very few of my visitors patting or probing the undersides of my upper cabinets when in my kitchen.

The Gator Gripper’s position more than four feet above the floor and over a countertop workbench is enough to ease my mind that visiting toddlers are unlikely victims. My own kids are plenty tall enough to reach it, but also plenty mature enough to understand that sawtoothed blades and phalanges don’t mix.

Large knife block full of Cutco knives

Warning: Knives are not toys

I figure, in a kitchen with a knife rack in plain sight, the jar opener represents only a minimal additional risk.

My parents sold their condo and moved back into a house when my mother couldn’t make the adjustment to a downsized life. They unscrewed that jar opener and brought it with them to their new home, however, and I’m grateful that they did.

There are minor renovations I would enjoy making in my own kitchen, but I can’t imagine any scenario in which I’d live without my jar opener going forward, save, perhaps, for the abolishment of all screwtops by executive order.

And, even then, I’d probably keep my trusty Gator Gripper tucked away under that cabinet just in case. After all, someone could show up with contraband. Prohibition taught us that plenty of bottles make their way around even after the most teetotaling fiat.

*The other contender for “why can’t I make this adjustment?” was opening heavy commercial doors. I’ve gotten much, much better and trained myself to always use the power/disabled access button where available, and I almost always remember to turn around and push doors with my back instead of using my hands and wrists now, but making this a habit took several years.