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…

Profound joy alongside grief when accepting unavoidable loss

My sincere hope is that I bring more positive thoughts to the world than negative ones. My choice of domain name, ReallyWonderfulThings.me, reflects that impulse and intent.

Lately, however, I’m mired in a slowly unfolding crisis that looms inexorable. Here is one of those snafus inherent to life. I can’t avoid it. I can’t fix it. The best I can do for myself is to endure with a measure of grace.

For my ill loved one whose prognosis is likely death within two years, I’m also aiming to provide comfort and support to any extent that I can. I am wholly inadequate to the task.

I’ve shed plenty of tears and pitied myself because I’m human and so damnably, unrelentingly flawed. I’m already grieving a loss that hasn’t happened yet, even as I nurse the tiny flame of hope that we will defy the statistics, beating the odds and the fallibility of every living body.

Facing my fears one at a time and bringing my intellect to bear on the process is a large part of how I cope. I read studies, research long shots, and struggle with my fundamental powerlessness.

And yet! I have also experienced a shocking and rather profound blossoming of a calm state of resigned joy. I never, ever expected that.

Don’t mistake me; it’s bittersweet. I could talk about my sadness or my fear, and typing these words has already brought a fresh wash of tears. None of that surprised me, though. The joy sure as hell did.

Somehow, staring straight in the face of one of my worst fears brings with it a resolute peace as I’m forced to live in each moment, because, really, that is all that I actually have. It’s easier to savor sharing good times with someone when you know each event is precious, limited, and won’t ever come around again.

There is nothing I can do except live my life as best I can. What a relief to give myself permission to do so in the absence of guilt. How freeing to accept* what I cannot change. I never thought I had it in me.

May good fortune and robust health find you and everyone you care about.

*As the serenity prayer sagely advises. One needn’t be a true believer to accept good advice. I’m pretty sure a number of gurus are preaching along the very same lines.