My mom with her first grandchild, Ian, my nephew.
In the past two months since my mother’s death, many people have asked me how I’m doing. I’ve wanted to answer honestly. Instead I’ve said, “I’m okay,” or, “It’s up and down,” or, “Getting better with time.” None of these clichés come close to capturing my experience, but they work in context. People want to let me know that they care. I acknowledge and appreciate their care without forcing either of us into a real conversation about death.
At the end of the day though, I keep finding myself compelled to share more. I want to get this out of me, and I want you to hear it. I want us to have that real conversation. But I can’t seem to find the words. Even when I’m talking with a good, trust-worthy friend, I speak about how I’ve grown, what I’ve learned about myself, how it’s hard but important, how her death has helped me to better appreciate life. While these things are true, they’re only half of it. Why can’t I find the words I need to talk about all of my experience?
It occurred to me recently that I can’t find these words because they’re not here. Our society doesn’t talk about the messy side of death. Our society doesn’t allow for open discussions on grief. Death and grief are depressing. Morbid. Weird. Only freaks talk about death.
Because of this, we as a society didn’t develop a common language for sharing the entirety of our experiences surrounding death. In fact, we developed language that pointedly doesn’t share our whole experience. “Up and down” doesn’t mean anything at all. Everyone is up and down, regardless of death or grief.
And now, here I am, trying to let you know how I’m doing and finding it difficult because in order to really let you know, it’s got to get messy. For me, that’s okay. People who are in the midst of grieving shouldn’t have to worry about sounding too morbid or freaky. They shouldn’t be asked to only share the “acceptable” pieces of their experience. They should let it all out. And people on the receiving end should be honest, too. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable, saddened, or angered when hearing about the experience of death. In fact, it’s good to feel something. The more you talk and feel about death, the better. I badly wish anyone had shared the reality of death with me before I learned it firsthand. While nothing could have prepared me for this experience, a little knowledge on what to expect would have been nice.
So, for those of you who asked me how I’m doing and really meant it, here goes.
The sadness can still be overwhelming at times. It starts in my chest. A tight clenching and shortness of breath. Then it’s like a hand reaches up from my heart and grips my throat. I cry so hard my face, neck and head hurt.
Other times, the sadness is more subtle, like the way my left ankle, the one I sprained years ago, occasionally aches on cold days.
Sometimes, the sadness is surprising. I’ll be in a good mood, absorbed and happy, when it suddenly takes me over. There may be a trigger, like the girl I babysit for receiving a phone call from her mother’s mother, an experience I will not get to share with my future children. Or, there may be no trigger at all.
The lack of sadness can be surprising, too. Like last week when I spoke with one of my aunts for the first time since the funeral. We talked about how much my mom struggled, how we’re glad she’s no longer suffering but how much we miss her. My aunt cried hard. I somehow didn’t feel sad at all.
Then there are moments where I can’t stand how unfair it all is. How unfair that my mother had to deal with such extreme mental illness. How unfair that after all of that work to rebuild our relationship, she died. I get mad at her for not having been honest with me about how sick she was, for not having held on just a couple more months until we had one more visit together. I get mad at myself for having ever blamed her for anything, for not having asked her more questions when I had the chance, for not fully understanding her situation.
Thankfully, my anger is not long lasting; I can’t imagine how different this would feel if we hadn’t had those years of rebuilding. I can pass whole days now feeling warm and happy, filled up with her presence. I tote her on the back of my bike and complain to her about annoying pedestrians. We walk the dogs through the park together. We eat lunch on the beach. I tell her secrets I never would have in real life. These are my favorite days.
There are also days where my emotions take a break but my mind has trouble. Big questions about the point of life. Little questions about what to do with my evening. I get trapped in obsessive cycles, asking myself the same questions, repeating the same thoughts. It’s difficult to get anything done. On these days, I feel lost.
And then there are times where I don’t think about or feel it at all. I used to have guilt over these moments. Now I find hope in them. My mother’s death has changed my life, but it won’t always consume it.
I’m grateful that enough time has passed that I can look back and see the progress I’ve made. I do feel better than I did in September. I haven’t burst into tears on the sidewalk for a few weeks now. I can conjure up good memories more often than I could before. I can’t look at the photographs yet, but I can listen to her favorite musician without blubbering.
Still, I struggle to find balance. How much should I rest versus how much should I push myself to write, to sing, to exercise? How much should I be actively processing it all versus how much should I let go? They say giving into the depression and anxiety is unhealthy. It’s good to keep up old routines. But they also say pushing yourself too much will backfire. You need to take time to heal. They say making space to feel whatever comes up is the only option. Be sure you don’t ignore any of it. But they also say surrounding yourself with friends is the remedy. Do not get trapped in your grief.
I could do this to myself all day. Instead, I make a decision and go with it. Sometimes, it’s the right decision. Sometimes, it’s not. And that’s okay. I’m learning that life can still be enjoyable even when things are tough.
While grieving is a universal experience, it’s also a very personal experience. What I’ve written about does not describe what it’s like for everyone. I’m very lucky to have the support I have; I’m grateful to everyone who has reached out to me. I hope that we can continue through this process together and that, through talking about death, we can all learn and better appreciate the value of it.