A few weeks ago, a woman that I barely knew asked me if I was over my mom’s death, like I had come down with a bad case of the flu instead of losing the woman who gave me life and taught me how to live. She seemed like a rather sensible woman and there were no visible scars to show that she had recently had the sensitivity part of her brain removed. I have to believe that she was asking a well-meaning question in a really terrible way.
My initial reaction was to tell this woman that I had the herpes of grief. It wasn’t going away. Now generally you probably shouldn’t say herpes to people you barely know, and maybe you also shouldn’t joke about it in your blog, but here we are. Instead I attempted to eloquently explain to her, that no, I wasn’t over my mom’s death, nor would I ever be. I have to believe that this woman, very fortunately, has yet to lose anyone close to her in her life. When you lose someone, it doesn’t matter if you are young or old, if they were young or old, if it was a surprise or a long time coming, if it was brutal and drawn out or quick and painless, death changes you down to your very core. Your soul will never be the same.
I think I was very sensitive to this woman’s question because I have often asked myself where I should be in my grieving process. Are people sick of hearing about my dead mom? Do people think I should just be over it? At what point should I be concerned about my public sobbing? At what point does it become unacceptable to tell the person in the drive-thru that I handed them my phone instead of my credit card because my mom is dead and I’m distracted? I’m getting out of bed every day, putting on pants (most days), and living a good life. But I still get overwhelmed. I still miss her immensely and wish she could be a part of my days. I am the exact opposite of over my mom’s death. I’m still very much immersed in it.
We are approaching the two year anniversary of life without her. I foolishly believed that each passing day would get easier. If we are being completely honest, I think that it just gets harder. The realization that my life and the life all around me goes on is the truest definition of bittersweet that I can think of. It means that every day I fill my life with wonderful people and things and experiences. It means that I’m doing good work and all sorts of things that my mom would be so proud of and excited to be a part of. Except she’s not here.
A few months after my mom’s death, a friend shared something he found on reddit about death and grief with me. I think of it often, especially when I question my grieving process.
Alright, here goes. I’m old. What that means is that I’ve survived (so far) and a lot of people I’ve known and loved did not. I’ve lost friends, best friends, acquaintances, co-workers, grandparents, mom, relatives, teachers, mentors, students, neighbors, and a host of other folks. I have no children, and I can’t imagine the pain it must be to lose a child. But here’s my two cents.
I wish I could say you get used to people dying. I never did. I don’t want to. It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances. But I don’t want it to “not matter”. I don’t want it to be something that just passes. My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love. So be it. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut, or even gouged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love. And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are only ugly to people who can’t see.
As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.
In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything…and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.
Somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O’Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out. Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to. But you learn that you’ll survive them. And other waves will come. And you’ll survive them too. If you’re lucky, you’ll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks.
So no, I’m not done grieving for my mom, nor will I ever be. The loss of her left a huge, raw hole in my soul. I’ve learned that hole will never truly be filled or even repaired. In fact, as I continue on through my life, I will lose other people and there will be more holes. For a while, I contemplated making sure that I never felt close enough to anyone to allow their eventual death to hurt me. Well that was a super lame idea and I’m glad I kicked it out of my head quickly. Those holes are truly beautiful scars that I have loved something deeply, and I wouldn’t want to go through life any other way. Instead I can take those holes, honor that they exist and are a part of me forever, and fill the space with wonderful people, memories old and new, and incredible experiences. I can fill them not in an attempt to cover them up or heal them, but rather to bring out the beauty of their existence. Just as the grief goes on, I decided life must too.