Grief

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.

 

Springing to Life (and Death)

Spring is bittersweet for me. Anyone who has spent any time with me recently knows I am straight up giddy about the longer days and warmer weather. My Chaco tanline is already making a solid comeback. I spend every moment I possibly can outside. In fact, I’m writing this on my balcony at this very moment. Everything feels new and filled with possibility after a long, cold, dark, cooped up winter. That’s the sweet part. The bitter part? My mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer as the last snow of the year was melting. When I first started driving home every few days to be with her and help with appointments, I was packing sweaters and boots. It wasn’t long before I was staring at my sandal wearing feet in the waiting room. As the weather is changing and spring is springing, I am constantly reminded of what life was like for me during the Spring of 2015.

Every year, my mom and dad spent hours planning and planting their gardens all around the house. They would pick out the most beautiful flowers and plant them with love (and in my mom’s opinion, too much fertilizer applied by my dad). The spring she got sick was no different. Although she could no longer drive because of the effects of the radiation, she would ask me to stop at the greenhouse after appointments. She would ask me which flowers I liked and explained which ones grew best in different conditions and which ones were her favorites. This wasn’t the first time she told me these things, but this was the first time I truly listened. I wanted to soak up everything I possibly could so that I could someday have my own beautiful gardens and carry that piece of her with me always. She was usually too weak and tired to do much of the gardening herself, but she loved to sit outside as the weather got warmer and tell us exactly how she wanted the flower beds planted. Every year, she tried to pick out a theme for all of her flowers. Once she asked me if I knew why she picked all red flowers that year. “Because the Cardinals are the best team in baseball? Because the Badgers made it to the National Championship game recently? Because my brother and I went to Carthage?” I asked. “Because I’m going to fight this thing like a bull,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. Only my mom would look at a garden theme as sending a message to such an ugly disease. She always told me to kill my enemies with kindness. Apparently she was going to use nature’s beauty to kill her cancer.

Before I left to go back to work one Sunday afternoon, she insisted that I plant my own pots to take back with me. I told her it wasn’t necessary, that I would be home again in a few days to enjoy her beautiful flowers with her. She insisted. She picked out what would do best on the balcony of my apartment. She helped me fill the pots with dirt and place the flowers just right. She gave me very specific watering directions. As I left our neighborhood, I took a turn too hard and knocked all of the pots over, spilling dirt and smooshing the flowers all over my car. WHOOPS! I cleaned it up, set the pots on my balcony, and honestly forgot about them. I was a bit preoccupied with life.

If we are being completely honest, I was also angry at flowers. And spring. And everything coming to life all around me as my mom was fading away. It almost felt like the greening grassy, budding trees, and blooming flowers were mocking me. Everything was being made anew and bursting with life while my mom’s was slipping away right in front of us.

My mom never felt that way though. She loved to sit outside and enjoy the world coming to life around her. Her and my dad would go to a lookout over the river when they had time between appointments. When she had visitors, she liked to sit with them on our back porch. She soaked in the changes happening all around her and saw the beauty in it all. She always was wiser than me.

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The first official day of summer came and she left us not long after. A new season was upon us and her flowers were everywhere to remind us of the beauty that remained in the wake of our overwhelming loss. When I went back to my apartment to pack up to move out in August, I went out on my balcony to bring in my outdoor furniture and I saw my flower pots. To my amazement, they were in full bloom. It had been hot and weeks since it had last rained. I had completely neglected them for months. And yet there they were, as beautiful as ever. I have to believe heaven has access to a watering can.

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So these days, spring is filled with giddiness, nostalgia, and sadness. I’m thankful for the new life springing up all around me, but I can’t help but hurt for the life that faded away as everything was blooming. The grief shows up like an unexpected spring thunderstorm. The dark clouds roll in and the thunder shakes me to my core. But the rain also gives me what I need to grow. And I’m reminded to take a page from my mom’s book and soak in the beauty all around me, in spite of what is going on within me.

Hi, My Name is Laura and My Mom is Dead

When your mom dies after a brutal and unexpected battle with cancer, you receive a lot of reading material on the grieving process. It comes from the hospice home, the cancer center, the hospital, your church, family, friends, and strangers. It’s in the mail and your inbox and on your doorstep. It’s a lot at first, and then it fades, reappearing on anniversaries and holiday times. Usually it’s pretty generic and if I’m being completely honest, ends up in the garbage, although don’t get me wrong, there is something comforting in knowing that it’s okay to still be grieving, and in some ways I hope that it all keeps coming until I’m old and gray. However, after a really rough second holiday season without my mom, I do offer a suggestion to the hospice home: send a week’s worth of anti-anxiety meds as the death anniversary approaches and another week supply right around Christmas. Also, it would be pretty great if they could include something about how to inform people that your mom is dead without being a real downer, because so far greeting new people with, “Hi, my name is Laura and my mom is dead,” makes me seem even more socially awkward than I already am.

I’ve come to realize that whether you lose your mom as a small child, a teenager, a quarter-lifer, or when you are collecting social security, it hurts like no other pain. A mother’s job is to prepare you for life without her, and it is expected that you will outlive her, but there is never a time where you are ready to do life without her, whether you’re 1 or 100. I happened to lose mine just shy of my 25th birthday. She saw me learn how to walk and talk. She sat front and center for all of my plays. She watched me walk across both a high school and college graduation stage. She comforted me when my heart broke. I got more time with her than a lot of people get with their moms, but not as much time as others.

A month and a half after my mom died, I decided it would be a really great idea to move to a new city and start a new job where no one knew that my mom had died, or even that she had been sick. It ended up working out really well for me, but I can’t actually say I would recommend it. The most natural question to ask a teacher at the end of the summer/beginning of the school year is, “SO HOW DID YOU SPEND YOUR SUMMER?!” The first few times I was caught off guard, and explained to complete strangers that I quit my job, moved home to take care of my sick mom who was supposed to live for years, but then died two weeks later, then I buried her and stayed in bed and cried a lot. It didn’t take long to learn that was a real mood killer, so I started telling people that I spent it with family and friends (I mean, they were at the funeral after all) and traveling (where I spent a lot of time crying in my best friend’s bed and on top of mountains). I’M TOTALLY NORMAL, BE MY FRIEND PLEASE!

I start the school year off with a “Getting to Know Ms. Grimes” slideshow. I have a whole slide devoted to “Dogs I Know.” I include a slide about how I like to spend my time, filled with pictures of family and friends, which includes a picture with my mom. I’ve decided that day one probably isn’t the best time to inform my students that my mom is dead, but she is such a piece of who I am that in some ways it feels like I’m being dishonest. I have decided it is not something I should feel the need to hide from students though, so if it comes up, I’m honest about it. Last year, a student asked what my plans were for spring break, and I responded that I was taking a trip with my dad and brother. A particularly difficult student who didn’t always think before he spoke asked me why my mom wasn’t going. I stared at him point blank and responded that she wouldn’t be joining because she was dead. A great way to get students to focus on math and get a student who is just kind of a jerk to stop for a bit is to MAKE THINGS REALLY UNCOMFORTABLE! I also shut down “your mom” jokes real fast.

Losing your mom (or any loved one, I’m sure) changes who you are to your core. It changes how you approach work, friendships, love, and life. It changes your priorities. It means sometimes you find yourself sobbing in the grocery store for no particular reason. It means that people complaining about spending the time with their family will make your blood boil. It means that you don’t want to waste one moment being unhappy because you know it goes so fast. It means that sometimes being around people is just a bit too much to handle.

Maybe the grieving materials don’t include information on how to tell people your mom died because there is no right or wrong way to do it, there is only your way. Some people don’t want anyone to know, other people write multiple blog posts about it. Some people keep it close to their heart, other people wear it for all to see. It is in no way all that I am, but it is a part of who I am, and I have to honor that. And fortunately for me, I’m surrounded by people who choose to honor it with me.

Pieces Never Touched

I was talking with my dad the other day about how for some reason, fall brings a new batch of emotions when it comes to missing my mom. I can’t put my finger on why exactly. Maybe it’s because of our shared birthday month of September. Maybe it is the drastic changing of the seasons and the reminders of all the things that have changed since she left. Maybe it is the reminder that soon the beautiful leaves will fall to the ground and blow away in the wind, that nature dies just as humans do.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know there is going to be a Gilmore Girls revival this fall. A lot of people are very excited about this, but I have a feeling not quite as many people cry at every sneak peak or article posted online. Let me explain. I was late to the Gilmore Girls party and didn’t start watching it until there were reruns on ABC Family. I would come home after school, grab a snack, and work on homework while I watched. Soon my mom started joining me in the living room and asking questions about the characters. Before I knew it, she was also hooked. We had always had “our show” throughout the years, from Full House to 7th Heaven. We watched it throughout my high school career, would discuss it while I was away at school, and watch our favorites episodes together when I was home. When she got sick, there were hours in hospitals and chemo treatments and late nights of brutal side effects. I bought my mom and iPad and we watched hours and hours of Gilmore Girls together again. Big ups to Netflix for having all 7 seasons.

Whispers of a Gilmore Girls revival started when my mom was diagnosed. I had a sinking feeling that she wouldn’t live to see the day it happened. I was right. When the revival was officially announced, I sobbed. How unfair was this world that she didn’t get to see this? But then I also remind myself that at least she didn’t have to witness this election cycle.

I’m continually hit with reminders of the pieces of life that my mom never got to touch. I can neither confirm nor deny that I cried in the grocery store because there were caramel apples and my mom was incapable of going to the grocery store during the month of October without coming home with a caramel apple. Although plenty of people cry when reading Nicholas Sparks books, I think I’m only one of a few who sobs in the book aisle at Target when I see that he released a new book that my mom will never get to open (and eventually drag us to the mediocre movie based on the book).

I’m reminded that the only me she ever go to know was up to 24-year-old me. She never got to see what 25, 26, and all the years beyond had in store for me. She didn’t get to see me move to a new city, start a job I love with my whole heart, or give her two cents on how I should decorate my new apartment for Christmas. I live in a place she never saw and work with students she never heard of. I’ve made friends that she’ll never hear about or get to meet. I’ve traveled to places and gone on adventures that she would have listened intently for hours as I talked about every detail.

In May, my brother will walk across a stage in a gown she never got to steam for him. Someday I’ll marry a man she never met in a dress she never helped me pick out. Someday I’ll have babies that she never got to hold and kiss.

I’ve had thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams that I will never get to share with her. Sometimes my heart gets so overwhelmed thinking about all of the pieces of my life that she’ll never touch that I can’t breathe.

When these thoughts creep into my head, I think of all of the things that she did touch that live on long after she left us. A favorite song of mine is Give a Little Love by Noah and the Whale, with the lyric, “What you share with the world is what it keeps of you.”

I think of the preschool she helped start at my childhood church, where friends now send their own kids. I think of the Change for Charity program she helped start at the same church, where once a month children enthusiastically collect change in containers I helped her make many years ago. I think of the wise words she shared with me that I’ve passed on to friends and students. I think of all of the blog posts that she inspired. I think of the funny stories I’m able to share about her. I think of all the places where she gave her time, talent, and energy and the difference it made in those people’s lives. I think of the people she raised my brother and me to be, and all of the potential impact we can have because she touched our lives. I think of the handwritten letters that so many people have told me they tucked away and look at when they are in need of inspiration. I think of how she taught my brother and me to value our education and work hard in all we do in life. I think of how she taught me to love selflessly and care for others, and those are things I will carry with me into marriage and motherhood.

So although it has been 16 months since she has been able to physically touch and experience so many things, and there will be so many things in the future that she will miss out on, because of how she lived her life, she will always be touching all aspects of not only my life, but so many other people’s lives. And there’s something very comforting in knowing that our lives touch the world long after our days are done.

 

A Mother’s Day Without Your Mother Isn’t Just Another Day

Today (and the days leading up to today) has been an emotional roller coaster. I wasn’t expecting my first Mother’s Day without my mom to hurt so much. I received daily reminders from every store I’ve ever ordered anything online from (which if you know much about me, is a lot) that I can’t buy my mom gifts. A woman at the service center where I got my oil changed yesterday told me to give my mom a hug this weekend. She never could have known that I can’t. Today was the first day in a long time where I wasn’t sure I could muster the strength to get out of bed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would write today. So much of my writing is driven by my mom’s life and death. Yet today, I can’t seem to find many words, let alone eloquent words. However, the words of other people gave me the strength I needed to get through today. So I decided to share a few of those.

Chef’Special – In Your Arms

I heard this song a few months after my mom passed. The lyrics make me feel like she’s wrapping me up in a hug.

Miss you so, I miss you so, and I’ll miss you ’til I’m old
I miss you so, I miss you so, but my fears will fade, I know
‘Cause it’s my heart that you helped to build
And your love is my compass still yeah
Love will fill the holes I got


We would listen to this on repeat in the car on family trips to the lake. It is guaranteed to come on when I shuffle my music when I’m feeling sad and missing my mom. Apparently angels have control over iTunes shuffle.

…she’d been a spectacular mom. I knew it as I was growing up, I knew it in the days that she was dying. I knew it now. And I knew that was something. That was a lot. I had plenty of friends who had moms who-no matter how long they lived-would never give them the all-encompassing love that my mother had given me. My mother considered that love hear greatest achievement. It was what she banked on when she understood that she was really going to die and die soon, the thing that made it just barely okay for her to leave me and Karen and Leif behind.

Cheryl Strayed, Wild

This was the last movie I saw with my mom. It was a book I started reading in waiting rooms. It was a book I finished reading after she died. Cheryl Strayed put into words everything I felt about my mom’s love.

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I saw this tweet last week. Comedian Patton Oswalt’s wife, Michelle McNamara, died suddenly a few weeks ago. I’ve thought of these wise words of his 7 year old daughter often today.

So while on most days, I have lots of words for anyone willing to read or listen, today I have very few. I am forever thankful for the woman who gave me life and filled it with love, support, encouragement, and laughter. She made me brave and strong and independent (and a little bit sassy). She was my best friend and closest confidant. When I get so sad about life without her and I feel like a piece of me is missing, I remember how truly blessed I was to have a mom whose absence is felt so strongly. Thank you and I love you.

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Therapy

As soon as people found out about my mom’s terminal cancer diagnosis, they often asked what kind of help I was getting for myself to deal with the news. I sometimes had to remind myself that it would be rude to laugh at their question. I believe wholeheartedly in the “oxygen mask” idea of needing to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of others, but here I was, working a very stressful job and commuting 3.5 hours every chance I could to spend time with her and help take care of her. Most of my meals were consumed in my  car and I was literally running on Dunkin’. My mom was dying in front of me. I knew that. I did not have time to sit around and talk to a professional about it. It was happening and no amount of talking about it would change that.

Anyone who knew my mom knows what a private person she was. As we navigated her illness, I asked her how much she wanted to share. I think she knew my dad, my brother, and myself were going to need people to get us through the rough days, and in order for people to support us, they would need to know what was going on. She was willing to be very open. As more and more people found out about her illness and wanted updates, I asked her for her thoughts on me creating a public online journal. I was sure she would shoot down the idea, or at least request editing rights. I wrote the first post and showed it to her before publishing it, sure she would make me forget about the whole idea. She actually wanted me to add more information. She told me to be open and honest in the journal. I think she knew I needed an outlet to deal with everything that was happening. She was always so wise.

That journal became my therapy. Every day and every appointment came with a flood of new information and emotions. It all felt jumbled in my head and heart until I was able to sit down and type it out. It allowed me to process and accept what was happening. It enabled the people in my life to know what was happening without me having to continually relive it. I wrote in waiting rooms, while she was resting, during infusions, when I couldn’t fall asleep, and when I felt useless hours away from her. I laughed and I cried as a typed. With every post, I was able to heal a little bit in my own little way. In fact, one of the many reasons this blog came to exist is because a friend encouraged me to continue writing after her passing, knowing how therapeutic it was for me.

Grief counselors started stopping by a few days into the hospital stay of my mom’s final week of life. I turned them away. I could not talk about how to live life without my mom with her sitting right there holding my hand. “I’ll let you know if I need you,” I would tell them repeatedly. We transitioned my mom to hospice. When you check into hospice care, they give you a rundown of all of the grief counseling opportunities available to you during and after hospice care. I will never be able to say enough wonderful things about hospice care, especially the opportunities for support during and after my mom’s passing.

I fully prepared myself to go off the deep end after my mom passed away. I had quit my job. I didn’t know where to go or what to do with myself. It could have been an excellent time to get some professional help.

Instead I walked and I talked. I was so very fortunate to have a best friend who was willing to walk the soles out of her shoes with me and listen to me process all of my thoughts and feelings. She allowed me to be angry and hurt and confused without judgement. She let me laugh and cry. I was putting one foot in front of the other and I realized I could do that in my life, too. I healed a little bit. (It also allowed me to start losing the extra pounds I put on from all of the fast food and church lady meals.)

I booked a ticket to Colorado because I needed to run away. My best friend let me sleep in her bed while she took the couch. It was the first bed I slept for more than a few nights in a row in months. I slept long and hard. She let me take her car into the mountains where I would hike and hike until my heart and my legs couldn’t go any farther. Then I would sit and cry and laugh and look at how far I had come. I would look at all of the beauty around me. The mountain air healed me a little bit.

I read books written by people who “got it,” particularly Cheryl Strayed. She put my feelings into the words that I couldn’t find. I felt less alone and saw hope on the other side. Through their words, I healed a little bit.

As the holidays approached, I called my hospice contact for information about grief counseling, thinking maybe it was time. She was wonderful and put me into contact with the right people in my area. Instead of going to therapy though, I signed up for a yoga class. Then another, and another. I had the opportunity to focus on my breathing and the strength of my own body and spirit. I healed a little bit.

I decided to write this blog and share it with anyone who will read it (hi dad!). It continues to heal me a little bit.

I think traditional therapy is a wonderful thing. I know a lot of people who have reaped the benefits of professional counseling. As I continue to learn to navigate life without my mom,  I am not ruling out the possibility of seeking out professional help in the future. I also truly believe that grieving and healing is not a “one size fits all” sort of thing. I am so very grateful for the people and the opportunities that I have been able to seek out that have allowed me to grieve and grow. By reading this, you are a part of that. Thank you.