Grieving is a strange thing.
Well, maybe it isn't that grieving is so strange, as how we go about it is.
When my mom passed in 2010, I was so busy trying to keep my head above water that once "it was all over", I just went back to swimming as hard as I could. I'd finally taken the leap to get a divorce the fall before she passed, and it was all on me to hold things together.
I'd been very present during her final days and learned much at her deathbed about the importance of seeing the love in the room: she was dying because she couldn't. I was raw. I was in the moment. As Rumi suggested, I welcomed all emotions that showed up at my door with open arms.
Planning her ceremony brought a lot of stuff up. We didn't have the typical service-- no minister, though it was in a church. My brother and I put together a movie with some of her favorite songs and pictures of her. One uncle said a few words for us to reflect on. Another uncle led the prayer. People got up to tell stories about her. It was very personal and moving. Several people said they'd never been to a service quite like it. It was probably my favorite family funeral.
I'd been away for two weeks to be with her then to make arrangements, so when I returned to work I felt like "it was all over". I had a small memorial here in Phoenix and local friends came to sit with me. I took the weekend easy and allowed the grief to wash over me, but then Monday came. Time to get to it. And I did. I had work to do and grief wasn't invited. It'd had its space and shouldn't be greedy, I thought.
One of my uncles died 9 months after my mom passed. I felt so bad for my grandmother. It was bad enough to lose one of her children, let alone two. He left two daughters- one in high school, the other in her first semester of college.
When my OtherMother passed the next year, I'd bought a ticket to try to say good-bye before she left. She was gone before I got there. Because her niece had already booked a holiday, they weren't going to have the funeral until after the niece got back-- after my return ticket. So I missed her and I missed the funeral. I didn't really know what to do with my grief. As inadequate as the typical American funeral service is, having nothing at all just left the grief blowing around me. I started having these moments of sheer panic. No thoughts attached that I was aware of, but this complete panic would take me over. My safe place was gone. The one that had known me all my life and could send those inner gremlins packing with a "Oh, nonsense! You've always been that way" if I was turning myself inside out with over-analysis. She had always fully accepted me as I was--whoever I was--in any given moment.
I did some equine therapy to release the panic. The grief hung around, but I didn't really know what to do with it. I kept it at arm's length.
Last month, the grandmother that raised me passed. She'd had Alzheimer's for a while. When it first started settling in, it was really scary. She'd get mad at people for things she forgotten she'd agreed to or would accuse someone of something that had happened when she was in college. It terrified me. I'd never been her favorite and I was petrified of her ripping in to me.
After she'd accepted that Alzheimer's was there, she mellowed. As she forgot more and more people, her gracious Southern hostess just took over. Everyone was seen as a darling guest that had come to see her. The one paranoid loop she'd get on was that they were going to take her house from her: "Jewell's little acre's got to go" she'd claim she'd heard them say. Apparently, it'd been a discussion when she'd lost her husband a few months before I was born. Raising 5 kids on your own (then especially) was no easy task.
She fell in January going out to get the paper that was sitting on her dining room table. It was the last time she was in her house. She was a force of nature- stubborn and determined. They had quite a time getting her to stay in her bed. There'd been talk for a minute about having to strap her down so she wouldn't collapse on her broken hip trying to get up to pee in the middle of the night. The thought of her strapped to a bed in some care facility somewhere and not even knowing why just ripped my heart to shreds.
I made it just in time to say good-bye-- "Hold On (I'm Comin')" by Sam & Dave was playing in the concourse when I stepped out of the plane in Memphis. We got to her room about a quarter to 10. She passed a quarter over 12. Ever the school teacher, she released us in time for lunch.
I wanted to hear stories about her. I wanted to hear stories about her in college, about her as a young woman. But the family never had a gathering with everyone together. No dinner after the viewing. No lunch all together after the service: we split into two groups -- her children and their children in one place, her brothers and sisters and their children in another. She was the hub of the wheel, and I'd wondered for years whether any of us would see each other with any frequency after she was gone. I was sad that there wasn't at least one last gathering in her name.
After arriving home, I decided to approach the grief differently this time.
I denied it with my mom. I resisted it with my OtherMother. This time, I decided to just invite grief in. I made it a pallet to sleep on and showed it where the tea is. It's going to be here for a while, and I accept that.
Good thing, because here I am with my sleep schedules turned upside down, irritable, and decreased cognitive capacity, and all the symptoms of depression (minus the self-pity) showing up and I start getting Mother's Day emails in my inbox.
I f***ing hate those emails. Salt in the wounds, they are. And E V E R Y O N E sends one. How you tie Mother's Day in to emails about saving wolves, or political fundraising I don't know, but they find a way. Horrible. As if there wasn't enough dread about going in to my overloaded inbox...
Thank GOD I don't have a TV. I'm sure the commercials would make me cry and throw and hit things all at the same time.
The first Mother's Day after mom passed, my son came over and we spent the day together. We talked a lot about mom. It was good to have him with me. But he's in his early 20s, so that didn't hold. He's been a MD no-show ever since. Every year he's a bit more mature-- he's at the place now where he PMs me for recipes and texts me on urgent house-hold/cooking questions. He comes over once or twice a month for dinner now. But I don't have any expectations for Mother's Day yet. I'm too scared to. It hurts too much when he doesn't show.
I've heard from women with small children that shower them with cobbled-together breakfasts and bright home-made cards that it's still strange. That they try to let the day be just about them, but it still feels like something's missing because Mom is gone. Like the mom we lost was the "real mom"...
Loss shatters our world. It shakes up our roles and what we thought our life was about. That pushes us to re-examine where we are, where we've been and where we're going.
The loss and acute grief brings a certain clarity to our vision. Things we'd fretted over before now seem so trite and silly. People we'd thought were okay to have around now seem intolerable. We see so very clearly that in the face of life-and-death, _____ just doesn't matter all that much. We see what does matter.
So often, there is a tendency to push the insight this clarity brings aside and say its the grief talking. I question how wise that is. Maybe it is the grief talking- but the grief may well be speaking a truth we've been loathe to face. Take time to listen to what it has to say and consider its perspective with an open mind and open heart.
Feel what you're feeling
There's enough room in your heart to feel all kinds of emotions all at the same time. And you will. It's totally normal. You don't have to just pick one. None of them have to "make sense". Just feel them. Open the door and invite them in. Don't judge yourself for what shows up. There's no sense in asking what they mean-- they merely mean that you're human.
See if you can feel them without attaching any stories to them. Just let them move through you like wind through a tunnel.
They don't want to kidnap you and pull you in to a deep dark cave where you won't see the light of day for two years if you so much as look towards the opening. Emotions won't pull you there- resisting them and the self-pity that follows that resistance will, but the actual feeling of emotions won't. They just want to speak their peace, then they're gone.
Learn the lessons grief has come to help you with
Recognizing that grief is here to help us learn is a pretty big paradigm shift. Doing so does mean that we've got to quit feeling sorry for ourselves, though.
Self-pity stands in the door of our hearts and prevents us from actually grieving. It comes from a place of denial and resistance to what has happened. Yet, to grieve, we have to accept that what has happened has happened. There can be no grieving of loss as long as we're insisting that it shouldn't have happened or that it wasn't fair or someone else should have gone instead. We have to face the reality of what is gone. That it's not coming back.
This article by Cath, a grief coach at remembering for good sums up pretty much everything I was going to write here about working with your personal learning style, so go check it out (Except I'd add Myers-Briggs as a means of looking at your learning style since working with MBTI as the Academic Coach at a med school is how I got started with coaching. There's some very useful information about MBTI and learning and how to use it to approach information and process through things. Since the MBTI also addresses how we manage conflict as well as how we respond to deep stress, it can be a particularly useful tool in times like this). But back to the article: she starts off like this:
"In many ways, loss breaks our model of who we are, how life works and what we expected. It breaks all illusions of certainty, power and immortality and it challenges our trust and faith in ourselves and any greater power that we might believe in. We find ourselves feeling lost and groundless and questioning everything we thought we knew. We’re living in pretty much the same world we were before our loss, but suddenly we’re viewing ourselves and the world around us through a totally different lens – the lens of “my baby died” or “my husband died” or “my relationship died” or “my dream of having a child naturally died.” And everything that’s the same looks and feels different and it’s as if we have to learn it all over again.
Learning about yourself, learning about your model of the world, learning about your emotions and their triggers, learning what you want to be and create now that you understand how impermanent and precious life is, learning to manage emotional triggers, learning to live after loss… It’s a lot to learn, and it’s made even trickier by the fact that, as much as we might like there to be, there’s no universal curriculum for grieving and most of the journey to wholehearted living is a process of inventing rather than the sort of rote learning that most of us were taught throughout our schooling."
See? Its good stuff. Check it out.
Seek Peace instead of closure
American culture doesn't deal well with death. We don't really deal with it at all. That's why funeral directors can charge us a fortune (practically everything they do we can do ourselves at home): because we're paying them so we don't have to touch it- literally and figuratively. Not dealing with life has a high price. I'm convinced its why we're so obsessed with death, blood, and gore in our entertainment life- it's our deeper selves trying to get us to face death in some way.
Funerals are often reserved, and rather than serving to help us fully express our grief, we'll often let out just enough to keep the pressure down. We work to "stay strong", to "get through it". Eulogies are filled with platitudes. People talk a lot about closure.
I deeply question how much this idea is grounded in reality much less in emotional health. We may have peace with them and their passing-- maybe they'd been suffering for a long time and the death was an end to that. Maybe we said all we wanted to, and heard back what we wanted... that can bring a Peace,
Seeking closure seems to operate on this idea that it'll eventually be over. Over and we won't miss them anymore, or feel sadness or loss anymore, or have times when we feel them near or wish we could.
From my experience, it doesn't work this way. It's never over. The relationship doesn't end just because they're not physically here anymore. There are many cultural practices that acknowledge and cultivate this relationship, like Dia de los Muertos in the latin world and the Qingming Festival in China. With each passing year, this makes more and more sense to me, and I've been practicing ways to continue to cultivate that relationship. My mother was an amazing cook, and I often feel her in the kitchen with me. She very clearly set the table this Thanksgiving, and even my son noticed that it was her way of doing it, not mine. Using dishes I got from her and working with recipes I learned from her are some of the ways she lives through me, and we get to spend time together. Its a way to treasure what I learned from her. Since our relationship was very complicated, it makes these moments of recognizing the beautiful things she passed on to me that much more precious.
(I'm hoping my grandmother will show up similarly in the garden that I planted this May Day- especially because I've never been very good with stuff like that even though I've long wished I was)
The relationship doesn't end. That means there will be days that are very sad and the feelings of loss are very palpable. It also means there are plenty of opportunities to work through the relationship's rough spots or the gaps in your grieving experience. If there is an aspect of the relationship or the way they passed that you don't have peace with, you can do a number of things to re-enact or ritualize that moment and come to peace with it. Since your psyche does not distinguish between what you observe, hear about, or dream about, ritual and ceremony can provide powerful release.
If you didn't get what you needed out of the funeral, you can do it again. You can do it alone, or you can gather some friends and have the service you wanted. In Japan, rather than having a eulogy about the deceased that is spoken for the benefit of the living, folks stand up and speak to the deceased. Its a way to say what you need to before they're sent off.
These kinds of rituals can be very powerful when done alone, but they can carry even more weight and be that much more healing when done in community.
We don't do vulnerability well. It's sticky. It's scary. It triggers shame like a mofo. We prefer to grieve and process on our own because doing so with others feels excruciatingly vulnerable. It triggers shame. We think people will judge us. We assume no one wants to be around that kind of scene. We see ourselves as some kind of hunchback monster that needs to keep hidden in the shadows-- unfit for human interaction. We're scared of exhibiting raw emotions at all, let alone in front of people.
Though there's something to be said for having that time to ourselves to slow down, feel what we're feeling, and seek Peace, doing all of our grief work in isolation can leave us trapped in some pretty unhealthy mires. Its a lot easier to confuse feeling sorry for ourselves with grieving, for one. We easily travel the same pathways in our head, and don't move through the full cycle to come to new understandings. We can stay mired in shame.
Being in community lets us know that we're not alone in our experiences or feelings. This builds empathy, and empathy annihilates shame. Shame blocks our ability to connect with ourselves and others, and as humans we need connection to be healthy and thrive.
Ask some close friends if they'd like to be with you-- or better yet, find some folks that have also lost their moms. This club is a big one, and you'd be surprised how many people are struggling this week, just like you are.
If you're in Phoenix and would like to join our Motherless Mother's Day event, find us on Facebook to get more information.