Life and death. Everyone has their own story of how they enter and leave the world, and no two are the same. But the commonality for all people is a single breath; a first one and a last one…and in between the two, we are given a life with free will to live it, and our breath to get us through it. Before I was pregnant, I had gone to visit a childhood friend and neighbor of mine a few states away after the birth of her second child. Upon wrapping up my weekend, and knowing her family of two little ones was complete, she sent me home with a little bag piled high with baby books. What to expect while pregnant books, books on newborns, books on sleeping, on feeding, a book for the new dad. I brought them home, and while the idea of babies was still a relatively far off idea for my husband and me, I put them away in a spot for safe keeping until it was time to use them.
Flash forward less than 2 years later. Our first son was 10 months old and I was three months pregnant with our second when my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV Ovarian Cancer. 18 months, that was what she was given to live with Chemotherapy, possibly 3 without. She chose chemo and incorporated some natural remedies (at first reluctantly, as I forced them on her as only a daughter can). Soon she came to see their benefits, and combined with her own inner strength and deep love for her family, she battled and lived to not only welcome that tiny baby in my belly the following February, but also to see my third son, and the last of the 11 grandchildren, make his way into the world. Breaths: two more first breaths on her watch. We were given seven amazing years with her, seven extra years. She had a resiliency towards the ill-effects of chemotherapy, she never complained or wallowed, never lost her smile, her humor or thoughtfulness. Despite the perpetual maintenance chemo, CAT-Scans and PET-Scans every few months and routine bloodwork that would temporarily sober us into remembering that our Mom was indeed still fighting a war in her body, life went on. Celebrations and holidays were greeted year after year and we were grateful for all of them. I can remember many Christmas’s or vacations to the beach and taking a moment to steal looks at her and think silently to myself “in case this is the last one, I want this image burned into my memory.” I am thankful to say I have many etched in to my mind’s eye.
This past December, in a very sudden and quick turn of events, our incredible, beautiful, wise, hilarious, kind beyond measure, and deeply yet quietly faithful Mother took her final breath, with my Dad, her husband of 51 years, and five children surrounding her. She was there for our first breaths, and we were there for her last. Funny how life works like that.
Despite all those years I knew she was sick and realistically could leave us at any time, no matter how hard she fought, I never took the time to anticipate grief. To seek out a preemptive book on say, “What to expect when you’re grieving,” to prepare myself. Is there such a book? I’m sure a quick google search would yield endless book options. I’ve walked by the sections at bookstores, I’ve seen the articles pop up in my newsfeed about dealing with grief after it arrives. I knew vaguely about its stages. Were there 5 or 7? I knew the first was denial, and maybe one in there about anger? It’s not that I was oblivious or insensitive to recognizing a need to become familiar with grief before it hits. I have lost other relatives and watched friends lose family members, felt the loss myself and watched from the outside how it affected them and offered comfort as best I could. However, with the loss of my own mother, unlike those baby books on the shelf, when the obvious signs of pregnancy prompt you to start reading week by week to learn what to expect next, with deep grief, until you are there, it’s rare to want to truly familiarize yourself with it in advance.
My mom passing just before the Holidays was a blessing, one we think in her final divine wisdom, she somehow knew. Despite her children being scattered across the country and state, normally seeing each other in shorter visits throughout the year, the services intermingled with Christmas and New Year’s were just an extension of the celebration of family, friends and togetherness. She was gone, but her bright and warm spirit was clearly all around us those three weeks.
We were busy…seeing through our tears and broken hearts, making arrangements…the visitors…making more arrangements…lunch together afterward when the weight of what we were planning needed to be left outside like an uninvited guest…dinner with all of the siblings and grandchildren…tears here and there, but mostly laughter, stories and funny quotes of my mom remembered….the wake, then back to the house for a spread of food from thoughtful neighbors and friends after standing for 3 hours and greeting more than 300 wonderful guests paying respects, the ache of our feet was outweighed by the fullness in our hearts…the beautiful funeral…the luncheon…the warm condolences for an amazing, selfless woman who would not want a single person to be shedding a tear over her! We were busy…
In all of this, don’t forget I have 3 young school age boys that needed to be cared for, and whether by irony or destiny, my husband’s job circumstances allowed him to literally and figuratively become our Mr. Mom. He allowed me to completely be with my Mom, whole heartedly, in her final days, and with my Dad and siblings in the following weeks. Knowing the boys were in great care and not a burden to anyone else was invaluable. I simply cannot convey the level of gratitude and love I have for him when I think of this. It’s one of the greatest gifts of all that you can give someone: time.
Although I had been back and forth for a few days at a time in between her passing and services to see my boys and tuck them in, I was quickly back to my parents’ home to help my Dad and siblings with thank you notes and tidying the house. It wasn’t until January 3rd that I headed home, finally leaving that little protective bubble of busyness and distraction; still feeling close to her presence. I knew that the next time I set foot in my parents’ home to visit my dad, it would be different. This time warp would be gone and the magnitude of her absence would feel far greater. It was then that the real grief would begin.
In the days right after my mom’s passing, a good friend of mine sent a text that said “Be kind to yourself now, grief is exhausting.” No truer words could be said but I didn’t grasp in that moment what she meant. Exhaustion from crying until there were no tears left? Exhaustion from the hustle and bustle of distractions? No, it was a deeper exhaustion than that. It’s one that settles into your muscles and bones. It makes your body feel as though it has run a marathon with no finish line crossed or medal received. Throughout this time, I still don’t think I have cried until I can’t cry any more. Many days I have gone without a single tear. The feeling of loss is so great and profound, so indescribable, that the tears would be a relief if they appeared more frequently. This is what they don’t tell you about grief…
They don’t tell you that it’s easier to live in the swirl of jumbled thoughts in your head than to try to explain them to friends and loved ones when they ask how are you feeling. You want to reply to amazing texts and calls, to reach out and say thank you, you really do, but you just can’t.
They don’t tell you will dread or avoid trips to Target or the grocery store for fear of meeting a familiar face in the aisles only to see their sorrow and sadness for you written all over it.
They don’t tell you that, while no one expects you to bounce back immediately or be back to your happy self, you still feel an overwhelming obligation to not be a “downer” to people around you, even those kind faces you run into, and that in itself is exhausting.
They don’t tell you that although you might be a typically cheerful, social person, when others try to get you out or distract you a little, it makes you withdraw more because you actually don’t want to be distracted from your thoughts for fear of forgetting something.
They don’t tell you that when you do actually go out for a holiday party or dinner with friends, the distraction feels so good, but then you remember and the permanence of her being gone comes crashing down around you all over again.
They don’t tell you that you will be able to replay those last 6 days with your Mom, especially the 3 in hospital, in detail over and over so that you don’t forget a single minute, even down to when you left her side to go sit in the waiting room to give someone else time with her, or how many cups of coffee you shared with your siblings from the hospital café.
They don’t tell you that while your sadness and loss is staggering in itself, that looking at your father with his grief will literally physically cause a pain in your heart that pushes your grief to the side, wishing you could take away his. Or that you spend your days wondering how your siblings are doing. You know they are hurting too, and it makes you feel helpless that you can’t help them, so you don’t reach out more like you should.
They don’t tell you will sleep horribly and have vivid, strange dreams that give you the most restless sleep for weeks.
They don’t tell you that the kindness you will see and receive from other people, some you barely knew before, will move you beyond words to the point that you don’t even know where to begin to give thanks, and then feel guilty for not knowing how.
They don’t tell you that you will think to yourself endlessly throughout the day… “I’m 38 years old and I don’t have a mother anymore.”
They don’t tell you that although you find great strength not only in your family and friends, you find strength in yourself knowing that you will get through this storm, this exhaustion, and will be able to be a source of comfort and support to others when it is ultimately their turn grieve.
They don’t tell you that grief is nothing you can EVER prepare for, no matter how many extra days or years you are given with someone before you lose them.
They don’t tell you that you become so intrigued by stories of peoples near-death experiences in Heaven that you read as many as you can for comfort. As I tried to describe to a friend recently, I compare it to a parent whose child is going abroad and that parent reads every guide available to become overly familiar with where their child will be without them for all that time, so they feel okay letting them go to this unknown place, without them.
They don’t tell you will spend time looking up at the sky, in the trees, hoping for any sign that she is still with you. Just when you have given up, she sends one that is so profound and unmistakable, it brings you enough peace until there is another one, whenever it may be.
They don’t tell you that you will have a great few days and then one night before bed, your youngest son, the one who has seemed the least affected of his brothers based on his age, sees a picture of Grandma and falls to the floor sobbing so heartbreakingly that it literally zaps you to the reality that it’s enough now, it’s enough…It’s time snap out of this day-to-day auto pilot life you have been living and recognize that your kids need you fully present. To realize that you are far from done grieving, but it will no longer control you.
A friend of mine who lost an immediate family member recently said to me, “Grief changed me, it’s like your bubble popped and you are now so exposed- everything hurts worse, even unrelated things in life.” She’s right, grief peels you back like an onion. It doesn’t just make you realize life is precious, it didn’t take death to do that for me. My mother’s diagnosis did that for us years ago. While losing someone takes a piece of your heart with them, grief adds a layer to your soul. It shapes you in one way or another. As another friend liked to remind me almost daily when I felt like I was just spinning in loss…”Bitter or Better.” Me, you, we all have the choice of what you let loss and grief make of you. I know my mom would not only want us not to be sad, but also to not lose the light in our daily lives. She was a woman who, as my brother said, “if you were having a bad day, our mom would give you her good one.” I am choosing for this grief to make me better, not bitter. To strive to have good days again, not only for me and my family, but so that I can pay forward that legacy my mom left us. I am now fully aware of and living through what they don’t tell you about grief. I hope one day to be able to give someone struggling my good day and to let them know, while there is no book with a timeline to follow, it will be okay.
Just start with a deep breath and take it one day at time.