My mom died 10 years ago on December 20th. It’s the longest night of the year and I can promise it was the darkest time in my life. She was my confidant, my travel buddy, my adviser, my go-to for almost all things, my best friend. And then, she wasn’t. She had an irregular blood test in July and after a valiant fight (though, there’s nothing valiant about cancer, win or lose, it’s mean and ugly and cruel) Leukemia killed her five short months later.
My mom was a lot of things: a brilliant financial strategist, an active mentor, a kind teacher, a terrible joke-teller, a faithful servant, a generous soul, a dedicated friend, but she wasn’t ever a grandma. And she wanted to be. Very much. Would she have wanted to be called Gram like her own beloved grandmother? Or maybe Grandma K since all my friends called her Mom K? My kids call her Grandma Margaret, because she wasn’t here to tell us what she wanted to be called.
She wasn’t here to help me through seven pregnancies and three miscarriages. She’s not here to love on my four boys. Sometimes the loss of her catches me like a punch to the stomach. I can’t breathe. I am once again shell-shocked by her absence. It’s. Been. Ten. Years. I never reach for the phone to call her or make plans to get together. I don’t ever forget that she’s gone, but it’s not as awful as those first two years. Somehow, I’ve gotten used to the empty spot.
I’ve learned a lot as I’ve become a mom without my mother’s arms to lift me up, her voice to cheer me on, her perspective to guide and inspire me. Perhaps, you’ll find one or two of these resonate with you. Grief is a lonely tangled road. Everyone crawls along it differently. Perhaps the point is that we all learn as we travel that messy road.
I was not prepared for that first conversation with our son about my mom.
This is not to say I did not prepare. In fact, I probably thought about it too much. What would I say? How I would explain her? What is heaven? Why did she die? Would I die young, too?
Instead, it went like this: At about three Charles asked where my mom was. I could barely breathe. I said she had died. He shook his head. He said, no, I mean where IS she. Taking a big breath I said, I thought she was in heaven. His eyes got wide and full of wonder. You mean, John Deere Heaven!? And I laughed. I laughed.
You see, we had this John Deere Action video and there was a section called John Deere heaven where all the things are green and yellow and everything is John Deere. To Charles this was truly paradise. So…I told him yes, I thought it was something like that.
I found ways to replace her. Though sometimes I didn’t.
My mom was really smart, she’d experienced a lot, and she wasn’t shy to share her opinions. She was my go-to for so many things. What’s the best way to invest money? How should I write a performance appraisal? What ingredients are in meatloaf? What’s the best thank you gift for the mail carrier? She knew it all. After she died, I had to ask someone else. I found that I had to replace her with a lot of someone elses.
Sometimes, there were things no one could answer. Was the china in her cabinet from her first wedding or her grandmother? What was the neighbor kid’s name when we were growing up? Should I have individual 529 education accounts for each kid or just one big one (it’s a personal preference, but what is my preference)? I learned to rely on others and a lot more on my husband. That wasn’t such a bad thing.
I treasure the video from my mom’s celebration of life.
My mother donated her body to science, so we didn’t have a traditional visitation, funeral, and burial. Instead, we had a celebration of life where anyone that wanted could get up and share something about her. It was heartbreaking and amazing. A friend of ours filmed and edited it for us. I’m not sure I can every adequetely thank him. This video is one of my greatest treasures as it’s a reminder of what a difference my mom made and that I wasn’t the only one who loved her deeply.
I forgave myself. Or I tried to.
I am haunted by one moment when I said something rude to my mom when we were traveling together in Peru. At odd times the memory sneaks up on me and I am overcome with embarrassment and I am so sorry I can’t apologize again even though I did at the time and later multiple times. Now that I have children of my own, I know they often do things that hurt my feelings, and I don’t remember what they are. In fact, right now, I’m hard-pressed to think of one. So, I try to forgive myself for a mistake as I’m sure she’s long forgotten.
There’s this book I often give to people who have lost someone titled, The Next Place. I try to embrace this line probably because I want it to be true. It’s about what the traveler will take to The Next Place:
“I will travel empty handed.
There is not a single thing
I have collected in my life
that I would ever want to bring
I think of her taking all the happiness and memories and magic that we shared. I forgive myself knowing the magic meant more.
I treasure my family.
I do. People ask me what my hobbies are: I like to read and write. But honestly, I like to be with my family – my kids, my amazing in-laws (without whom I’m not sure I would have survived at all), my husband, my friends who are family, my brother and his family, my stepdad. They matter to me more than they did before.
I recognize true friendship. Clawing through grief is tough. It’s especially hard on those that love the grieving because there’s not much that can help. I met some amazing friends through Gilda’s Club grief group. They get me and what I went through. I have some close friends that helped me laugh through my tears, let me drink and cry and feel sorry for myself. Now they cheer me on, are equally stunned I somehow have four boys, and help me love my life. I especially appreciate that they continue to talk about my mom: to remind me of her, of something she did or said, of what she meant to us.
I remember that while she’s not here, she does matter.
There was a time right after I had my first son that I got resentful of the implication that anyone could get to know my mom that hadn’t actually known her. There are all these kitschy things you can do with kids to “help them know” someone that died. But let’s be real, what is the point? They don’t get to know them, to hear their voice, to experience the fun and intelligence of that person…so forget it, why even bother talking about my mom? I decided I wasn’t going to fake this relationship between a dead mom and my children.
I was still regularly attending the Gilda’s grief group and there was a very special man than came as well, Bill. He transformed me completely and remains one of my dearest friends. His wife Karen had died. She’d been a knitter so she’d been working on a scarf when she died that was only half done. Bill decided he was going to learn to knit so he could finish the scarf. One night he brought the scarf to group to show us – he’d had it framed.
This one incredible act of love by a grieving man changed everything about how I was feeling. You see, Bill wouldn’t have finished the scarf without Karen. In fact, without her, there wouldn’t have been a scarf. She mattered. What came before mattered. Karen and Bill’s scarf became a powerful metaphor for why I should continue to share who my mom was.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t avoid sharing her. In the same way it’s not possible for this scarf to exist without Karen, I can’t be who I am without my mom. I’m not the same without her as you can see Bill’s part of the scarf isn’t the same either. The loss matters enough to forever leave a mark.
Bill knitted a blanket for each one of my boys. Without Karen, he would not have done so. She matters very much to me and I’ve never met her.
I am healed by my children.
Somehow they always seem to know what to say.
I know what not to say. Until I had loved and lost I might have thought phrases like: She’s in a better place, God only gives you what you can handle, and There’s a reason for everything were helpful. They. Are. Not. Stop saying them. Instead try: I’m sorry. Truly. Followed up by: What is one of your favorite memories with your mother?
I don’t have to disagree with her parenting.
Now that I have children of my own, I don’t agree with some of my mom’s choices. There are some things I think I might have confronted her about that now, I don’t have to or need to. Maybe I wouldn’t have ever done so had she lived. The thing is, I don’t have to even consider it. And that’s a blessing.
I have slowly gotten rid of many of #thethings.
I saved a lot of her things from clothes to papers to trinkets. Some have broken or worn out. Some I passed on a bit at a time. Some I gave away. Some I threw away. For me, it’s been much easier to do it a bit at a time rather all at once. One silver lining is I can get rid of some of the lame stuff she purchased for me. I don’t have to keep the ugly angel decorations or that terrible book.
Do I still have a ziplock bag with one of her shirts in it? Is it hiding under my bed so in desperate moments I drag it out and breathe in her smell? Is that creepy? Sometimes it feels that way. I don’t care. She smelled of lilacs and warm hugs.
I support others who are losing or have lost a parent.
There’s this terrible club I’m a part of: the dead parent club. I don’t know how someone else feels. I don’t presume to understand their relationship. However, I can listen. I can offer advice. I can reach out and support them in a way some others can’t. I’ve learned about how hard the first year of grief is and how much harder the second year might be. I can remember to ask and listen to what is said and not said long after the memorial flowers have died, the closets are cleaned out, and the finances are closed.
I finally realize how much she loved me.
A month after I got pregnant with our first son, one of my best friends walked into my office at work. Her eyes were filled with tears and she said, “I just realized something. When your baby is born you’re going to get this incredible gift. You’re going to know exactly how much your mom loved you.” She was right. It’s truly been the most amazing gift.
When our eight-year-old launches himself at me after he’s finished a musical performance and I am filled with pride, when my six-year-old laughs so hard his eyes squeeze shut and I’m filled with happiness, when our three-year-old explains a wonder of his world and I am filled with amazement, when our one-year-old runs into my arms for a hug resting his head on my shoulder and I’m filled with love –I know exactly how much she must have loved me.
Being a mom without a mom is hard, but she’s woven into the fabric of who I am. I can’t help but see her in our every day: in my son’s eyebrows, my brother’s laughter, my hands that look just like hers. She’s here even if she isn’t.