Shouldn’t I be better at grief by now?

Musings from a twenty-something before and after her mother's death

My mom has been dead for nine months. I still feel like I’m staring in some stupid Lifetime movie that has really awful acting. The preview would be in that cheesy deep announcer voice…

She runs around the city distracting herself with dating apps and work deadlines. Her mom died and she’s totally lost… Cue montage of sad twenty-something women ugly crying in her car on the way to work…

In a sad game of Charades, I would act out grief by power walking in circles smiling extra big. This is partly because I fear I will drown in sadness if I don’t stay in motion. Partially, because I feel an urgency to live well, to honor her life by living mine fully. I wonder when her death will feel totally real. When I will fully accept that I am never going to wake up from this stupid Lifetime movie? When will I accept she is dead?

I found the following journal entry today. I wrote it almost exactly 24 hours before I called the ambulance. She would die 4 days later.

Journal entry: 11/25/2017 3:00 AM

The grayness of the small lonely space made my heart rise to my throat. My face felt pink and I could smell the saltiness of my oncoming tears. But then there was that spurt of light from the small window up above. Shattering the gloom like the flash of a camera that makes you see stars. Another reminder to be hopeful. To look towards the light even if it hurts.

You should be sad. You should be alone. No, you are just being a drama queen. There is no way. Other people’s Mom’s die. Don’t jinx it. Mommy was so proud to bring you here. Be a big girl. Smile. Don’t jinx it.

This is one of my earliest memories. Five years old. Arguing with myself about not crying in the bathroom at Kindergarten. Trying to wrap my head about losing the woman who brought me into this world.

It has been about 20 years since I debated with myself about crying in the bathroom. Many many years of school, traveling, growing, living, exercising, speaking, laughing have passed. I am supposed to be a grown-up now but I have been feeling like the confused five-year-old girl in the bathroom.

Again, my mother is dying. I feel just as scared and lost. Because really do you ever know how you are supposed to feel or act when your parent is very likely going to die soon?I guess it makes sense that whether 5 or 85 we want our Mom. It makes sense that it is challenging to stop being a child which happens at 18 but truly occurs when you have no parents.

I should have a better handle on the dying mother thing. I have been worried about her death for my entire life. Shouldn’t I be prepared? Shouldn’t I be so grateful for all the extra years we got when they say she should have died when I was little?

But I am not prepared to miss her.

There is going to be a day when I am driving in the car and I need to ask what kind of wine you should bring to a holiday party. I will forget and dial her cell but it will just ring and ring and ring.

I will have to remember she is gone.

I will be in my car with my heart in my throat gulping for air. Now, just like when I was 5, I am angry at myself for not looking towards the light, not being more grateful for the time I have had. Just like when I was little, I have been feeling like a selfish drama queen.

I don’t really know when she will die. No one can give us a timeline. Yes, this is a terminal illness and the doctors don’t have any more tricks up their sleeves but they say that if she doesn’t get any additional sickness she could have a year or two. So maybe I am just being negative?

I worry if I don’t prepare myself, I will fall apart when she is gone. With all my heart and soul I want my mother to be at my wedding and to help me one day as I raise my fictional kids. But I am 100% single and work 70 hours a week, so the likelihood of that part of my life starting soon is essentially zero. But damn, I really want her to be there for the milestones of my life. I need her calming presence and guidance.

But just like she always taught me — you can’t always get what you want. So, I figure it’s best to prepare for the rainy days, right?

Anyways, it’s 3:00 AM. I need to sleep so I can enjoy tomorrow — a belated Thanksgiving celebration. But before I sleep, one more story. When I was little my Mom took me to Palm Springs. I swam around asking people if they had cancer. Women would start crying because this tiny child was talking about their dying mother and searching for more dying people to interview. Now, my mother is dying of pulmonary fibrosis, which is a terminal illness. I feel like I am again searching for someone in our situation. I wish I knew someone my age with a mother that was dying. Maybe we could put our heads together and find some clarity among the gloom of sadness and fear.

My recollection of the next few days:

11/26/2017 3:00 AM

I heard my mom coughing in her bathroom and went to check on her. I thought she was having a panic attack. I called 911. She was rushed to the hospital in the ambulance. I was so confused during those first 24 hours. I knew she was sick but it wasn’t like when she had pneumonia, there was no way I thought she would die this hospital trip. As we sat in the ER she asked if she was going to be OK. I told her yes. This question haunts me.

11/27/2017

Just like when I was five I felt like a movie character, playing the role of the stressed-out daughter whose mother may die. That morning we had a meeting with around 15 people. I asked a lot of pertinent questions, just like my smart collected lifetime movie character would have. If her C02 levels did not get lower by the next day we would switch to “making her comfortable”.

Everyone was optimistic that the levels would go down. I envisioned going home with her soon. Taking a few months off work to be with her. I stayed overnight. I was alone with just nurses by about 11:00.

I was trying to talk to her but she never knew i was in the room. She would just rip off her mask every few minutes and ask where she was. Or for water she could not have. Saying no to that water was a type of heartbreak I will never forget.

3:00 AM on 11/28/2018

I knew there was no way she was going to live through this.

My stomach was in my throat.

I stopped feeling like was playing a role. Everything felt surreal but I knew in my gut she was not going to live.

I never slept. I just sat there trying to get her to hear me say goodbye and that I loved her. At 8:00 AM the handsome doctor came, with regretful eyes, he confirmed what I already knew in my bones.

My friend’s dad who was a doctor came by to say hello that day, to be kind, to assure me the handsome lung doctor knew what he was doing. I don’t know what I said but he replied with

“This should not be a huge surprise.”

That will always stay with me. Because it was a huge shock. I thought I had at least another year. I thought she would die slowly and I would have time to say goodbye. Ask her all my questions for when she would not be there to answer my call.

11/29 at 3:36 AM my mother died.

My brother and dad and I were all there. She never was awake enough to say goodbye. I gave her eulogy. I felt guilty about going back to work so soon, but I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t just stay at home. I want to live as best as I can. For her, for us.

So now it has been 9 Months

I cry on the way to work and on the way home most days. It still doesn’t seem real. I walk to work on the big city streets, a shadow of myself. A new zombie still confused by her disconnection. I stare at the droves of people charging off to their busy lives. Glare at families. Roll my eyes at old mothers and grandchildren.

I scream in my mind:

Where are you?

Where have you gone?

How does no one else want to scream?

That’s my least favorite way to feel.

Surrounded by people, yet completely alone.

Photo by Frederick Medina on Unsplash

As predicted, I call her cellphone. Not on accident. I call on purpose just to hear her voicemail. I wore her wedding ring around for a while. I couldn’t seem to take it off after leaving the hospital.

I wanted people to ask me about the ring so I could talk about her. Talk about death and the point of life. But people get so uncomfortable. They don’t want to talk about death.

Last week I stopped wearing the ring. I stopped expecting anyone to notice that I have a huge hole in my life. I stopped trying to bring up death. I still cry in my car. Brace myself for the day, put on concealer, and breeze into work with a smile.

6.19.19 — 1.5 years later

Nine months out I had lost self-awareness. I had not even started the process of mapping out my grief. I don’t feel like I am acting in a Lifetime movie anymore. The shock and denial have worn off and I am able to map out my grief.

Things I know to be true:

  • There is no hierarchy of pain. You can be sad even though other people have had way more challenging things going on. Your pain is still real. It’s also OK to be angry.
  • There is a hole from this grief. It’s not going to be filled up by throwing things in it. Booze, boys, work, banana nut muffins. They will just get lost in the hole and drown you in the process. Running from dealing with the grief hole is exhausting. Hiding the grief hole is also exhausting.
  • Build bridges over the grief hole. Stronger connections can be built to bridge this gap that will always exist in your soul. I have come to respect the grief hole. I don’t want to “get over it” or stop missing my mom. But living in the hole and respecting it are very different lives.

I think of shattered glass. Seems broken. Well, it is. Stained glass windows are really just broken glass cobbled together — fit for cathedrals.

The cracks in the glass can allow the blinding light of hope to shine in and illuminate life in a new way and beautiful way.

I am still practicing tilting my head the right way for this healthy view on grief. Searching for balance and grace. Seeking the tools to build bridges instead of dwelling on holes. New connections and a good life that is focused on the light through the cracks instead of a shattered glass soul.

Integrative health coach. Sr Implementation manager at a SasS startup. Studying positive psych. Curious cat with lots of hats. Writing is my magical pensive.

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