Grief at the Passing of my Mom
At the end of July, 2020, my Mom passed away.
Trained as an elementary school teacher, she was a stay-at home Mom in our growing up years. She taught herself to cook, bake, can and preserve, clean, garden and host. She loved the endeavors of homemaking and shared these happily with our family, friends, church friends, and neighbors. She learned to sew from her own mother and sewed costumes for Halloween and joyfully took up the work of sewing a skating costume or hat for “Hat Day” at school. She was a strong believer in God and ensured we all landed in church on Sunday morning and joined church groups for our respective ages.
Born in the Netherlands after WWII, she immigrated with her family in 1950 at the age of 7 to Canada, where she quickly learned English and excelled at school. She returned to teaching after having five children, having realized a Bachelor’s degree was now required, and having put herself through undergrad so that she emerged with refreshed credentials to teach at the high school level. In the years that ensued, she taught legions of high school students about the proper structuring of an essay, tracing themes in literature, and the wit of Shakespeare.
Her own mother passed away of leukemia in 1990 at the age of 81, and when Mom was 73, she was diagnosed with the same condition. Unable to qualify for bone marrow transplant because of her age, undaunted, Mom stepped through chemo treatments, initially beating back leukemia, and then struggling through continued chemo and complications when cancer re-emerged. She experienced pneumonia, blood infections, and skin lesions, ultimately losing so much strength that she would fall on short trips to the bathroom, or just trying to get up from bed. Low blood pressure contributed to her overall weakness, and in the end, a combination of these challenges took her life away.
She was not done living though. Though she’d had a fulfilling career, raised children and grandchildren, and celebrated over 55 years of married life to my Dad, she still had plans. She wanted to see her grandchildren graduate and get married. She longed to meet and hold great-grandchildren. And she had plans to write her “memoirs.”
Daily Grief, Small Comforts
Losing my Mom creates a big hole in my life. Shopping in her favorite grocery store after her death, I lingered in the spots that contained products I saw in her own kitchen, knowing she too had stood in that very place. After we distributed her clothing and jewelry to the women in our family, and friends outside the family and women’s shelters who could use them, I wore her belongings daily. At this moment I am wearing one of her long sleeve t-shirts, though it has holes in the sleeve and has probably seen better days. I drape her leopard print blanket over me when I long to be close to her, the very one my daughter and I brought to her in the hospital when she was first admitted.
In the very first days after losing her, I heard her voice in my head. I heard her whispering to me she was OK, that she was with those we loved, and after death you enter into love and “it’s all God’s love, honey.” As I accepted gifts from my Dad of Mom’s belongings, I heard her whisper to me “you enjoy it, honey.” That voice is quieting now, but I feel a sense of holding her spirit in my heart and soul; that the very essence of her is embodied in me, and I am witnessing parts of my life through her eyes. I am experiencing it for us both and know what she would have thought of it. My grief is her grief; my joy is her joy.
My Mom was not a perfect woman. She was given to pride, would not back down in an argument, and broke trust in her relationship with my Dad. In our relationship there was often irritation on my part if she took on a haughty tone or brought forth judgment about myself, my husband or kids. I am quite sure I injured her too, as I distanced or got defensive.
In her last days she repeated two ideas to me that summed up some of her major lessons in life: 1. “It is better to be kind than right.” This was a big insight for her, as someone who enjoyed debate and would not back down in an argument. This lesson conveys her insight that relationships are our greatest treasures. 2. “In your relationships, always reach for forgiveness and commitment, forgiveness and commitment.” This is how we make amends, how we love, how we build each other up, how we retain the great gift of relationship.
Lessons in Grief
In my work as a therapist, caring for others who are experiencing grief, we honor the life of the person who has been lost. We commemorate their lives, highs and lows, and savor the flavor of the relationship. We laugh over silly moments and wonder at the wise ones. Drawing closer to our loved ones who have passed helps us commemorate the life they lived, and the love they shared. Now that my Mom has passed, I have learned some additional lessons about grieving:
Unpredictable Tears: I have woken at 3 am in tears, found myself in tears in the shower or while on my Peloton. Sometimes while receiving care and comfort from friends and family I can be overcome with grief; other times I am able to be joyful and filled with gratitude. The tears are random, and when the grief hits, I need to honor it and spend time with it.
Comfort from Others: Friends and family who have been through the process of losing a parent understand like no one else. They know exactly what to say and how to care. And this makes me realize how little I understood when, in the past, my friends and family have lost their parents. I am grateful to receive this care and realize the importance of caring for others in the future when they experience this kind of loss.
Searching for Messages: My last phone message from her, the last text message she sent, the last gift and card she sent – these are priceless to me now. When I helped my Dad with Mom’s phone and iPad in the days after her death, I realized she had written me a text message she had never sent. I slowly and uncertainly pressed “send” on the message, grateful to receive her kind words, crying and laughing at the unexpected gift.
Permanently Broken-Hearted: What I realize now is that my heart is broken in a way that will never be repaired. While there are longer and longer stretches where I don’t cry, or feel my heart ache, and while there are even days that I think about her only a few times, I also know I will miss her the rest of my life.
I am grateful to have had a good, good Mom. Her love shaped me. She encouraged me and always believed in me. Even when we had our differences, I never doubted her love for me. I will carry that gift of love forever, which I hope will make me a more tender mother, a wiser and more compassionate friend, a more attuned therapist, and a more appreciative wife.
In her passing, my Mom gave me this gift: cherish the relationships you have. It is better to be kind than right. And reach for forgiveness and commitment, forgiveness and commitment.
Seeking Professional Help
If you find yourself struggling with grief and loss, consider seeking help from a professional therapist. Often, getting care from a qualified professional can help process pain and yield new awareness. Please feel free to contact me if I can help you get connected to someone who will be a good fit for you.
The author of “Forgive Yourself”, Brenda Reiss truly walks her talk. She discovered the power of self-forgiveness when a series of life events put her in a very dark place. Failed marriages, abuse, and severe health issues were just a few of the challenges she faced.
Determined to rewrite her story, Brenda sought answers – and found them in the concept of “radical forgiveness”.
What she learned changed her life forever.
Brenda is highly skilled at helping people find peace in their personal and professional lives. Coupling teachable techniques with forgiveness theory, this certified Radical Forgiveness© Master coach creates an environment which allows clients to release anger, shame, and guilt. The result? An opportunity to live with joy in the present and the future.
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