Secrets of becoming a mom and losing one
Last month my mom died. It was unexpected and devastating. Trying to write about it without getting bogged down by despair has been challenging. However, it would feel cowardly to move forward in this blog without recognizing such a profound life event.
Still, I think most of the post ideas that capture how I’ve been feeling since it happened would not really be in keeping with my usual tone. Some of the titles I’ve considered include: “How can you be so happy while I suffer?”, “I don’t want to hear about how alive your mother is”, “People older than 66 make me feel bitter” or, my personal favorite, “Someone you love is going to die too, just wait.”
Of course, I’m not the only one who has ever suffered a serious loss. The self-involved nature of my grieving reminds me of being a first-time mother. Being pregnant and having a newborn is such a life changing experience you feel like you are seeing the world with unique eyes. In reality, they are just unique to you. Death, just like parenthood, is a shared human experience. Everyone has been exposed, one way or another, to both.
There are things about being pregnant and having a baby that I couldn’t believe people didn’t warn you about: the dark nipples, the line down the belly, how precious showers and sleep are, how much babies cry (really, daily crying is part of your life for YEARS), and how lonely it is to be a stay-at-home mom. There you go, moms-to-be, becoming a mother means your body gets weird and your stress reaches levels you can’t even imagine yet. All the poop will be the least of your worries. (You’re welcome.)
Losing someone close has its own set of insider information. At the forefront is the guilt. The best way I can explain the guilt is feeling bad for not being perfect. Or for still being alive when your loved one isn't. Or for not somehow stopping the chain of events that lead to death. Or for all the times you could have been a better person but weren't. Not all of the guilt is logical, but it's real and pervasive.
There’s also the pictures. There will never be enough pictures. And here’s the thing about losing someone older: that’s not who we’re photographing. At least, I’m not. I take pictures of my kids, my pets, and, embarrassingly, myself.
I scrolled through my photos to see the most recent one I had taken of my mom. It wasn’t on her birthday, or Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or even Halloween with the costumes she had sewed for my kids. She was there and I had my camera out, but I didn’t turn it toward her. No, the last picture I took of my mom, she was actually in the background of a picture of my cat. You can’t even see her face. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.
The thing about losing your mother is she is the one person who has literally been there since your day one. The idea that she would ever be gone was inconceivable to me. Worrying about losing her would have felt like worrying about losing air to breathe or sunshine. Fear of losing my children has been with me since before they were born. Fear of losing her was something I never even considered. Hence, it didn’t occur to me to take her picture that often. It felt like she would always just be there.
Also, the clichés are true. The people you love will never truly be gone. My mom left her mark on every cell in my body. Vestiges of her are sprinkled throughout my house, most of my memories, and on the face of my daughter. She will always be a part of who I am. Not a day goes by where something doesn’t remind me of her. Right now, all those memories come with a sting. I hope, in time, the pain will be outweighed by the happy feeling thoughts of her also brings.
And finally, the people who love you can really help pull you out of the dark sadness that comes with loss. Because, much as it doesn’t make sense, part of you wants to stay sad. When my mother died, I wanted to curl up in my grief and shut everything else out. It felt like I was closer to her there in the darkness, clinging to memories of her. Your people know that isn’t good for you. They want you back in the light where living takes place. They want you to keep going.
Ironically, it is the same thing when you have your first baby. Everyone who has been there knows how hard it is. They pool around you because they want to soften the blow and encourage you to hang in there. (Once you are on to your second baby, however, you’re on your own.)
Just as there is no way to truly prepare for how life changing a new baby will be, there is no way to really prepare for a loss. In both cases, there will be pain and suffering. There’s no getting out of it. However, just as you try to prepare yourself for a child, you can try to prepare yourself for losing someone.
You do that by showing them you love them as much as possible. You forgive easily. You say ‘yes’ to plans or make some. You remember birthdays. And when they are walking out the door, you give them a hug and tell them you love them because you really don’t know if, like me and my mom, that will be the last time you get to talk to them.
The day my mother died, my sister’s mother-in-law was cleaning out my sister’s refrigerator in preparation for "the food". I thought she was being a little overzealous — until it came.
Unannounced, a stream of southern women came in carrying the predicted food. First, there was the biggest box of donuts I have ever seen. There was soup and chili and a meat and cheese tray and fried chicken and Pinterest inspired breakfast biscuit things. There was a basket of snacks for the eventual car ride north for my mom’s service. One woman, knowing how much food was coming, brought stacks of paper products so we wouldn’t have to worry about doing dishes. It was like an army of kindness came marching through my sister’s kitchen. Turns out southern hospitality is no myth, and its reputation as the pinnacle of graciousness is well deserved.
I’m from the north. But for a few exceptions, like, Italian families, up here people ask, they offer, they have the best intentions, but our northern culture generally gets in the way of follow through. The polite thing for us to say is, “thank you, but you don’t have to do that.” I was talking to one of my sister’s southern friends about it and she said, “Oh, you don’t ask if people need help, they’ll say no. You just have to show up.”
Death, like colic, happens. The same way you get through night after night of walking your screaming infant while patting him on the back, longing for sleep, is the same way you get through a loss. You keep moving knowing that this moment of pain won’t last forever, knowing that people who love you are depending on you to keep your shit together, knowing that, in the end, human connection is the whole point and sometimes you suffer the most for the people you love the most.
I'm no expert on loss, just as I'm no expert on raising children. In fact, I tend to assume I’m doing it wrong in both cases. But the real secret is you don't have to be an expert when it comes to being a mom, or moving on after losing one, or, in general, being a loving and loved human. You just have to show up.
3/18/2015 05:34:53 am
Heather, I wish I had been able to read this when my own mother died, suddenly, after a brief illness. It hurts, bad. I can't even tell you the pain goes away, because I still cry for my parents. But those moments come less often, and are instead replaced with smiles. I mostly smile now when I remember. You will too. God bless you.
3/18/2015 02:24:03 pm
Thanks, Ann. I have yet to have someone tell me they have "gotten over" a loss. Most say to treasure the memories. That sounds right.
3/18/2015 06:24:13 am
Only you could make me laugh when I should cry. You're such a great writer and such an insightful person. Thank you for the post. I want that picture of you to put on a t-shirt, by the way. Hey! Wait! Who had their phone out at work?!
3/18/2015 02:35:56 pm
Thanks, Cindy. I admit it. I picked that picture precisely for that reason. There was another one I was going to use where I was covered with clay but I decided instead to embrace my inner rebel. Who knows what I'll do next. The tags on my mattresses aren't safe!
3/18/2015 11:05:05 am
3/18/2015 02:46:05 pm
I can't edit your comment (if I could, imagine the power I'd have!) but I understand anyway. I hope how I live honors her. Especially how I live when no one is looking.
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I like to throw things.