Walking in Pea Soup (My Experience With Grief)

On July 18th, 2015 I lost my mother in a plane crash that took her life along with those of three close family friends. I found out about the crash on July 20th at around 5:10pm while leaving work. I had to prepare to go to New York for meetings and there was a lot I needed to get done before my train the next morning. I was in a rush and almost didn’t answer the phone when it rang.

I remember a lot about the moment I found out my mom had died. I remember what song I was listening to on my phone. I remember what street I was on when I answered my dad’s call. I even remember what I was wearing.

What I remember the most was hanging up the phone and listening to the loudness. Car horns, people talking on their phones, sirens and whistles — these were all noises that I’ve learned to drown out growing up and working in DC. But at that moment I could hear it all so distinctly. Everything seemed to be moving so fast and I was stuck in slow motion.

In the first week of her death somebody told me that grief is like walking through pea soup. It was such an odd thing to say, but it made perfect sense and it was eerily relatable. My mom died in the summer and so maybe it was the heavy DC summer air, but the world felt heavy and hard to move through.

I was literally moving slower. I would wake up for work the same time as I always had but arrive to the office later than normal. Doing simple tasks such as brushing my teeth and putting on clothes took longer. These tasks were more challenging and I had to push myself to complete them.

Not only did I move slower, but sometimes my mind would just lose all energy. I remember especially in the first month being back in the office and working on a project only to find myself just staring at the screen for an hour. It was like trying to force a tight spring onto a latch — the closer I got to focusing the harder it was to do so. Everything, even the simplest of tasks, took an extra push.

When you are grieving, you are not the master of your time anymore. Sometimes you are stuck in pea soup but everything else is moving fast. And sometimes you blink and the day is over. The first two weeks of her death felt like both a couple a days and a couple of years at the same time. Grief is exhausting — it literally exhausts you.

I had just turned twenty-five when she died. During those months leading up to that summer, it felt like my life was just beginning. I had just gotten a promotion at my company. I had moved into my first apartment (which was coincidentally across the street from my mom’s first apartment). And my now-fiancé was moving in with me. It felt like my path was really starting to be carved out and there was a clear trajectory of where I was heading in life.

I remember having dinner the week before the crash with my mom and my fiancé — July 11th, which my mom had marked on her calendar on the refrigerator as “Dinner w/ Dana and Ben.” She was going on vacation and we wanted to grab dinner before she left. I remember leaving her apartment afterwards, giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and telling her to have fun.

I so clearly remember her closing the apartment door behind us as we left — the same apartment I live in now. That was the last time I saw my mom. It is important for me to say that because it’s part of what torments me. I wasn’t there when she died. I never saw her body. The last image is of her closing a door — and because of that, there will always be a part of me that believes she is on the other side of that door. Although I know she is gone, a part of me keeps believing that she’ll eventually come home.

And that’s just so painful. That hope I can’t let go of makes death’s permanence even more unbearable. And I thought this belief that she will one day come back was just a phase — just a part of walking through pea soup. But it’s not a phase. There will always be a part of me that believes she’s out there in the world somewhere trying to find her way back to her loved ones.

As I am writing this, we are approaching the two-year anniversary of her death. There’s so much I miss. She was a wonderful mother and I didn’t realize how much she loved her family until after she died — it’s difficult to notice a wonder when it’s a constant.

After she died many people reached out to me. Many of her friends. What threw me off was how much they knew about me. Some of what they knew was very recent and specific. I hadn’t realized, but mom was often telling her friends about what was going on in my life. She was my biggest fan — she was so proud of me. It was hard for me to grasp because I didn’t view the milestones in my life as momentous as she did. But that is what made her such an adoring mother.

Me and mom at Turtle Park in 1995

Before she died, I thought my life was on a clear trajectory. Looking back that was a foolish thought. Life is enormous. Although our world is finite, it mimics infinity. There are too many possibilities to know where you will end up in life.

There’s just so much out there to learn and I’m always trying to keep my mind open to learn more. The older I get, the more I realize how young I am. I hope to always keep this mindset. But this thought also makes me depressed. Because the younger I feel, the more I realize that my mom died younger than she should and that she will not know the joy of growing old.

I’ve spent some time in pea soup, and around this time of the year I feel like I’m plunged into it again. And when you’re stuck in pea soup, it’s a struggle to experience life’s joys. There’s a lot coming up in my life and I am filled with mixed emotions.

I will be starting graduate school in the fall, which I will be attending while working — this is scary to me. I want to be able to talk to my mom about my fears, because she was someone who went to law school at night while working full time. Speaking with her would be a reminder that she passed on her determination to me.

In September I am getting married. And although we are going to be surrounded by loved ones, her absence is heartbreaking. She loved my fiancé and treated her how a mother-in-law should. She deserves to be at this celebration. It’s unfair she won’t get to celebrate with us.

There’s a lot about grief you can’t control. You can try but grief is just too powerful. But there are aspects of grief you can own. There’s opportunity for you to define yourself. Grief can amplify fear and sadness, but it can do the same for joy and excitement. Grieving can give you a greater appreciation for life.

This is going to sound like such a cliché and the part of me that loves snobby films and literature hates me for saying this — but what I learned the most from grief is the importance of compassion. I wish I had something more profound to say, but sometimes sentiments are cliché for a reason.

It’s so important to just be kind to people. That energy it takes to walk through pea soup, we have to take that effort in our day-to-day lives to just be generous. It’s not always easy — often times it’s hard — but grief gives you a chance to become stronger than you’ve ever been and that is a gift you cannot waste.

I wanted to write my experience with grief because the last thing we want for a loved one is for them to be forgotten. I’m sharing my experience because when people think of me, I want them to think of my mother, Joyce Louise Bartoo, so that she is not forgotten. That is why doing good and being good is so important to me — I want my actions and my life to be associated with her.

It feels that no matter how much I write or say about her, it isn’t enough. But I also want to share my experience so people know that their struggle with grief is understood. For anyone else who is walking through pea soup right now, you will always have someone here with you.

Always with love,

Ben

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