From A Mother Who Died Too Young
Lessons learned after 38 years
You are so little I don’t know quite what to say to you.
I wanted to have you with all my heart. You are a joy to me. Even at this early age you seem bright and personable.
My greatest joy in life would be to stay with you. We can not always have what we want so we must be content with what we have.
I give you loves, hugs and kisses for all the tomorrows. Have a good life.
Mother’s Day has always been a time of reflection for me, and typically separateness. Until comparatively recently, I had no real idea of what it meant to have a mother in a felt, immediate sense. It was just something that wasn’t for me, though I understood from a distance what mothers meant to other people. And as a student of the human condition, and especially as a psychoanalyst, I have learned a tremendous amount about motherhood. In writing this, I intend to promote a greater appreciation of mothers, in honor of Mother’s Day.
My mother passed away after a long battle with illness when I was 9 years old. She was diagnosed with a then hard to treat form of lymphoma when I was about 1, and for a while she was sort of ok, but things really started going downhill when I was 6 or 7. The last time I saw her, she was gravely ill and heading off for the ICU, and I didn’t see her again, nor did I attend her funeral. She left the note quoted above for me, and I have read it from time to time over the years. It has meant different things to me at different times. I didn’t know what to do with all of that precocious knowledge. I was not in a place to make sense of it, let alone make use of it.
She was as close to me as her sickness allowed while she was alive, but there was little preparation for her death, which weirdly I both completely expected and had no idea was coming. Over the years, I’ve come to make sense of the experience, a lot of which has to do with slowly reconnecting with both painful and joyful emotions and memories.
Growing up, I was unusual to begin with, and being the kid whose mother died led me to be even more displaced from other children. My existence was so out of the ordinary — there was no other kid who’d lost a parent to death who I knew — aside from my siblings who were much older. For various reasons, our family didn’t really come together in grief, but rather were somewhat fragmented, though my father held things together as best as he could in the ways that he could.
My mother dealt with her illness in laudable ways, fighting and struggling to survive for a period of around 8 years, persevering in the face of treatment failures, bearing the burden of recognizing she was not going to be around to see her children grow up or to get to live out her dreams for herself. She could also be angry, and in some ways I believe was in denial for a long time, when I wished for something more like a warm and emotionally connected death. For years, I thought of what I had wished for as a television “‘after school special” — a peaceful death, acceptance of the inevitable, surrounded by friends and family with the opportunity to say goodbye and a sense of closure, and more memories of her to hold on to…more than a brief note. The disappointment about this has faded over the years, a hard-won victory.
School was very difficult for me as a youngster, especially as I enjoy a bit of an eclectic personality regardless of anything to do with tragedy. It wasn’t until decades later, looking back, I had a clearer sense that perhaps — through no fault of my own — I must have represented sheer — perhaps unimaginable — terror for my classmates, though there was a little sympathy. The idea that someone’s mother could get sick and die? I believe I came to represent something unspeakable to my peers. And in fact I had lived through the incomprehensible experience myself, nothing short of my own personal apocalypse. My world literally ended, and I entered into a new world for which I was barely prepared. The primary way I coped was to cut off from my past self, and enter into the new identity I had unconsciously prepared for myself, leaving a debt to be paid and a lot of emotional work to be done over the course of many years.
Yet, I maintained a lot of who I had been, and over the years I’ve gotten back in touch more and more. It is challenging because those emotions and memories are very painful and disturbing, images of a declining parent, punctuated by traumatic experiences associated with more acute periods of sickness.
As a result, for many years, my life was quite literally post-apocalyptic, but in a subjective way which very few people could understand. It wasn’t until many years later that I met anyone who had lived through anything similar. Sometimes I met people who had experienced the death of a parent in childhood, and the sense of similarity was usually too much to allow for friendship to develop. I gravitated toward trauma work both in my practice, as well as in humanitarian work doing disaster mental health work, and I spent 2 years training in general surgery before becoming a psychiatrist.
I felt at home in such extreme circumstances, and generally those were times where my attitude about life was more consistent with people around me. This was so different from how I felt around my peers, and in the midst of disaster was one of the only times I felt a sense of belonging and kinship. As a therapist, this helped me relate and stay calm and useful during life’s most troubling times, but on the flip side made it harder to identify with ordinary life.
As is often the case, the good is suppressed along with the bad — and getting the good stuff back (e.g. positive, loving memories; the carefree feeling of childhood; the sense of a safe and stable world; enjoying intimacy in spite of the risk of loss) means getting the bad stuff back, too. In a way, the bad stuff has become good stuff, though even some of the barest dribbles of memory can take days or weeks to make sense of at all.
Over the years, there has been a gradual shift, punctuated by periods of more rapid change, with more balance and integration overall between crisis and ordinary life, as the long-term, slow process of grief, recovery and post-traumatic growth has been happening. There is less of a division between crisis and ordinary life, as well, with more room for other ways of putting reality together beyond this black-and-white view. I more comfortable with the wounded aspect of who I am, and less in need of hiding myself. Sharing my experience remains challenging, but helpful — and I hope will be of use to readers as well. Nine years of analysis with a very supportive male analyst was crucial, deliberately free from much of the conflict which I had experienced in so many other relationships, including prior therapies. I was very conscious of not wanting to repeat blame and anger in my analysis, though this kind of conflict can be central to analytic work in many cases.
Nowadays, what I am left with increasingly is the sense that what I got from my mother which was good, which was loving, and which has sustained me. Her note has stayed with me over the years, and while at times it feels meager, there is value in brevity and I feel her words were carefully chosen. The violent and painful aspects of her dying over-shadowed my life for so long, but along the way I have unswervingly come back to a base of resilience and optimism, of being lovable, of struggling against great odds — again hard-won victories but I think impossible without have those early years when my mother appeared well and I was the center of her world. That has stayed with me, unconditional love, being together, mutual adoration, the sense of being able to take on the world. Now, I am in touch with feelings of admiration and appreciation that she was able to hold it together as she did, knowing what she knew was happening… even when all hope was lost. I understand better how truly difficult that was for her given her own disappointments with how her life had turned out, knowing there were so many things she wished she had been able to experience.
Even though I only had a mother for the first part of my life, after years of working to understand what everything around her life and death meant, I am left with a deep understanding of what it means to have a mother, and to be a mother. Even after her death, though for many years I lived in a kind of purgatory where she existed for me not even as a shade, now I feel her presence in a way I never had. Becoming a father and seeing how great a mom my kids have has helped to connect the past and the present, filling in some of the blanks, as has having a wonderful stepmother. More and more, I feel lucky to have had the experience I did have, to have had the mother I did have, especially knowing some folks with no mothers or mothers who didn’t meet their needs.
I wish everyone could have a positive maternal experience, not only on Mother’s Day, but as part of the texture of their daily lives. For now, I’m hoping that my experience will be helpful to readers, and Mother’s Day a time of renewal and connection.