Unexpected Grief: it’s complicated.
The anniversary of my mom’s death was 4 months ago. The day felt surreal, but it went on as any day did — I woke up and showered and ate breakfast and life was just as it had been a year ago — another cold December day, with the anticipation of Christmas right around the corner. In a strange twist of cyclical timing, it also turned out to be the day my sisters and I finished packing up our childhood home, which had finally sold after being on the market for months. I filled a uhaul with the last of my parents belongings and drove to my house. I remember watching the rain pour down in sheets, knowing that the contents of the truckload I carried behind me was more than just the items in there; it was the grief that I would spend the rest of my life learning how to unpack.
As I now go into the second year without my mom, and without any living parents, the fog feels like it is just barely beginning to lift. Things don’t feel as fuzzy and numb anymore, which is mostly a good thing, until the grief hits you like a ton of bricks — barreling straight at you, completely out of no where.
I’m here to tell you that every thing you’ve ever thought about grief is ten times more complicated than you’d ever imagine. Because I could muddle through the anniversary of my mom’s death ok, and her birthday a few weeks ago, but the week leading up to this Sunday has felt like I’ve been dragging that god damn heavy uhaul of grief behind me again.
Today is Easter, and for a lot of families, it’s a day of celebration and egg hunts and chocolate covered bunnies and big feasts. It used to be that for me. I hope someday it will be again.
But in the unpacking of my truck load of grief, I realized that Easter will always be the day that my mom told us that she was dying. And that is why I’ve had such an impossible time this year. Because the numbness of the first year has worn off and the wounds have set in. And it’s all I can feel.
I remember the frenzy of the morning, the hugs of my sisters and their partners, and my mom walking in, wearing a pale yellow sweater in only the way she could, her arms filled with three bouquets of purple and blue flowers for my sisters and I.
She was meticulous in the way she brought food, always artfully arranged and carefully packed in insulated bags and coolers — I was never sure how she packed her own car by herself because it usually took two or three of us to carry everything in once she arrived. Always about 20 minutes late, but with the best reactions once she came through the door, my home was instantly filled with her love the second she got here on that day. She held my cheeks in her hands and kissed me with a “hi baby”, and handed me a bottle of champagne to open.
I could hear the laughter and the chatter of my family in my living room as I began to grab glasses and orange juice out of the fridge. I remember my sister walking in as I popped the cork of the champage and saying to me, “did you know that mom had another CT scan?”. I hadn’t, but the stress of her cancer was something I had grown accostomed to by now. She had been battling it for years, and she was indescructible. I shrugged and poured extra bubbles for everyone.
We laughed and ate, and planted eggs out in the rain for my niece to hunt for. Everything seemed fine, until my mom asked to talk to just the sisters alone for a minute. I knew it had to be about the CT scan, but we had already known her cancer diagnosis and that the tumors had been small enough to not warrant surgical intervention.
She sat down and began talking. She said words like, “salvage chemotherapy” and “dying” and phrases like, “to try to give me a few more months”, and I remember leaning forward in my chair and staring at the hardwood floor, watching big droplets of silent tears collect in a puddle beneath me. I couldn’t look up, I couldn’t breathe, I just sat there… feeling the world narrow into this dark, swirling space of life that I couldn’t comprehend. We had already lost our Dad 7 years prior when we were all just barely escaping our teenage years, there was no way that our mom could now be dying too.
She put her hand on my arm, and I finally looked up at her. With tears in her eyes she said, “I don’t know how to leave you, my babies”. And all four of us sat there in silence for what was probably just minutes, but what seemed like hours — holding hands, tears streaming down our faces. I don’t remember the rest of the day. I don’t remember her leaving. I just know that nothing was ever the same after that. Life turned into chaos and hospitals and hospice and caretaking and bearing witness to the ugliest and most unimaginable sides of cancer. 8 months later, she was gone.
It’s been a year and four months without her, and 8 and a half years without my dad, and so begins the unpacking of years and years of messy, unorganized grief. And trying to find a way how both it and I can exist together —for the rest of my life.
Because grief doesn’t ever leave you.
It’s tricky and sneaky and gut punches you when you least expect it. It causes you to shave half of your head and have a difficult relationship with physical things, hoard house plants and cry a lot in the parking lots of grocery stores. It’s something I will forever have to explain to the people in my life and hope they can have enough compassion to try to understand it. It’s why my heart is heaviest at Easter, and I can’t eat large hard pretzels or listen to “What a wonderful world” without feeling like my chest is closing up. It’s responsible for at least a hundred other weird ticks and triggers that are unexplainable but make so much sense under the lens of grief. Losing both of my parents has shaped me into the woman I am today, both for better and for worse, and I’ll spend the rest of my life finding ways that I can both tame and honor the complicated grief that comes along with it.
So today, on another rainy Easter, my sisters and I will gather like we did two years ago, and hug each other and hide eggs for the (now two) nieces, drink champagne and laugh and eat, but not without feeling the big hole of where our parents should be. Their absense will always be undeniable, but how we fill the space that they left in their wake is how we heal; it’s how we carry them with us and honor them in our lives.
Today I unpack my grief and carry with me only what I can hold with one hand — a small bouquet of of yellow and violet flowers, just like the colors of my mom when she walked through the door on that day — - my other hand open to the sky and outstretched in hope.