It was this time of year, exactly eight years ago that my world and the world of my family was falling to pieces. The fearless leader of our family circle was dropping from the center. Lung cancer had arrived like a grim reaper on a schedule only it knew it was keeping. It was here to whisk my mother from the earth and try to eradicate the light she had become for the hundreds of people that knew her and loved her.
While we worked hard to insulate ourselves and her from an outside world that wanted to know every brutal detail of what was happening, my mother, Paula, was making mental preparations to quietly transition herself from a world she knew to one she did not.
So lost in our own impending grief, myself included, I felt every moment of panic as her condition accelerated from bad to worse to eventual hospice. Two months. We had her for two months counting from the moment the words “Stage 4 lung cancer…” rang in the air like a siren of despair to the moment in November when she flew from a body that was no longer serving her.
And then, in exchange for a person that was my world, a woman that taught me to have faith, to try to trust, to be independent, to accept my intuition as a gift and not a curse…a woman that felt more like my sister than a mother…in exchange for all the light she was, I was left with a headstone and a bag full of empty belongings. As a result of this new reality, I wore an anchor of grief so heavy that it had me wondering if it wasn’t just best to drive my car into a telephone pole so I could be free of my own pain.
Yes. I felt it. I thought about it. But I didn’t do it. The unbearable pain of loss is something that I thought I was prepared for, but I was not. It was a noose waiting to tighten every time a flash of memory hit me. It was a tidal wave of emotion drowning me at any moment. Even now, eight years later, driving to work this morning, remembering what I’m sharing here, it feels as if I’m being suffocated by grief. Even still. Even now. Eight years later.
What I’ve learned is that grief is a visitor that never totally moves out and on. Time softens the blow, allows you to reflect from a distance, but when it wants to seize you, it can and it does.
So how do I make peace with grief? The thing about the passage of time is we gain clarity. My mother was a very spiritual woman that taught me life has lessons. Losing my mother was a lesson in learning how to live. I know the irony might sting, but it is the truth. I want to share a few helpful insights on how I’ve found my peace:
- Therapy. In the months immediately following the loss of my mother, that moment where I started to believe physical pain would help override the mental and emotional pain, I immediately told my primary doctor and he recommended grief counseling. I beg those of you that feel shame in therapy to understand its value. Yes, we can lean on our partners, our other family members, our friends, in times of grief but there is nothing quite as freeing as walking into a room for an hour and letting every ounce of pain out. Letting it out without judgment or worry but just allowing those words to fly from your heart and your head. To cry every tear you have and walk away with a little bit of the weight lifted. I was in grief counseling for approximately two months. I solidly believe it helped lay the foundation for the clarity I’m able to possess now.
- Memory. Memories can bring pain, but they can bring joy. They can bring celebration. When we lose someone, we tend to recount the painful last moments (if this is how they passed) much more than the years of light, love, and laughter they brought to our world. No matter how they may have left us, the point is to dig deep for happiness, for the spirit of who they were and hold on to it. When tidal waves of tears hit my eyes the thing that saves me is the memory of the funny little dance my mom would do in the kitchen, or how she would always make huge ice cream sundaes, or how we would laugh over the year she swore someone stole the pot roast from my stepdad’s birthday party. THOSE moments nearly halt the tears or at least transform them from sorrow to joy. There is strength in memory.
- Lesson. This is different for everyone and unique to your experience of loss. In my case, my mother was a stunning woman that was always concerned with losing her youth to the years she was earning on this planet. She was also a 2–3 pack a day smoker who had lost her own father for the same reasons I would eventually lose her. Right before her passing, she told me repeatedly “The outside doesn’t matter if you are not caring for the inside.” It was an awakening she had too late for herself, but not for others she loved and cared for. So that became MY lesson. I vowed to care for my body, inside out. To try not to become consumed by the reflection I see each morning but to instead understand her message. To understand growing older truly is a privilege. My mother, Paula, passed away at age 60. She still had many incredible years of laughter and life ahead of her, but that wasn’t the path for her. But it is mine and I will walk it for her, in memory of her. I have vowed to not dissolve into misery and surrender to ego because I’m growing older. Instead, I work to celebrate it each morning. That is my lesson.
- Stories. Never stop telling the stories of who they were, what they did, how they changed your world. By telling the story of the person you love (I do not use past tenses, my love for my mother is still quite present), the life they had still carries on in some other way and can continue to touch people that may have never known them. I have many dear friends that often say “I wish I had known your mother. She sounds so amazing.” Present tense. And in that way, she is with me, with all of us because the story of who she was is just as relevant whether she is here beside me physically or spiritually.
These are my ways of making peace with grief. It does not fade away or release me, but I’ve learned how to be in the same room with it. I’ve learned to transform its power from a negative to a positive. Grief is simply my quiet, constant companion that reminds me of just how incredible my mother, Paula Andrea, was to me and to those that knew her.