A Hierarchy of Loss
I had the worst week of my life and this is what I learned about loss and grieving.
First comes the email from my daughter. She isn’t doing well. She doesn’t want my help, input, love or interference. All she wants is to be left alone. All I want is to help. Yet I realize that this time she means it. I’m part of the problem. I have no choice but to give her space.
I’m not good at pulling away. Not from anyone. Not from my child. I know that mother-daughter relationships can be complicated. There’s no other connection that starts out so incredibly close only to demand space and then, if one is lucky, settle somewhere in the middle towards the end. I’m a daughter. I’m a mother. I know the pain that comes from breaking free. Now I also know the pain it causes.
I call my mother to tell her how hard it is to let go. I cry. She cries. She knows the pain all too well. I was not an easy daughter. I was not an easy child to raise because I was a daughter. My three brothers were less complicated. Sons don’t hold up mirrors to a mother’s soul.
Part of me wonders if mom now feels like I got what I deserve. I tried so hard to parent differently and yet here I am. It’s the ultimate sorrow. The ultimate humiliation.
Five days later, there’s the phone call. I stay up late the night before. My master’s thesis is due. I tell myself I can get it done. I want to reconstruct and repair the damaged person I’ve become.
So I turn restless nights into writing hours. At two-thirty I decide to give sleep a try. Not being the quiet type I don’t want to wake my husband with my fumbling, my pulling the covers, my twisting, and turning. Instead, I head for the spare bedroom where the just acquired rescue dog welcomes my company. With the tiny puppy close, I feel myself drifting off to sleep.
Three hours later I awake to the sound of the phone ringing in the other room. Convinced I’m still dreaming, I don’t even attempt to get up to answer. I hear my husband’s voice and his footsteps getting closer. He enters the room and turns on the light. He is wearing nothing but pajama pants. I have to buy him new ones. His are faded and the elastic is stretched. He hands me the phone. My mother is dead. Dead? Dead. Gone, just like that? Just like that.
Within the span of less than a week two relationships are gone. One forever. The other lost indefinitely. With them, the person I thought I was vanished. The way I view myself is altered to the point where I no longer recognize myself in the mirror. Soulless eyes. Lips contorted. Sorrow, guilt, sadness generate pain so physical and so total it almost knocks me over.
For the first few seconds of each new day, everything is still the way it used to be. Until I’m fully awake and realize my life has changed. Then I cry. Morning, noon, and night I cry. Tears fog up my sunglasses. Tears fall in my soup. Tears land on my puppy’s soft fur. Tears on my husband’s shoulder, on my pillow, in the shower. How many tears can one human create? Until now, I never had to wonder.
There should be a hierarchy of loss. A system covering who has the right to leave, when, and in what order. Take a number. Or even better: fill out an application and wait for approval. There should be some sort of protocol at least.
Loss would be a bit easier to digest if it happened in some sort of organized fashion. Start off with the lesser attachments for mourners in training. The loss of small guppies is hard enough to deal with. Start with those and then slowly move towards friends moving away, friendships dying out, divorce, and the death of beloved four-legged pets and beloved people.
If there was a hierarchy of loss, my mother’s demise would be towards the top. We found our groove at last. It all started with me changing my perception — with me changing my expectations. Power struggles turned into acceptance. Acceptance turned into appreciation. Appreciation transformed into love. Plain, simple love.
It’s not like I expected my mother to outlive me. I just didn’t think she would die so suddenly. I wanted her around for just a little bit longer. Long enough for me to say goodbye. Goodbye, I’m sorry, and thank you.
And children, what happens when they make the decision to leave? Still around but not reachable. Was there a hierarchy of loss, this sort would be at the very top. Loss only experienced in very rare circumstances. Or so I thought until it happened to me. Until I realized I was far from the only one with this experience. I wish I was the only one. This pain should be quarantined. I spend endless hours going through memories. The exercise brings on more pain but I analyze my actions, steps, failures. I don’t stop until my thoughts teeter between reality and imagination. Until I tell myself that, of course she had to leave. How could she not? I would leave me too.
Wondering if this is the beginning of some sort of mass exodus, I become hypersensitive. Who’s next? Will my other children leave too? How about my husband? A single unanswered text becomes enough to trigger thoughts of further abandonment. My oldest child hears my exaggerated excitement when she calls. I tell her how happy I am to hear her voice. She asks if I’ve forgotten who I am.
Maybe my daughter felt she had no choice. If so, I wish she too could have waited just a tiny bit longer. Long enough for us to sit side by side. Long enough for me to see her beautiful face. Long enough for me to tell her I love her and beg her not to get used to a life without me in it.
Loss alters personalities. Loss lacks logic. It breeds irrational thoughts. There’s no scale to loss. There’s no hierarchy. If one exists, I was dropped off at the top of the pyramid that one week in November.
I don’t have the power or ability to problem-solve my way out of these experiences. I stumble. At times I don’t even attempt to brace the fall. Sometimes I wish for a soft landing. Other times I hope to land hard and that the impact will bring pain. Pain that matches the way I feel.
I think of all the times I was told there’s a meaning for everything in life. Maybe it’s a comforting concept but I don’t buy it. The thought that powers above would dish out tragic events with some sort of hidden clue or a secret map with the answer to why it happens seems absurd to me. Like there would be some master plan behind the death of a child, a natural disaster or an accident. No, people die. Many die long before their time. Long before they give the love they have. Long before they receive the love they deserve. People leave. Disaster strikes. For no reason. Period.
But I do search for lessons. All this pain might lead to insight and wisdom. Desperate I look for a new way to deal with my all-consuming reality. I strive to reframe my situation — to pull the lens back far enough in order to see things from a different angle.
Loss, I tell myself, somehow assumes ownership of some kind. Ownership and maybe even greed. Instead of feeling sad over what I no longer have, can I practice being thankful for the many years I had with these women? Sure, I can try but to be honest, I want more of what these women gave me.
What if I view my mother and daughter as honored guests in my life? Guests still with me — just in different forms? Somehow that thought soothes me.
I can still see my daughter laying on the counter in the kitchen — her head resting on a pile of washed, unfolded, wrinkled clothes. Until the day she left for college, she used to lay like that, telling me about life while she watched me cook. The pile of laundry that started out as an annoying unfinished task soon became something deliberately left there just for her. Nowadays the counter is mostly clean and laundry is just laundry.
I see my mother’s embroidered linens in my closet. Untouched, starched, ironed, folded, and wrinkle-free. Mom would never leave piles of laundry in the kitchen. In my dreams I hear her calling my name. In my dreams I go to her. We laugh. We talk. I ask her if she’s still with me after all. She never answers.
My mother’s warm voice. My daughter’s infectious laughter. I hear them when the house is quiet and my mind is still. I realize that these women belonged with me but not to me. Thoughts of them slowly begin to warm my heart.