Beyond Sadness: Grieving the Difficult Relationship

Keri Lewis
Jun 12 · 6 min read

If you’ve ever lost someone, you know how it is to be always waiting for them to do that one annoying thing they always did.

You may have their ashes in a box on your nightstand. Maybe you even held their hand as they died. Hell, you were the one who, in the fog of grief, was asked about their funeral arrangements. You know in your mind and heart and soul that person’s spirit is floating around in the great beyond.

And yet…

you still expect a phone call

a text

a card in the mailbox

When it doesn’t happen, as you KNOW it won’t because you literally watched them die, the expectation retreats like a rare cloud into the stratosphere, waiting to drop down on your next birthday.

Looking at Facebook on Mother’s Day weekend was like digging into a bag of bonbons and instead of strawberry, you realize you’ve just popped lemon into your mouth. Bam! Your mouth puckers before your brain realizes what’s happening. Lemon should be in its own bag, clearly labeled, so you know what you’re getting yourself into. For every sweet birthday wish posted on my timeline, my eyes drew tangy tears over pictures of friends with their still-alive mothers.

Emptiness hung in my heart like the dusty outline of a stolen painting. My mom was gone, obviously. But it was more than a silent space where my mom’s phone call should have been: I was missing a relationship I never had.

A few weeks ago in therapy, I felt anger towards my mom. It wasn’t some kind of blind rage, or something I’ll add kindling to, but just a small, healthy flame. A fire just bright enough for me to see the both of us clearly.

I wasn’t aware that spark had been within me. My idea of rebellion as a child was having a messy room (which drove my neat-freak mom nuts). I was, for the most part, the people-pleaser. The happy child. The child who tried to not cause any problems.

I wanted to be a good daughter the way Charlie Brown wanted to kick the football, with similar results (falling on my ass). In all my years of phantom-football-kicking, I never felt anger.

Love and anger can co-exist. These emotions, while difficult to explain, are not an either/or selection. The anger doesn’t incinerate the love.

I still miss her.

My mom had this habit of calling extremely early on my birthday. Some years, her call would wake the entire house — dogs barking, groggy bodies lurching towards the phone. She wanted to be the first one to wish me happiness, even if it meant she was up at midnight or later in her time zone. Whenever I would say, “Mom, what are you doing up at this hour?” She would play it off, “Oh, I couldn’t sleep.”

She always sent cards on time, and her Christmas card was sure to arrive by Thanksgiving. She boasted to everyone about me. I know she loved me as much as she possibly could. But there was always a barrier. I was the pregnancy she tried to prevent (with three different contraceptive measures, as she told me). I was part of the reason she didn’t finish college (she also told me). She would say it was god’s will I was here not hers, as if that should somehow make me feel better about misdirecting the trajectory of her life.

These were deeply ingrained narratives, repeated throughout the course of my existence. People who knew her would say that was just her sense of humor, or I’m too sensitive. These were things she would also say. But even a trickle of water can carve a canyon, given enough time.

More than just a few phrases carved into my psyche, there was the fact that she didn’t confront serious issues. Though she had apologized for vaguely being “a bad mother,” (which she wasn’t totally), she never took responsibility for actions that drastically altered my childhood, and thus my adult life. It was this absence of personal responsibility that made me angry, and rightly so. She made some severely bad decisions, and instead of sweeping them into the dustbin, she covered them with a fancy rug. I tried brushing things into the open, but she couldn’t see the pile of grit that was there.

Yet, these things are in the past.

I am moving forward.

I’m not religious anymore, but one of Jesus’ quotes came to mind: “Let the dead bury the dead.”


I like this phrase.

Let the dead bury the dead.

Emotional/spiritual growth requires we stop trying to resuscitate corpses. Those past hurts will drag you down to the grave with them. They will keep you in those haunted places. You will be buried by them, your personal growth stunted and eventually suffocated. I am helpless to change the past, but I can bring light and air into the present.

I can pursue things that bring life to the parts of me long deprived of oxygen.

I have forgiven my mother, and I have acknowledged my own responsibilities and failures. I’m just trying to use these dull words to cut through the sticky layers of love and grief. If you ever had a complicated relationship with someone who died, you know how this type of grief feels— the good parts and the bad get all mushed together.

I’m angry with my mom, and I love her and miss her.

As Chaca said in the Emperor’s New Groove, “That seems like a pretty crucial conjunction.”

Anger and love. Simultaneously existing. Further mucking-up the opaque process of grieving.

Seeing photos of people with their moms on mother’s day made me miss what “might have been.” I know it’s pointless to miss potential. The might-have-beens will drive you to despair. It’s too late to change the reality of things. My solace lies in authoring alternate realities, where characters accept responsibility for their actions and build stable relationships out of the broken pieces.

Moreover, as a mother I can fling back the curtains in the family estate and open the windows to let the ghosts out. To do that means I need the courage to stumble through rooms I’ve allowed to stay dark. I have to let in the light, so I can repair the things I’ve broken.

My kids are young adults, but as long as I live and breathe, I can work on being a better parent, a better person. When they grieve for me, as they will eventually, I don’t want them left with “might-have-beens.” I want to give them the gift of a relationship that contains no regrets. I am striving to sweep the grit into the dustpan, show it to them and say, “This is what I’ve done. I’m sorry. And now I’m tossing it in the bin, so we can have a clean room.”

It is difficult and humbling, and sometimes it feels like I’m tidying up daily.

In the last hours she could speak, my mom told me she was sorry, though I don’t know exactly what she meant. She could have been apologizing for dying, as she hated to “be a bother” and wouldn’t want anyone to “make a fuss” over her. She might’ve been apologizing for “making” me travel last-minute during the holiday season from Germany to Iowa. Or, she could have been owning up to past hurts. There’s no way to know for certain, but it doesn’t matter. I accepted the token as recompense.

That final night when my mother turned and put her forehead against mine, I felt I made contact with the elusive football. But I’ll never really know. While I can love and forgive her, trust is something else. Trust takes time. And we didn’t have any time left. Maybe she genuinely held out her love for me. Or maybe she was just too weak to pull it away. It doesn’t matter. I’m the author, and I can write the ending any way I want. I choose forgivess. I choose love with a flicker of anger. This is the bittersweet final page.

My mom didn’t call annoyingly early on my birthday.

I didn’t talk to her on Mother’s Day.

There was no card in the mailbox nor will there be again. And yet, I will expect it. I will sift through the mail and look for her scrawled handwriting.

Some part of me will always be waiting for her call.

Her texts.

I will wait for her sarcasm, her jokes, her barbs, her love.

And they will not arrive.

The cloud of expectation will retreat high into the sky.

It will linger unnoticed above me until next year, when I find myself watching a phone that won’t ring.

And the complicated process of grieving returns.


Déjà you, but better.


Personal stories on health, relationships, and a holistic approach to happiness. Wholistique is about Growth not Change. We DO NOT want to fix You because You are not broken. We want to shift your perception of reality and to empower you with the proper tools to navigate life.

Keri Lewis

Written by

American expat in Germany, formerly conservative homeschool mom now navigating widowhood; runner, writer, Crossfitter, trying to figure **it out


Personal stories on health, relationships, and a holistic approach to happiness. Wholistique is about Growth not Change. We DO NOT want to fix You because You are not broken. We want to shift your perception of reality and to empower you with the proper tools to navigate life.