It has been three years since the death of my mother. On my 21st birthday, my mom told me this was a huge birthday, that it was a big deal and that this was going to be quite a year. Just two and a half months later, I found out that year would be the biggest and hardest year of my life. I would never again receive another handwritten birthday card from her or hear her exuberant voice wish me happy birthday. Little did my mother know, she would not see me turn 22.
For the last 3 years I have lived on the fine line between hope and panic. While my friends were concerned about their last year of college and graduation and entering the real world, I was consumed by so much more. Others had mentioned to me long before my mom died that one’s early twenties can be a challenge. There is a lot of newness to navigate. However, having to navigate the real world while suddenly grieving for the most important person in your life can be way too much to handle. The financial stress of borrowing money from family members just to get by and choosing to work despite my emotional state combined with the tragic grief was a recipe for many epic meltdowns.
I am learning that losing a parent inspires a level of identity crisis. The people who have felt that loss may deny that or argue my point, but it is not enough to say the world isn’t the same place. It is not enough to claim this is a big loss. No matter how old you are, you will never be that child again. No matter how old you are, this is the time when you grow up, when you decide what is important. There isn’t enough mental energy to contemplate your options or decisions in the time when the grief is fogging everything around you. I found there was less of an inner dialogue about individual choices, I would just make a snap decision, and move from one to the next quickly. My body and mind were so exhausted, I didn’t have time to process things. I made decisions abruptly, feeling the need to just get things done. I didn’t feel as though I had the time or energy to contemplate what the smartest thing to do was. I was in the middle of a lot of transitions already when my mom died so everything ended up much more exaggerated than it could have been if I was in a more stable place.
Sometimes I think grief forces people to make the most honest choices they can. Some choices to move or to end relationships may seem rash or extreme to those not experiencing the loss themselves. In the grief fog there is a level of tolerance and politeness that decreases. You find that you have to take care of yourself before you can really consider how to take care of those around you. I think if given the right amount of support in the most gentle of ways, the people who are experiencing a loss can be relieved of some decision making and make the changes necessary in an environment that isn’t so judgmental.
After my mom died, I felt a lot of pressure coming at me from various people about how I should act and what I should feel. I was told by a close family member just 3 months after my mom died that I was being lazy and that I wasn’t doing enough to take care of myself and my financial situation. It felt so insulting to hear from someone that I wasn’t doing enough to take care of myself when that was the most important thing I was trying to do. I began a part time job despite how emotionally and physically sick I felt. I was eating, sleeping, going grocery shopping despite my lack of appetite, walking the dog, and attempting to take a couple classes. It felt preposterous that this person was telling me I wasn’t doing enough.
In the last 3 years, I feel that I have grown up. I know there is so much more to that than uttering those words, and that perhaps no one ever really grows up. But I have learned what it means to be an adult and how much that royally sucks most days. I have learned what it means to take responsibility for your actions and I have learned just how painful it is when some people don’t do the same. After my mom died, I found myself on the phone with lawyers, negotiating compromises with family members, organizing people to help move my mother’s belongings out of her house after another family member had destroyed some of it. I never thought I would have to be so much of an adult at 21, and feel as though the actual adults in my life were melting away into their sorrows, refusing to be in reality.
I have learned who the important people are in my life, many whom I never could have expected. One person in particular was a teacher I worked with as a teacher’s assistant. She had just lost someone close to her too and we seemed to balance each other out and support one another as we faced our grief and a room full of rambunctious teenagers. I have learned that loss can be accompanied by more loss. It is not just my mother I have lost. I have lost friends that were once close, family members I assumed would always be close, even bits of myself I never thought would disappear. I have learned just how strong I am, what I can tolerate, and what I can’t.
Something else I have learned is that it really is the people inside the house that make it home. My mother’s house was always a source of comfort to me growing up. Throughout my teenage angst and worries, I always felt like that house was a safe haven. During the holidays it was the home base for gatherings and in the summer the backyard was a wonderful backdrop for birthday parties, dinners and Sunday brunches. My mother’s baking filled the kitchen with warm comfort and the smell of the redwood always made me feel protected. But when my mom died, all of that vanished. The house felt empty, and all the love inside that once kept it warm was sucked out into the cold vacuum of grief. The house I believed would always be my home has become just another empty vessel no longer holding all that happiness that once existed there. The house my mother told me I could always go back to is now something else on the long list of losses.
It has taken me a long time to feel hope again, but I do feel it now. Most of the financial stress situations have changed and I feel more independent than I ever have before. It took a lot of hard work, and many moments of almost giving up, but I got myself to a stable place. I take a lot of pride in knowing that I accomplished that, even though I secretly believed I might not have been able to. I feel hopeful when I see how much this experience has shaped how I have relationships with people now and in the future. The boundaries I am able to set and my motivation to rid my life of the toxic people.
I feel hope when I learn new things about my mom and see how alike we are. One way in particular is the way decisions are made. There can be a long period of processing and contemplating, but once the decision is made, it is final and there is no going back. This is something I always admired in my mom, and it comforts me to find this trait, this strength, in my own heart as well. I feel hope when I can feel a mixture of happiness and sadness when I think of her, see a picture of her or hear her voice, instead of just feeling weighed down by the devastation.
While living on the fine line between hope and panic, I have felt emotions to a depth I never had before. The rage boiled inside me as the sadness twisted itself into knots, tightening around my organs. And now the hope is stronger too. Slowly, it has built within me, and shines out at the most wonderful moments. A few friends that I have been close to all my life are now people I know I can trust to say anything to, to be anyone to. In the time I have lived without my mom, I am really recognizing who I am separate from who everyone has always told me I am. From this terrible situation, I have discovered a strength and calm that I know would make my mom so proud. I know what I am capable of handling. I know what my limits are. I know that I have the power to say yes or no to situations that I am presented with. And that in itself can be such a relief, to simply know that these choices are mine to make.
Things feel different now but not all the time. Purple flowers still make me smile and Yiddish words still make me think of her. The rage isn’t constant anymore and the sadness chooses which days to make its presence known. The sweet memories are slowly overtaking the painful ones. And yet one thing never changes; I still miss her every single day.
Special thanks to Camila Martin for sharing this piece with us. Camila writes about life after the loss of her mother, and is a proud member of The Dougy Center young adult support group.