Coping with the loss of a loved one is an experience that is completely life-changing, especially when the relationship is very close. For me, losing my mother was one of the most life-changing experiences that I’ve ever endured.
My mom was my best friend, confidant, and cheerleader. She was the person I argued with, the person whom I went to for advice, and the person that I would check in with every day to see what she was doing and vice-versa. When I lost her to brain cancer my life took a very different turn.
According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in On Death and Dying, after losing a loved one, a person can go through various stages of grief. It is not an easy process, because the stages aren’t in order, nor do they follow any pattern. Shock, bargaining, anger, sadness, denial, depression, acceptance. At some point we all go through these stages, but the order is really unknown.
In the Beginning
When my mom died, my grief took on the role of Job Expert. I immediately set to work planning her funeral, organizing the food, planning the Mass procession, selecting the music and readings, picking out her outfit, and even deciding upon the location of her burial. My dad was in such a state of shock that I took it upon myself to get these tasks done, and in all honesty I probably wouldn’t have let anyone else do them. I even read her eulogy; afterwards, I was surprised at how many of my mom’s friends had commented, “Wow you’re so brave. I wouldn’t have had the strength to do that. You are such a strong person. You must get it from your mom.” While the compliments were comforting, I realized in that moment that I needed that task of keeping busy for what was about to hit me in the months to come. When the funeral was over, and the casseroles and phone calls stopped coming, that’s when the real job started: living without my mom.
To be quite honest, this was the first time anything so life-changing had ever happened to me. Sure, I had lost jobs, struggled with disappointments, and even endured other heartaches. Mom’s diagnosis began a two-year battle that I thought was so overwhelming. Yet I never prepared myself for what was to come. I don’t think I could have prepared myself.
The First Few Months
To be quite honest, I can’t even tell you what the first few months were like. Most of it was a blur. I had to return to work about a week and half after her funeral. I entered into my classroom and thanked my students for the flowers and the well wishes and all the support, but I was in such a blur that I put myself on autopilot. Come to find out, this is common for the first three months after losing someone. They call this a fog, because the brain is so filled with cortisol and adrenaline that it’s very common to forget who called or what took place, or process all the events going on around you.
I thought, “If I can get one good cry out, I’ll feel better and I can move on with my life.” I wanted to return to that place before her death and make everything the way it was before. I was organized, a planner, ready to move on to the next task. When my mom was sick, I was constantly keeping myself busy to avoid feeling any emotion of fear or sadness or pre-grief, as I liked to call it.
After she died, I could no longer avoid the pain that I was feeling, and my natural desire to plan events, teach, organize, and instruct went to the wayside. I literally found myself exhausted from even the smallest tasks. I was physically drained and tired from just about everything (again another common trait from grief) and yet I couldn’t sleep at night. I thought that I could “rush my grief along” because I still had to be a mother and a wife and also take care of my dad who was struggling with his own health issues. So I submerged myself in books on grief, I read Grieving With the Help of Your Catholic Faith, by Lorene Hanley-Duquin. I even joined the local hospice support groups. All were helpful, but I had no idea that this was not an escape that I could avoid. Academically I knew what I was experiencing and knew what I “should” be feeling, but emotionally and spiritually my life was taking a whole new direction.
Every time I would feel a little better, the sadness or the pain would return — and it would come in the most unexpected places. I remember being at a wedding and bursting into tears. Not because the wedding was more sentimental than any other, but because the depth of my grief and the realization of loving relationships around me hung heavier on my heart. That’s really what grief is: love with no place to go. Now when I hear that someone has passed and their loved ones are grief stricken, my own reaction is very different.
Midway through the first year
About halfway through I learned that grief was not a destination but really a journey. As I’ve heard, “you have to feel it in order to heal it.” I also learned that there was no timeline and there was no going back to the way things were before; that I might be on this path for as long as it takes. Some of my relatives were also in different places in their grief than I was. The interesting thing is that unlike many people in hard times, I never questioned why God took my mom. In fact I always had complete trust in Him. I trusted that my mom was in heaven. I knew that she no longer had to suffer, nor would she be in any pain. But that still didn’t change that I couldn’t see her, hear her, talk to her in the present. I realized that in order for me to move forward I had to put my faith in God that he would get me through this.
What I struggled with the most was my own purpose. This thinking, for me, came around months 6 and 7. What do I do now that she’s not here? What do I see myself doing now that’s she’s not the person to be my cheerleader? It felt like being an orphan. Even as an adult, I felt that not having her physical presence made feel less guided or directed. The irony is that my mom never really gave me profound words of wisdom; it was just her presence that gave me security. After her death I found the most safety in researching guardian angels, knowing that they were surrounding me and protecting me — specifically Archangel Michael. I even noticed little signs that would pop up, such feathers or “pennies from heaven.”
With my mom’s passing, I focused more on the meaning of life and finding purpose. I didn’t care as much about petty things or silly trivial arguments anymore. I was searching for something much bigger. Since my mom’s passing I have delved more into my prayer life. I have found comfort in the Rosary, in the simple act of daily prayer, in meditation, and in prayers to my guardian angels. Mary has played a huge role as I have sought her intercession. I’ve realized that this life on earth is truly a journey toward our true home. My mom’s passing opened me up to the fact that my journey has always been my journey and no one else’s. God placed my mother in my life to give me the tools of compassion, love, kindness, and forgiveness. Her actions in her life taught me how to live a God-filled life. Now it was my turn to use it.
In the past year I participated in a Bible study that explored the book of Genesis and the Garden of Eden. One particular section focused on Genesis 3:9; Adam had just eaten the forbidden fruit and God asked Adam to where he was in the Garden. Ironically God already knew where Adam was, because He’s God. He knows exactly where we are at all times. But he wanted Adam to call on Him; He wanted Adam to share the condition of his soul. Where was Adam in his walk with God? In that passage I recognized that I had been trying to walk this journey by myself. I was trying to do God’s job and do all the work on my own. God wanted me to rely on Him, to go to Him for comfort and to reach out to Him in my agony. Where was I with God? When I finally started to rely on Him, I found more peace. When I tried to figure it out on my own I found that I was less aware. With God all things were and are possible.
Closing Out the First Year
So where does that leave me now? My grief hasn’t ended. I still miss her greatly, but as many can agree, after the first year the grief is easier to work through. I allow myself to cry when I need to. I can now have a conversation without completely crying (completely), my prayer life has grown tremendously, and I find ways to honor her every day.
I’ve come to accept that where I was before can never be because my mom was part of that. My life now has to be centered on my own changes. I have delved into writing and journaling. As a mother, I have focused on my children and the legacy my mom left me, and what memories I want to cherish with them.
I leave with you these questions to ponder if you are struggling with the loss of a loved one. What is your purpose in life? Where are you on your journey toward healing? And where do you let God fit into help you with that?
Here are some tips on dealing with grief. Keep in mind there are many ways to approach it and I’m not an expert. I’m merely listing the ones that worked for me.
- Grief is messy; it will never be easy. When you suppress it, it will pop up in the most unexpected places.
- You will never be the same person because your life no longer has your loved one in it. But it doesn’t mean life can’t be joyous either. Finding a new purpose can be a struggle, but it can be done.
- Being emotional does not mean being weak. It means you have so much love inside that it’s bursting at the seams with no place to go.
- Some days require a true effort to get out of bed. (This sounds like such a cliché but when it actually happens it’s so unbearable.) It’s okay to not feel great all the time, and it’s okay to have moments where you just need to cry, to stay in bed. The true challenge is to not stay there forever.
- Grief has such a huge impact. Those feelings will not go away immediately, but learning to trust that you will be okay has many blessings.
- Everyone grieves differently. My grief for my mom is not the same as someone else’s grief for their mom. The way I grieve is different from the way my relatives do. Some will cry; some will never speak of it; others will keep busy. Grief is a new survival method and everyone will do it differently. There’s no right way.
- Ask for God’s comfort and guidance. He will put the right people and the right situations to help you get to a better place for healing.
Copyright 2019 Andrea Bear