Grief certainly is a mysterious thing. I thought I understood how grief progressed after I lost my father in 2003, but the course it has taken this time has been totally different and frankly, confounding. At first I believed that after the first 6 months, grief would finally begin to come to the surface and the tears would come. Two years later, the tears have been but a small measure; grief is manifesting itself in ways I never imagined.
I hardly shed a tear when my mother first died. I attributed that to being in “battle mode”; our family had worked day and night for the last six years to keep our mother comfortable and in her own home. She descended slowly into dementia and her body grew increasingly frail. The last eighteen months before her death were especially difficult, careening from one crisis to the next. When I hear of others going through this, I pause now before giving advice. There is no way to predict, or to prepare for what will happen, and acceptance comes only in the middle of it all.
My mother was an exceptional woman. Full of life and vigor, gifted with insatiable enthusiasm and curiosity, and blessed with a wonderful sense of humor, she could light up a room. In the 1930s she attended Walnut Hill College Preparatory School in Natick, MA (now a performing arts school), and then, like her two sisters before her, attended Wellesley College where she majored in botany. She often said that her Walnut Hill years were among the happiest in her life; I see that now so clearly reflected in her photo albums and yearbook.
My mother was also proud of her heritage and kept careful records; she was part of Breed family of Lynn, MA. Allen Breed is the first recorded family member in America, coming over in the 1630s; he helped found the city of Lynn. The Breeds have an active family association and several family plots at Pine Grove Cemetery in Lynn, with complete family trees dating back several generations.
Mommy loved the outdoors, especially flowers and birds, a heritage she received from her family. She also loved dogs and cats, her ‘Sox’ (the Red Sox), politics, reading and traveling. Her love of learning seemed to grow with every year she lived. She was curious about everyone and loved observing people, especially the neighbors!
She had a loud, animated voice which she used well in school productions, playing character roles in plays at Walnut Hill. In her later years, her voice sounded rather like a parrot. In fact, when she tried to sing “Ode to Joy” to my cousin’s parrot, he went nuts! He was totally in love.
Most of all, she was a devoted wife of 54 years to husband Herb, and loving mother to me and my older sister and brother. She was totally involved in our lives and intensely interested in everything we did. She offered such loving comfort when I was sick, sad or depressed. Mommy was my best friend and confidant. She would listen and offer advice, and she’d share deeply personal things from her life. I feel a connection to her that is like no other.
She was not a believer; in fact, she was totally hostile to talk about faith. She was terrified of dying and fought it, thrashing and moaning even at the end, although sedated and in a morphine haze.
After her heart rate became so irregular that it was not really fixable, the doctors suggested hospice and put her on morphine, discontinuing any food or fluids. It took five agonizing days for her to pass and I must confess that it felt like we’d pulled the plug. We had assumed she would pass quickly and never expected that she could live for so long without food or water. It was not a peaceful passing as she was very agitated. For her, that was par for the course.
I prayed for her all the time that she would come to know peace by knowing our Lord. In the ER, the nurse asked me if we wanted a priest. I said yes. It happened to be the one priest that I knew she’d be okay with, Fr. Giggi, who had given the last rites to my dad. He gave her last rites. But in the end, I knew ultimately it would be her decision whether or not to have faith in God. I kept kissing her and whispering in her ear as she lay dying that she needed to keep the door open because Someone was waiting for her on the other side, Someone who loved her very much. I asked her to trust me, that I was not delusional, that it was all true.
After she died, I asked God for a definitive sign to assure me that she was safe with Him in heaven. When my father had died, I kept seeing icons of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in places I didn’t expect, and since I had petitioned Our Lady of Perpetual Help, I took these sightings as a sign that my dad was okay. Instead of seeing Mary, I saw signs that were less definitive, requiring more faith on my part.
The first sign occurred at her funeral. She had wanted her service to be at the Unitarian Church despite the fact that she had not been active in the church since my father’s death in 2003. The service was held in the small chapel, filled with exquisite blue and purple flowers, carefully chosen according to my mother’s explicit wishes. It was standing room only.
Many family members participated in the service. My husband Rich, a deacon in the Catholic Melkite church, helped to preside and I sang her favorite hymn. My sister gave a beautiful eulogy, and then we asked others if they wanted to share. My brother-in-law got up to speak. He is a consummate storyteller and gave a most heartfelt, and at times, humorous eulogy, even choking up at points. He and my mother had had a complicated relationship but they loved each other dearly.
Then, neighbors got up and spoke. Everyone said such wonderful things. My poor mother, in her despair, anxiety and dementia, had felt she was unlovable. Not true! She was very well loved. After the service when the chapel was empty, I went up to the casket, kissed it and said, “I told you so! I told you were loved!” God graced me with a tremendous sense of joy that day; I never shed a tear.
At the cemetery it seemed that all of nature was blooming, and weeks ahead of schedule; the sky never so blue. A warm and gentle breeze filled the air with the sweet scent of freshly cut grass. As my husband read the prayers over the grave, a chipping sparrow sang in a tree right over his head.
All this I took as a sign that she was with God and thus okay.
I was graced with another sign a few weeks later in the form of a letter from McLean Hospital. My mother had asked that donations be sent to that hospital in lieu of flowers. I sent in my donation and wrote a letter explaining our connection with the hospital. They wrote back a lovely note and listed all the people that had donated. Immediately upon seeing that letter I heard the phrase in my head, “Love begets love.” My mother had loved well in her life and now she was meeting True Love for the first time.
Now, two years later, I’m still not shedding a lot of tears. But I visit the cemetery frequently and drive past the old homestead even though it’s been sold to a new family. My sister and I explored her family history, visiting the Breed family plot at Pine Grove Cemetery, and driving past her old home in Swampscott. I have lately been going through her family albums and school yearbooks and reading her diaries. I’m considering writing letters to her and my father.
Expressions of grief have come in many forms and always at unexpected moments. Tears can come in a sudden wave while watching a movie, passing as quickly as they came. The anticipation of her anniversary brings dread. Mother’s Day is the most difficult. Some of us still observe the family tradition of visiting Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge each Mother’s Day to observe the spring bird migration and gorgeous flowers. These outings are glorious but they make me feel lonely for her company.
When other family members move away, I feel the familiar pang of grief. This year in particular will be hard with our son moving to NY, our daughter moving out of the house, and my sister and her husband retiring to Alabama.
At the same time though, grief has been an amazing and transforming experience. I knew when my mother died that a large part of me would die with her. When it was announced that she would be going into hospice, I fought internally against it. My life was put on hold for 2 years after my father died and I didn’t want that to happen again, Or at least, I didn’t want to have to try to bring any of it back. I could feel a part of me literally being sucked out while my mother lay dying. I had no choice but to accept it.
Yet a funny thing happened when I did accept it – a new life rose up out of the ashes. My faith has grown deeper with a greater awareness of my need for Christ on a moment-to-moment basis. I have taken up reading for the first time since my childhood and find my thinking and general view of the world expanding. Reading has led to another childhood interest, writing, and as a result, my creative life is experiencing a renaissance. I’ve accepted the death of many things in my life and in turn have discovered joy and freedom as well as sadness. It reminds me of the scripture from John 12:24: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
I can’t help thinking that my mother is interceding for me in heaven. As one who was so curious about life and stimulated by learning, I know she’d be proud of my newfound love for these things. It’s hard not being able to share directly with her all the wonderful blessings I’ve experienced but I sense she knows anyway.
I miss Mommy terribly but she is not far away. My head and heart are full of her, and her genes are in my body. I know she is with God and I talk to her frequently. She has empowered me with her spirit and my life has gone through so many positive changes since she passed away. Ironically, I probably have the best sense of well-being that I’ve ever had in my 56 years. I only wish I could tell her in person but someday we will meet again. And she will be as beautiful and happy as she was in those Walnut Hill years, full of life and vigor, humor and love. I can hardly wait!
Copyright 2012 Susan Bailey