Letter to Myself in Mourning

Dear Myself in Mourning: I am writing to you from the future to say that it is worth living towards. I know it feels as though the world has relinquished all of its joy and purpose. I know life feels … Continue reading

Happiness Takes Courage

Happiness takes courage. You have to be brave to surrender to joy. When every molecule of your being has been mourning—when loss has permeated and ruptured your heart—you must be dauntless to pursue mirth. You must find great multitudes of … Continue reading

Mourning on Mother’s Day

On any given day, someone is rejoicing and someone is grieving. Mother’s Day is no different. There are mothers being pampered and others being mourned and remembered. It is a day, like so many, when we’re reminded of the intersections between the living and the dead. Within one generation there can be women who mourn while they are also being celebrated.

Mother’s Day makes me think about life and death. I grieve with those for whom this is another in a line of Mother’s Days without the child they want but cannot have, or without the child they had but lost. I also rejoice with those of you who are celebrating Mother’s Day as a mother (or an expectant mother) for the first time. Life is always a miracle, but for some that miracle comes after years of yearning, disappointment, and loss. Regardless of whether your road to motherhood was short or long or easy or arduous, your first Mother’s Day as a mother will be full of life and joy. Savor it.

For me, Mother’s Day will always have a component of mourning added to the celebration of life. I feel grateful for the mother who birthed and raised me. I am glad to be alive. I’m so thankful for the mother I had and the memories we shared, but I can’t celebrate Mother’s Day without some sadness or the wish that my mother could still be here.

My mother died more than a decade ago, but on Mother’s Day that loss feels especially fresh. And I know that I am not alone in my bereavement. Every Mother’s Day I think about those for whom it will be the first since their mother died. I remember the year of sad seasonal firsts after my mother passed away. The happier the occasion used to be, the more her absence rendered subsequent celebrations empty. For me, holidays were the hardest. Every milestone became a heavy burden to bear. Those first few years, when the loss was still a fresh cut to my heart, seeing everyone else’s joy felt like filling my wound with salt. For a while, all happiness was a reminder of what I’d lost.

There are a lot of people mourning on Mother’s Day. I know because of my experiences visiting the cemetery. There is always a traffic jam outside the entrance, and finding a parking spot is like discovering a bilingual, three-winged unicorn on the subway. I felt painfully self-conscious one year when I arrived to find a picnic occurring a few tombstones away. The family had lively music playing from an open car, lawn chairs, and a box of pizza. I didn’t begrudge their way of marking the day, but it was a distracting contradiction to my own. Now I try to avoid the cemetery on Mother’s Day. I don’t like to be there with a crowd. I like it to be quiet and private. I want it to feel like it’s just me and my love for her.

There are lots of emotions being experienced on Mother’s Day. Some have mothers; others have memories. For some it’s sad or complicated; for others it’s purely celebratory. Not everyone knew his or her mother—or liked her. Not everyone’s childhood provided healthy love and happy nostalgia.

But whatever you feel, whether good, bad, or mixed, know that someone else out there is in a similar emotional position. You’re not alone in feeling those feelings or thinking those thoughts. Whatever Mother’s Day is like for you, you’re not the only one.

 

Life in Death’s Wake

Some deaths force us to relearn how to live. When my mother first passed away, I felt that to maintain anything less than a state of perpetual sorrow for the rest of my life would be to dishonor her memory. But I also knew she’d want me to rediscover my joy. So then I spent years feeling guilty for wallowing and guilty for feeling happy. This week marks the twelfth anniversary of my mother’s death, and I am still figuring out how to bear my mourning for her.

I’ve had to let go of what I used to think mourning a loved one meant. I’ve had to make sure that I didn’t stop living on behalf of her death—because for a while, there, I stopped actively participating in my life. I put everything on pause internally while I waited for “the real me” to return to myself—the person I was before she died.

I was in a sad state. The pursuit of sanity was driving me crazy. Trying to seem stable while I was still emotionally raw and psychologically fragile was exhausting. I’d wake up every day and search the ceiling above my bed for a reason to get up. Keeping up appearances (and holding on to my job) became my only modicum of motivation. I’d go through the motions, but I was just a shell. Living felt like dying. I was suffocating in a world full of air. The simplest task—getting dressed, showering, or cooking a meal—felt like climbing a mountain. Any happiness I managed to scrounge up would quickly evaporate.

For me, mourning is like surviving a botched amputation. First there was pain—acute, debilitating pain. Then grief spread like gangrene—making everything dark and black. My mind would play tricks on me at first. I’d think I heard my mother calling my name or her key in the front door. I’d see a woman who, from a distance, looked like her. Time passed—months upon months—years—and those phantom sensations began to occur less and less.

I began to have moments of relief. Some light started to filter into the occasional day. Eventually I learned to manage (as opposed to faking it). I found emotional crutches and relational prostheses. It all took some getting used to, but it helped. Some days I felt like I might be able to regain my pre-loss self, but other days I was keenly aware of being incomplete—forever changed. On the worst days the wound felt fresh. Eventually I came to accept that my pre-loss self was now a mirage. Reclaiming who I once was is impossible. I’m a new version now.

My mother was an amazing woman. She spoke her mind with complete (and loving) honesty. She was beautiful and smart and funny. She had her imperfections, but she wore them flawlessly. Her eyes lit up when she smiled—eyes that looked like mine, but not squinty. Her faith humbled me. I marveled at her ability to spend hours in the “boring” chapters of the Bible. She knew how to splurge, save, and give generously. I miss her for a lifetime full of reasons.

I didn’t take a master class in mourning. I spent a lot of time failing and flailing and pulling away from the world. But I was fortunate to have some loved ones faithfully waiting in the wings for me until I emerged. Now I’m an emotional amputee; I’ve lost a loved one. I walk with a limp, but I can walk. Even though it pains me to admit it, life in the wake of my mother’s death is becoming the new normal. I am who I am because of and without her. I’ve stopped trying to figure out how different I’d be if she were still living. Her death forever changed my life’s trajectory, but her life affected me even more deeply.

Atheists & Death

While watching The Monuments Men the other day I entered a morbid stream of thought. Matt Damon’s character accidentally stepped onto a land mine. His comrades then tried to rig a system that would (hopefully) let him step off of it without causing an explosion. But just in case they were all about to be blown to smithereens, he wanted to make sure he told them what an honor it had been serving alongside them. And that got me thinking on a slightly off-topic tangent: What compels us to give the imminently dying (new) information? What about atheists? Do they think there’s anything a person facing death needs to know?

How is mortality viewed through the lens of atheism? (And not being one myself, I claim no authority of knowledge on the subject.) What do atheists think about when they think about the aftermath of death? If you believe nothing (literally) follows life, does it matter to you how you die? Does it matter if someone passes away alone or surrounded by loved ones? Does it matter if it’s painless or if it hurts? Is it important for dying people to know that they’re loved, that you’re sorry, or that “it” wasn’t their fault? And if yes, why so?

If you completely cease to be (think, feel, sense, remember) with your dying breath and final heartbeat, why should it matter if your last living moments are harrowing or pleasant? You can’t take it with you—not the sight of your loved ones gathered by your bed, not their professions of love, not your physical anguish, not even the fact that you’re still mad at whomever. If atheists believe death leads to absolutely nothing, does that differently color their view of living and dying? Is it hard to place value on something that will one day completely cease to be—even if that something is a human being?

Even as a Christian I sometimes wonder why I exist. I’m not sure I’d see my value as an atheist. Where would I find the meaning—the imperative—of life? I can think of only two main options. I could choose to live for myself and seek out all the world’s pleasures, but the minute I died it would all cease to be relevant. If I instead chose the altruistic route, I’d being doing good for people who were all going to die and become nothings too.

I’m not saying God and Heaven must be real because I find the alternative too bleak. (Although, if I do turn out to be wrong, I don’t see how it hurts me.) I simply believe. Sometimes I know God is real without being certain. Occasionally He feels like an imaginary friend that a bunch of us have in common. But even when I doubt, I find myself asking Him to help me believe. Even if my faith is sometimes shaky, its roots run deep.

Being a Christian doesn’t mean I’m completely calm about the hereafter. Sometimes the idea of eternity is enough to give me a panic attack—both the idea of an eternity of nothing and one spent in Heaven. If I sit with the idea of forever for too long, the air’s texture starts to change and I begin to wish I could momentarily turn my brain off.

Eternity is simply too big for me to comprehend—whether thinking about time going forwards or backwards. Sometimes when I’m half awake in the middle of the night the idea of forever fills my whole being with dread. I can only imagine what’s milling about in an atheist’s head—if I’m expecting an eternity in paradise and the idea of forever is still sometimes frightening to me.

My fears and doubts also make me wonder if atheists hope they’re wrong or want to be right. Because if all existence ends in a void—if death is to life what a black hole is to light, knowing that ahead of time doesn’t earn anyone a prize.

I can’t prove that God is real. I admit I even have my doubts. But I also can’t erase my belief—even if my faith is flawed. Sometimes I find myself hoping in more than believing in God. But my uncertainty doesn’t deplete my faith; it makes me pray for more.