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.

 

Lonely and Small

I watched her walk across the field from the school to her car. The grass beneath her feet was dying and the sky was getting dark. Despite her considerable height, she looked so vulnerable, lonely, and small—so exposed to the harsher elements of the world. Her back was to me, but her steps betrayed her sadness, and I could tell that she was cold. She walked as though she carried not just a bag filled with papers to grade, but a heavy heart and the weight of the world. She looked like a child lost in a busy mall—walking with uncertainty and just about to cry for her mother. I wanted to run to her, scoop her up in my arms, and embrace her with the promise that everything would be okay. I wanted to fix her world. I wanted to offer her more than knowing looks and sympathetic words.

She was almost halfway across the field now. If I dropped everything and sprinted I could catch up to her. But we had never been close. I had heard her story, as I’m sure she’d once heard mine, in bits and pieces and whispers. What a tragedy. Such a shame. The husband and both of the children. It’s a miracle she survived. Do you think she’ll sell the house? I know I couldn’t live there anymore.

I knew the pieces her world had shattered into—her loss an abstract reflection of my own. Her loved ones taken in a robbery turned violent, mine by a dark night and an icy road. We were both survivors trying to live in homes that were now too big for us—homes full of doors we dare not open and a silence that was way too loud. It would take a while for life to feel worth living again. Even happiness would be impossible to enjoy. Every smile and outburst of laughter would feel like a betrayal. Every iteration of sadness would draw from the same bottomless well. Reality would seem muted and hazy, like everything else in the world was on the other side of frosted glass.

A woman whose husband dies is a widow. A child whose parents die is an orphan. But what do you call someone who has lost both their children and spouse—save gravely unfortunate? That’s what we were. Two women shrouded in survivor’s guilt and covered with scars.

I finished tidying up my classroom and turned off the lights. The hallways of the school were dim and empty, but the building was abuzz with life. I could hear the whistles and cheers coming from the gymnasium—a basketball game against our rivals. I knew I should stop in and show my support, but large groups of happy people still made me feel like an imposter at life.

I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to drive. She lived close enough to the school, so I decided to walk by. Hers was the only house on the block not gratuitously adorned with Christmas lights. It was easy to find. I slowed my gait and tried to look inside. The house was dark. I saw no signs of her being inside.

I knocked. I rang the bell. I waited for the sound of approaching footsteps, but all was silent and still. I felt the dread start to rise from my stomach to my throat, but I denied it. She’s probably out running errands, buying groceries, or getting an oil change.

It was hard to turn my back on that house, walk back to the school, get into my car, and drive home. It was hard to eat dinner alone, sitting on a couch built to hold more than just one, looking at the television, but not really watching what was on. Should I go back? Should I call someone? What would I say? Is a bad feeling enough?

I knew the weight she was carrying—a weight that pressed her into bed each morning so that getting up required all of her energy and strength. I knew the pain she was enduring—pain that made her feel like she could drown while breathing in oxygen. I knew the questions that were filling her mind—the dark thoughts that could bleed the goodness out of life. So when she didn’t show up for work the next day, or the day after that, I was saddened, but not surprised.

Good Grief?

Disclaimer: I don’t believe in comparisons of loss. The spectrum is infinite. There will always be someone better and less well off (especially if you look closely). Similarly, what “slings and arrows” one person easily endures can just as easily for another cause mortal wounds. To say my losses have been greater or heavier or more devastating is to steal someone else’s right to sorrows of their own. If we both survive a car crash and you lose both legs, but I lose only one, am I not allowed to grieve my lesser loss in your presence? The weights of life that I can easily carry may be too heavy for you. And the puzzling events you easily comprehend I might find inscrutable. It is for these reasons that I try to (try to) avoid comparisons—in any venue.

I believe in a community of loss. I endorse cooperative compassion. I don’t claim to have endured more, lost more, or suffered more than anyone else. I won’t try to puff up or tone down what I have endured. What I will do is hope that my grief carries me to new territories of empathy. Every time my heart breaks, I hope it grows better equipped to love well those who mourn. At the end of the day, I believe that’s the best thing I can gain from loss—empathy and love.

Do I know how to grieve well? Probably not, but I do know that I need to grieve to be well. Is there such a thing as good grief? I don’t know, but I do believe that there is good to be found in all grieving.

I have known loss. One Sunday morning, as I sat savoring a pre-Church brunch of Indian food in Cambridge, my mother was having a brain aneurysm in New York. I almost didn’t answer the phone, and when I did, the words I heard took all my strength from me. The air turned to poison and, as if someone had ripped the bones from my body, I could barely stand. A new and foreign pain enveloped me; it coated my skin, took root, and invaded my bloodstream.

I tried to get to New York as fast as I could, but as I prepared to board the plane I got the worst phone call I’ve ever received—the one telling me not to go to the hospital, to just go home instead. I understood that imperative’s grim meaning. Sitting alone surrounded by strangers on a forty-minute flight, I had to come to terms with the fact that my mother was no longer among the living. In that moment, I forgot death’s meaning—its definition leaked out of my mind. The word no longer made sense to me—not now that it was how my mother would hereafter be described.

I had been expecting death, but it still caught me off guard—coming from an unexpected direction. For months I’d been looking for death to come by way of my grandfather. He’d been gravely ill for a while, and over the course of the previous year, my father, mother, brother, sister, and I had each made the trip to Grenada to see him one last time. But he didn’t die—not then—not even after the second time I went to see him for the last time.

Six months after my mother passed away, my father, sister, and I took a trip to Fort Lauderdale to visit family. The loss of my mother was still an open wound. I think we all secretly hoped a change of scenery would be soothing. And just as the sun was beginning to do its good work, death again caught us looking the wrong way, finally coming to claim my grandfather while we were all still fixed on my mother’s passing. Exactly six months apart (to the day), my siblings and I lost our mother and grandfather; our father lost his wife and father. Even as I mourned, I was awe-struck by the unique enormity of my father’s loss—spouse and parent within a year. Mourning is a heavy burden, but watching a loved one mourn is only negligibly lighter.

There have been material losses as well. I’ve been robbed. My childhood home has stuck its toe in the whirlpool of foreclosure at least once. And then, just two days after Christmas two years ago, my husband and I saw our apartment destroyed by a fire. As a result, I know what it is to stand in the cold, nearly knee-deep in snow, and watch as an inferno defies control. I have stood at the threshold of my own home and barely recognized it—such was the extent of the damage.

Having lost what I’ve lost, I can’t say that I’m any good at grief, or have any advice for the grieving. But I do think there is something to be gained through loss. And I do believe there is good to be found in grieving. It is as natural and necessary as the seasons. It is the fall and winter of our souls. Every life will be touched by death and loss. Each one of us will be called to mourn—to experience grief. Whether we lose a loved one or a limb, whether it is our possessions or our dreams that are taken, losses will come.

The question I ask is not whether or when I will mourn, but how my grief can change me. I can pave over my heart and try to make it impenetrable—immunizing myself to the tougher feelings like sadness and anger. Or I can let my heart be softened and opened—my grief making me more sensitive to the grief of others. And while I may not share anyone’s particular loss or unique experience of grief, I can join the community of mourners and hopefully be of service—even if by simply being present. That, in my opinion, is good grief—grief that attends to the grieving, loss that leads to giving, and death that gives life new (or renewed) purpose and meaning.

“I will not say, “Do not weep,” for not all tears are an evil.” ~ Tolkien