Grief is the Word
The thing about losing my Mom…
We all know there are stages of grief: Denial. Crying. Eating. Anger. Rage. Freak Out. Bargaining. Drinking. Begging. Pleading. Sex with strangers. Reluctant Acceptance. Acceptance. But these don’t tell you the whole story. You actually have to go through an entire reprogramming of your brain. I mean, I’d had a mother every day all day long for 35 years. Suddenly I didn’t. Logically, I understood. She’d had cancer, she got sick. She’s gone. Got it. But now, she’s just gone? How is that possible? How is my mother never to return?
Mom got diagnosed in 2000. She called me from Texas at my new job in San Francisco. She’d never called me at work, ever. She said, “Well, I have cancer.” Like that. Who does that? She just didn’t see the point of beating around the bush. I was thinking plane ticket. I asked if she was going to have an operation, chemo, what was going to happen? She said that she and Dad were going to have a bowl of soup, then head to the hospital.
Record scratch. What?
“You’re calling me on the way to the hospital?”
“No, I said we were going to have a bowl of soup!”
And that’s my mom. Don’t bother Laura with my cancer. Years before, she’d had a complication from anesthesia on an out-patient eye tuck procedure and got a blood clot on her brain. No one in the family even called me. I was three hours away in Austin. Finally, her best friend called, “Laura, I don’t know if your dad told you, but your mom has a blood clot on her brain. It’s fine, don’t worry yourself, just wanted you to know.”
It’s fine? Is that a Texas thing? Of course I worried myself. Of course I hopped in the car and went to see her. She was a big reader and my dad and brother had gotten her some books. SHE HAD A BLOOD CLOT ON HER BRAIN. I got her books on tape.
But this was worse. This was cancer. Her mom died from it. Everybody seems to die from it. I didn’t want her to die from it. But she was going to die from it.
She had three rounds of chemo over five years. The first one made her feel sick and lose her hair, but when she came out of it she joined Jenny Craig and lost seventy pounds. After the second round a year and a half later, she joined Curves. She wanted to live, and live well.
She did what she could to be healthy and kept enjoying her friends and her life. I mentioned her being sick to a friend who asked me what kind of cancer it was. I didn’t know. I asked my mom. She said, “Oh, who knows?” It was ovarian. I cautiously mentioned support groups to my mom. She said, “This cancer has taken enough of my life, I’m not going to give it any more time by sitting around talking about it. I do what the doctors tell me and forget about it.”
In 2005 she was having her last session in her third round of chemo. She came home and couldn’t breathe. Her lungs were filling with fluid. She was too tired to walk across the room. This was the woman, who when I called months before and asked what she was up to that day, she said, “Oh, going to Curves, then chemo, then the grocery store to get some potatoes to go with the chicken.” Now she can’t walk across a room. I was miles away in LA at the time. Dad called. Dad had never called me, ever. He said mom was sick, back in the hospital, in ICU, and he was just letting me know. Oh. I asked if I needed to come home. He said to wait till morning, maybe it’d take a turn. It did.
She wasn’t dying, she’d contracted Congestive Heart Failure from the chemo. Apparently it’s common, and you can live with it, like Diabetes. You stop eating salt and a few other things and you’re fine.
A week and a half later, Dad called me for the second time in my life. Mom was in the hospital again. Should I come home? Again, I got the wait till morning thing. But something wasn’t right.
I experienced that a lot around my mother’s death. You know things. Maybe when you’re close with someone who’s about to enter the spirit realm, you somehow get more connected to the spirit realm. I don’t know, but I do know that I knew.
I called my best friend. Her mom and my mom are best friends. I asked what the deal was. She said it was bad. Fuck it, I called her mom. Verna, the same one who’d told me about my mom’s brain blood clot. I’d never called her, ever. She said it was bad, “Laura, that little light in her eyes is gone.” Oh, god. Has a sadder sentence ever been said?
I called the airline to see what to do if I needed an emergency ticket the next day. I cried. I slept. When I woke up, I had a message, “Come home.” I ran to work, grabbed my laptop, and hopped on a plane, bracing myself for a bad weekend. But we’d get mom home, and it’d be a drag, but it’d be all right. Right?
Three things. I don’t know how to say this, because I haven’t experienced such a thing before or since, but when I was at the airport, about to board the plane, I felt my mom. I was wearing a denim shirt similar to one I’d gotten her. First I felt her in my shirt, then I felt she was around me, kind of up in the air. And I felt her saying she needed to go. And I felt myself thinking to her that she should go if she needs to. And I wouldn’t argue it with a skeptic, but that’s what I felt. As if my mom had astral projected to me to make sure I was okay.
Second thing. I fell asleep on the plane and dreamt my mom was dead.
Third thing. I talked to the woman next to me. Her grandmother had had congestive heart failure and she told me all about it. She was very sweet and comforting. As we were about to unload off the plane, she touched my arm. “What’s your mom’s name?” “Carole,” I said. And then, in a voice that sounded somewhat otherworldly, she said, “Carole’s gonna be fine.” And not for a second did I take that to mean alive-fine. I don’t know how else to explain it, it felt to me like an angel or spirit was speaking through this woman saying mom will be fine, like, in the ultimate sense.
Another best friend of Mom’s, Norma, the former school nurse who lived down the street and who took her to every chemo, picked me up. We were driving to the hospital, making chit-chat as best we could, when she got a call. Her end was something like, “I’ve got Laura and we’re on our way. Oh. Okay, well, we’ll see you in a minute.”
And I knew. I didn’t ask. She didn’t tell. But I knew that was the death call. And this wasn’t in any preternatural way, this was just common sense. You could hear it in her voice. We got to the hospital, Norma turned around with tears in her eyes and said, “She’s gone. I’m so sorry.”
It wasn’t congestive heart failure after all. She’d gotten a viral infection that attacks the heart, looks like CHF, but takes you out very quickly.
I went upstairs in a daze and found my Dad. He and my brother walked me into a room where my mom had just died about ten minutes before. Just about as I was landing. As if she waited till I landed safely, but didn’t want me to actually see her die. And I don’t know that you get choices like that, but I believe if she’d had a choice, that would have been it.
Dad and I went home. A message on the phone said mom’s wine was ready to be picked up. That’s so my mom, having a special order of wine, even when she was dead. I grabbed her phone book and started calling. Mom had a lot of friends. Friends from childhood, college, teaching, church. And that’s when the grieving process began for me. I told people over and over, for hours that my mom was dead. I just kept saying it, and how it happened. And I wouldn’t wish that task on anyone, but I don’t know how else I could have processed it.
My mom was dead. And dealing with that became a near full-time job for me. Grief is serious. A friend lost both of her parents within a year and didn’t grieve, then got hit with Viral Meningitis, she claims, from keeping it all inside. I remembered, “Feel your feelings.” And I did. When I felt a cry come on, I let it happen. Driving, eating, in line at Target—whatever. My brain had to get that she was gone. Gone gone.
My brain understood mom being at the store, so that’s what it felt like for a while. Yes, we’re getting rid of her clothes and clearing out her stuff, but she’s at the store. She’s with a friend. She’s at church. She’s down the hall in the restroom. My mind kept imagining she was just elsewhere. That’s all my mind could do. I had to ease into the “gone” part, I guess.
What surprised me most about grief was the surprise. I was constantly surprised that my mom was dead. It was consistently news to me. Logically, I knew. But it took time to really, really know. For a while, I’d wake up crying. I’d wake up like any other time, then it’d hit me, “Oh another day—My mom’s dead—What?—Yes, dead! Oh, god,” and cry. Or, I’d be at Target, I’d see a necklace, “Mom would really like that—But she’s dead—She’s what?—Dead! Oh, god!” And I’d be off again. That’s why the first year is the hardest, it’s 365 new days that you’ve never had without your loved one. Your birthday, their birthday, Christmas, Valentine’s. Or what I found the hardest: just days. Just a Saturday and you’re driving and you want to call. Just to say hi. And you can’t. You can’t call just to say hi. And it seeps in more and more. So very, awfully slowly. Just that. You can never again just call to say hi to your mom.
And I know, you can “pray” or talk to the sky, write a letter and never send it, but fuck that. That’s the hardest part for me. Not the big stuff. At Christmas, it kind of just feels like mom is in another room in a way. Birthdays were often forgotten anyway, that’s not too big a deal. But the little things. I do see necklaces she’d like and have to remind myself that she’s gone. Still. Gone today and gone tomorrow.
That’s the pain of grief, reminders. It’s confusing. It’s stark new information. It’s unwanted. But it has to sink in: My mom was alive and now she’s dead. And when it does, that’s acceptance.
It’s been two years now, almost exactly. I kept a journal of the first year. It helped to write it out. There’s a lot of swearing.
There are things people don’t tell you about grief. All I had a sense about was, “I guess you’re sad and cry a lot.” Some people have good-bye dreams where they get to have those last words with a loved one. Or they feel their loved one in the room with them from time to time. I never had that. Know what I did get? Effing Hall and Oates “She’s Gone” stuck in my head.
She's Gone Oh I, Oh I'd
better learn how to face it
She's Gone Oh I, Oh I'd
pay the devil to replace her
She's Gone what went wrong?
Like I needed that on top of everything else. Wasn’t I suffering enough? I’d explain to my brain the song isn’t even about dying, it’s about a break-up, but she just wasn’t having it. I’d innocently think, “She’s gone,” and we were off.
Maybe grief is new to you. If so, I’m glad it’s not commonplace for you. Secondly, here’s some advice.
First. Feel your feelings, seriously. So simple, but not always easy. Sometimes instinct says to ignore our feelings. Don’t. I never denied my grief. I cried through every “my mom is dead call.” It took to about Person Number 77, before I could say it without breaking down. I cried at the shoe store buying shoes for her funeral. I cried in Kohl’s. I cried in the car. I pulled over if I had to. And with each bout of crying, I learned it passes. It doesn’t feel like it ever will. Don’t think your grief is worse than someone else’s. It’s grief. It’s a gut-wrenching, psyche-changing process. Honor it. Pay attention. It’s convulsing, painful tears. It’ll go for hours. And eventually, it’d be just an hour, then less than that. Then just once a day, then not every day. I still cry when I talk about it and I cried as I wrote most of this. I’m actually sitting in my mom’s chair right now in Grand Prairie. I cry. And if you need to cry, I can’t express to you strongly enough to do it. Let it out. Better out than in, as they say.
Second. And this is maybe less clear, but powerful. You have a window of about a year. A few weeks into my grieving process, an older friend pulled me aside. He could tell I was hurting a great deal and he’d lost his mother years before. He said, “I don’t know if this will make sense to you, but you have a window of about a year. After that, things pretty much go back to normal. But you have this special year. Use it. I don’t know what it is for you, for me, I wrote my book. I just want you to know you have this special year to use.”
And I didn’t exactly understand at the time, but kind of I did. I felt different. I felt changed. I felt closer to…Being? More fearless? The worst thing that could happen to me did, so what was I static in other areas for? What could scare me now? It was unbelievable to me that anything would ever go back to normal again, but it does. Once again, you get annoyed by traffic or you count calories or you fret about something stupid at work. All the things that were so small in light of my loss, that I didn’t even notice for a while, that I couldn’t believe anyone cared about, they all come back. For a while, all I could do was be in the grief. But it lifts. I have days where I don’t think about it at all. And I have days where I see a seventy-year old at the grocery store and I start to cry. It’s like that. Grief is more like the flu than anything else. It just comes on. And it passes. I used my year. I was in touch with myself. I felt very deeply. I traveled and took classes. I made huge moves on my career I’d been too timid to try before. I got my dream job and a much-needed divorce. Not that you have to do any of that, specifically, but it worked for me.
Losing gives us much-needed perspective. I believe that if we don’t use it we will lose it. Losing my mom was nightmarish. But it also brought the rest of my family closer. It triggered changes in me, changes I’m so grateful for. It softened my heart. It opened my eyes. It elevated my soul. I wish she were here for me to tell these things to, but that’s not how it works. Grieving loss is a fundamentally necessary process. I’m so sorry you have to go through it. But I know you’ll get through it. And I know you can come out better for it on the other side. Hang in there.