Mourning Backwards

I thought that grief was supposed to lessen over time. I could swear I missed my mom more this past holiday season than previous Christmases. Despite having an overall holly jolly time, I hit a rough patch the last week or so before Christmas. I felt like I crammed a lot of riotous, rollicking activities into the time between mid-November and mid-December.  Once I found myself past the flurry of events, I realized I had cleared a wide, fresh pathway to feeling sad. One day, I got it into my head to go to a mall and the Christmas Tree decoration store my mother and I frequented several times.  I would normally never consider going shopping so close to Christmas, but I had a few errands that I thought I could knock out quickly.  Of course, I didn’t knock them out quickly.  It was a bit of a hard slog made even harder because of my mother’s absence.

I have many happy memories of my mother associated with Christmas.  Most people would say that they love Christmas.  Why else do songsters keep belting out “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year?” To my mother, though, Christmas was an art form.  It wasn’t like she was one of those crazy Christmas light folks on television, but there was something intensely special about the way she threw herself into the season. There are so many holiday moments that she engraved permanently into my brain with love.  It makes me so happy that I have these memories.  Without a doubt, those memories enrich my experience of Christmas, even since her death.  There is also a sadness tied up in those memories that breaks through every year at the holidays. 

Every year since I can remember, my mother used to take me Christmas shopping on a special day.  She did the same for my brother.  Ostensibly, the trip was for each of us to buy a Christmas present for the other sibling.  In truth, there was another agenda that I did not perceive until well into my teen years.  My mom would take us on these outings to buy a present for our sibling… and so she could see what delighted the kid on the shopping expedition with her. She explained to someone once that she would watch what caught my eye and what I “oohed and awed over” as I wandered the stores looking for a present for my brother.  I was never very good at telling anyone what I wanted, so she would watch my reaction to items in the store for ideas about what might enchant me on Christmas morning. She always did great. 

My shopping day with my mother continued until the December before her stroke.  As she aged and became frailer, we had to adapt what we did and for how long, but we always had a wonderful time.  We’d look at Christmas decorations, listen to Christmas music, buy stuff we didn’t need, and revel in being together.  This shared annual experience was so much a part of who we were together, I even tried to arrange a special transport to take her to the tiny mall in our town that last December of her life.  Unfortunately, before I could get the authorization and organize everything, she started to let go of her hold on her “regular” world and began to head down her journey towards the next life. 

My shopping trip right before Christmas this past holiday screamed “mom” at me.  It just felt so much like something she should have shared with me, as she had so many other pre-Christmas shopping trips.  Suddenly, I missed her with a physical fierce coldness that seemed to simultaneously freeze my respiratory system and melt my digestive system.  My knees wobbled alarmingly.  For a few moments, my brain seemed to spin around inside my skull and I thought I might faint.  I was standing in a depressingly long line at JC Penney’s.  I grabbed a shelf on one side of the line and waited for the feeling to pass.  The intensity of the pain did pass, but left some emotional havoc in its wake. 

Someone once told me that one key to managing depression is to HALT.  Don’t get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.  I realized that I was all four of these “halts.” I couldn’t do much about being hungry or tired while standing in line, unless I called out for pizza and a sleeping bag.  I don’t think I’ll ever stop being lonely for my momma.  I could, however, choose to stop feeling angry and frustrated with the massive line at Penney’s.  I used the rest of my time standing in line observing the shoppers around me and the clerks at the cash registers.  For the most part, the shoppers were pretty disgruntled and the sales clerks were serene and polite.  I decided I would try to flip the script.  When it was my turn to pay, I made a special effort to be pleasant and grateful.

I transacted my business at Penney’s and moved on to Macy’s.  Some weeks ago, I bought a wonderfully warm, fluffy robe at Macy’s.  The weather finally cooled off enough by the middle of December for me to wear it to water aerobics class.  That is when I discovered that the Macy’s sales associate had neglected to remove the security tag.  Macy’s is about 40 miles from my house, so I originally decided to just live with a grey plastic device flopping at the side of my robe.  When people started looking at me funny at the pool, clearly wondering if I had embarked on a life of crime, I thought better of that tactic.  That was my motivation for going to the mall less than a week before Christmas.  I brought the robe to get the Macy’s people to untag me.

When I got to Macy’s, it seemed that people were even nastier than they were at Penney’s.  I purposely let several people go ahead of me because they were unhinged and I thought it would be helpful for the sales clerk if she didn’t have to balance her priorities between Miss Christmas Crazy Person 2019 and me, who had been waiting in line ahead of her (to say nothing of the fact that I would not have had to drive 40 miles and stand in line at all if the first sales clerk had removed the tag in the first place.)  I smiled at the clerks supportively and even suggested that they take care of another timebomb of a shopper before they waited on me.  I found it strangely serene and comforting to engage in these small acts of kindness.  I said a little prayer to thank God for His blessing in helping me find this little coping mechanism.

I was pretty proud of myself until I left the mall and realized I was still very hungry and… lonely.  I drove to a nearby McDonald’s.  McDonald’s was also a holiday tradition in my home.  For some unknown and clearly irrational reason, I didn’t like McDonald’s hamburgers as a child.  I did, however, love the French fries.  On Christmas Eve, my mother would fry hamburgers at home and my father would go to McDonald’s and buy French fries.  When I got older (and over my antipathy to McDonald’s hamburgers), it was a special treat during Christmas vacation for my brother and me to ride our bikes to McDonald’s alone and have lunch.  So, as weird as it sounds, McDonald’s has a sentimental attraction for me. 

At McDonald’s, I found they converted to a customer-driven electronic ordering system.  I stared at the huge monitor and began pushing buttons, trying to follow the directions.  Something about the electronic ordering system baffled me.  I kept getting to a place in the process that thwarted me.   I felt more and more defeated as I kept trying.  I felt confused and despondent.  After trying several times, I surrendered.  I still had enough of my wits about me to know that I should not get back in the car and drive without something to eat.  I went up and tried to explain my dilemma to the nice young lady at the counter.  For some reason, I was also having trouble finding words to explain what was wrong.  I kept apologizing.  She never skipped a beat or appeared impatient.  She was sincerely kind.  Ultimately, we completed the ordering process.  I took my number and went off to find a table, embarrassed at the fuss I was making.  Once I sat down, I even started to cry softly and discreetly. Another employee, who was cleaning up around the lobby, came over to ask if I was okay and if she could do anything for me. 

After I ate my lunch and nourished my psyche with some perspective, I thought about how thankful I was for the kindness of the McDonald’s employees.  A fast food restaurant is about the last place one would expect workers to rise above the madness and inject a little humanity into the day.  Fast food restaurants are loud, crowded, and thrive on doing things quickly and efficiently.  These McDonald’s employees were not only efficient using their hands and heads, they went a step further and used their hearts. 

I wanted to do something to thank them.  They deserved it.  Plus, I had been reminded by my experiences at the department stores that it makes me feel better to do something nice for someone else. I went over to the lobby employee, thanked her, and gave her a hug.  I also thanked the lady at the counter.  They were both over the moon. I also told the manager how grateful I was to both the employees.  I told her that being nice is a superpower.  People don’t always realize how much difference it can make to just be nice. 

When my mother was shrinking through her last year of life, I often found myself being the kind of person I didn’t want to be. I was impatient, snappish, and cranky all too frequently.  I felt like I was losing the best parts of me- the gentleness, the peace, the playfulness, the affection.  I was ashamed.  I blamed myself… and I also blamed the grief.  I believed the mourning was destroying the me I had always been.

In the last year or so, I rejoice because I feel some of those shinier sides of me returning.  I notice myself behaving as I would have behaved years ago. It makes me so happy.  I also notice that, like on my pre-Christmas shopping day, I am finding more tiny ways to nurture happiness in the world. 

For me… and maybe for everybody… mourning is not a linear process.  There is no forward or backward.  There is ebb and flow.  There are zigs and zags.  There are swirls and spirals.  Mourning gains and loses momentum, depending on external circumstances and internal conditions… like hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness.  The most important thing, though, is that mourning does not have to destroy.  Mourning can also create.   

I consider the shot of grief that often accompanies my memories of my mother to be the “price of admission” to being able to re-experience the happy times with her.  I think it is worth it to have the odd meltdown now and then in order to access the sweet memories.  What do you think?  Is it worth being sad sometimes over the death of a loved one to also remember the joyful times and connections?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Have a sweetly memorable day!

Terri/Dorry 😊

The Root IS The Problem

Last week, I whined about all the difficulties roots have been causing in my life lately.  Removing them seems to have been the solution to all kinds of problems.  My experiences led me to opine that perhaps roots are the problem.

My mother died about eighteen months ago.  She was my rock and my root in this life.  She grounded me and helped me grow.  Since she died, I have definitely felt a certain rootlessness.  Somehow, I have not been sure how to be me now that she is no longer around.  I have been processing my emotions fairly efficiently, but this is one feeling I have been avoiding.

In essence, I have been avoiding my own roots.  It has been too painful to go down that particular hole.  When I do certain activities, I desperately distract myself from thinking of my mother.  I don’t often reminisce much about our lives together when she was well.  There are some items of hers that she had with her at the skilled nursing facility which I hid away in a box.  I could not bear the thought of looking at them.  It is a strange sensation to avoid any aspect of my mother because I was so rooted to her.  I would think that it would always be better to remember than not, even when the memories fill me with an adrift sort of sadness and purposelessness.  Still, there are certain experiences that I avoid because they remind me that I don’t know how to grow without my roots.  And my roots fill me with pain when I dig too deeply into them. 

Despite how “well” I have been mourning my mother, there is one part of me that just seems stuck in mid-air by grief.  I think it has to do with permanence.  If I can avoid thinking about this last vestige… this last root… of sorrow, it feels like my mother could still come back to me.  Of course I know she will not, but part of me unconsciously pretends she is just on a trip or something and will return to the relationship we had before her stroke.

The other night, I had a dream.  I was in the middle of a large room, filled with many people.  I think it was some sort of celebration.  I seemed to be in the thick of whatever was going on in the room.  I was cooking and answering questions for people who needed help.  Everyone seemed to be coming to me for direction.  I kept asking people, “is my mother here yet?”  They always replied she was not there and I kept going with my tasks.  I felt like I was in a whirlwind of mental and physical activity, but I still seemed to slow down periodically to ask, “is my mother here yet?”  Finally, I stopped what I was doing.  The whole room seemed to get quiet and everyone turned to me.  I stared straight ahead, at no one and everyone, and said, “She’s never going to be here again, is she?”  That is the last thing I remember about the dream, except that I woke up crying deeply and viscerally.  I’ve been exhausted ever since. 

The next day, I opened the box of items I brought home from the skilled nursing facility.  I had forgotten what was in there.  Mostly, they were photos that were on the wall by her bed.  It was a weird sensation to look at them and remember our roots.  I remembered the very different people we were when those pictures were taken, both before and after my mom got sick.  I felt cracked… but not catastrophic.  Even thinking about it now, I feel my gut sinking and my spirit sliding through a dark, heavy place.  Still, I do have a spirit and it is moving.

One of the pictures I found was particularly poignant.  It was a wonderful photo of me, my mother, and Tinker Bell at the Magic Kingdom soon after we moved to Florida.  Looking at that photo, I remembered the day.  I remembered the fun we had.  I remembered laughing and loving.  I remembered that I was my mother’s Tinker Bell always.  I remembered the roots.  Right after she died, I could not look at that picture.  Today, I bought a frame and hung it on the wall. 

This episode caused me to reflect on the rootlessness I have been feeling.  In some ways, I think not knowing how to grow into me without my mother here is all in my mind.  If I am honest, even though exploring the roots has been painful, I have been growing.  My life is bigger than it used to be.  My life is richer than ever and my heart is expanding all the time.  There are lots of reasons for that.  One of those reasons is that helping me grow joyously is my mother’s legacy to me.  I may have been avoiding thinking of those roots, but they have always been there.

I started out this post with the premise that the roots are the problem.  I don’t think that is right, after all.  Roots may be messy and may need management, but they are miraculous as long as they keep growing. 

What part have your “roots” played in your life?  Are you a stronger person because your roots are strong or are you a stronger person because you had to overcome your roots?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Have a growing day!

Terri/Dorry 😊

My beautiful mother, me, and Tinker Bell at the Magic Kingdom in happier times. I was always her Tinker Bell and she was always my “second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.”

Good Grief

It has now been a year since my mother died. I’ve tried to be healthy in my mourning.  I’ve seen a bereavement counselor a few times.  I’ve tried to focus on the wonderful gift that my mother was. In general, I’ve done very well.  I’ve been sad, but functional.  I’ve been mournful, but also hopeful.  I feel that I honor and celebrate my mother every day by the way I live my life.  Still, there is a facet of my grief has been stubborn and uncooperative.  It holds on relentlessly.  On the other hand, the grief isn’t nearly as sharp or as devastating as I thought it would be.

During the months of my mother’s illness, part of my daily terror had to do with how I could possibly withstand the shattering blow that I would doubtlessly experience when she died.  I was so sad and in so much pain while she was still alive, I couldn’t see how I would be able to handle her death.  I read the hospice information about anticipatory grief.  I think I might have been the poster child for the condition.  The research said that many people traveling with a loved one during a long illness do experience the grief of loss long before the final ending.  They may experience the exact same grief cycle as most people do when a loved one actually dies.  I absolutely understood that and I knew I was experiencing it.  The bitch of the matter, though, is that experiencing anticipatory grief in no way guarantees that the mourner will be any less shattered when the death does occur. I dreaded and resented having to experience the rawness of grief in duplicate.

When it finally happened, I found that my grief, though profound and prominent, did not feel as raw and septic as I feared it would. I think there are many reasons for that.

At first, I thought the reason that my mom’s death did not devastate me more was because of the long road we traveled together during her illness.  I started grieving long before she left me alone in this world.  After her stroke, her decline was so treacherous and unforgiving, I lost her step by step and piece by piece. As her brain gradually crumbled in the last year of her life, my heart crumbled along with it.  By the time she died, my heart wasn’t shattered because there was nothing left of it to shatter.

It was also hard not to feel some relief that my mother was finally whole and healthy and happy again in God’s dwelling place.  The foundation of my life is a belief system that encourages me to rejoice that my mother is living more abundantly in Heaven and is waiting there for me to join her.  I do find some joy in that notion.  That belief does take some of the pain out of the grief now, but it still does not prevent me from missing my mom every day in this life.

I think I also came to understand, in my mother’s last days, that I wasn’t losing everything I thought I was losing.  A blog reader once left a comment that said, during the end of life, everything burns away except love.  This was absolutely my experience.  In my mother’s illness, there were many times when she would look past me or away from me as if I wasn’t there. There were also occasions, though, when she would look into my eyes with such intensity and meaning that I could feel her loving me to my very soul.  That love, maybe the biggest and best part of her, will never die.  She loved me with a love that I can never lose.

I am sure that all of these reasons played a part in my milder mourning experience.  There is something else, though.  I had a model for grieving.  My mother gave me that.

When my father died, everyone worried about my mother.  She was always an emotional person who loved extravagantly.  She felt with the people she loved.  She rejoiced easily and cried easily.  People sometimes took that heart on her sleeve as a mark of fragility.  Not so.  When my father died, she did everything she could to mourn in a healthy way.  She cherished her memories of my father. She continued doing activities they enjoyed together.  She helped herself and her children heal by loving us and letting us love her.   She joined an online support group for widows and widowers.  She kept working at a job she enjoyed with people who uplifted her.  She mourned him deeply and permanently. I don’t think there was a Thanksgiving after his death when my mother didn’t cry when we gave thanks for the people we loved who were no longer with us. Still, in the midst of that mourning, there was a renaissance.  My mother moved towards a life of her own crafting. She set her own priorities.  She pursued her own interests. She indulged her gift for happiness. She set out on a path of continual learning and grew in every way.  She reveled in her independence.   She turned her grief into something good.

In my mourning for my mother, I think I have been experiencing my own renaissance- almost without even realizing it.  Without thinking too much about it, I find that my experience with my mother’s end of life journey has prompted me to nurture my own life.  I’ve identified several attributes in my own personality that may be holding me back from experiencing as much joy as possible in life.  Almost unconsciously, I’ve been examining those personal barriers and experimenting with strategies for knocking them out of my way.

Good grief may be the last gift my mom gave me.

What have you learned through the process of grieving a loved one?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com. 

Have a blessed day!

Terri/Dorry 🙂