In the early days after a great loss, anyone can expect to be overcome by emotion and weighed down by mourning.
The expression of grief takes many forms: weeping, overeating, retreating into isolation, acting out in anger. There is no wrong way to grieve, just as there is no set timeline for dealing with loss.
My mother died of an accident when she was 60, just as I was preparing to give birth to my first child. The shock of this sudden loss, combined with the agony of waiting in dim hope while she remained on life support for two weeks — plus the impending joy of finally becoming a mother myself — created emotional turmoil I couldn’t prepare for.
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In reality, I believe I had been grieving for my mother since I was 12 years old.
Mom was first hospitalized for bipolar disorder when I was in seventh grade. That was when I truly began to lose her. Her years of hospitalizations, treatments and ups and downs were punctuated by my father’s fight with his own losing battle against multiple sclerosis. Once my mother became sick, family friends cared for my sister and me. Eventually, we moved to another city to live with our aunt and uncle, and I would never live with my mother again. I grieved for her over and over.
It took many years, but Mom was eventually able to piece her life back together, and we were able to restore and strengthen our relationship when I was a young adult. We finally had a chance to be mother and daughter again. Then she was ripped away from me forever.
Grief took on a vastly new meaning. Now, eight years later, I’m raising my children without ever having the relationship I needed with my mother, and without her ever knowing my precious babies.
Mourning happened in phases after that first initial period of shock and grief. I had a baby to care for, so I compartmentalized my sadness and focused on the task at hand. A year later, I had another baby. Fully grieving for my mother would have to wait. And so it went, with chasing after two toddlers and ushering my kids into the preschool years.
During those early years, I would find myself missing my mom terribly in mundane moments. Tears often rolled down my cheeks as I watched my children play together, wishing she could see what I was so enjoying.
“Navigating loss is not about catharsis, going through prescribed stages, or achieving closure,” said Mary Lamia, clinical psychologist and professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. “Instead, when emotional memories are triggered, a person has to figure out what to do with the information and motivation their feelings convey.”
Lately, I have been surprised by sudden, overpowering waves of grief. I never see it coming, but once it hits I realize it is never random. On Christmas Eve, while making my mother’s bourbon balls with my daughter, I had to run from the room so she wouldn’t see me sobbing. On my birthday, after hours of playing in the snow with my kids and having a lovely dinner with my family, I picked up a photograph from my dresser and asked my daughter if she knew who was in the picture. She didn’t, and I explained that it was my mother as a toddler, sitting with her beloved grandmother. Again, I ran from the room in tears.
“Grief about a loss may be ongoing and is often triggered by reminders of the person who was lost,” said Lamia. “Typical triggers include birthdays, anniversaries, significant events where the person would have been present; seeing someone who looks like the lost person; seeing someone who knew that person whether or not they are aware of the loss; or a place or event associated with the person.”
Lamia cautioned, “Anything or anyone who creates a link to the person who is lost can activate emotional memories.”
When the triggers are activated, Lamia advises, “Recognize that your feelings are helping you remember the person you lost, since the person was connected with the situation that triggered the feelings. Rather than push away the feelings and the memories, allow yourself to remember, and then move on.”
These episodes have become more powerful as I get older, and as my kids get older. Maybe it is because I am closer to the age my mom was when she got sick, though it wasn’t her illness that ultimately killed her. Perhaps it’s just that more time has passed, so she has missed more of my children’s lives.
But my grief is part of me — an important part that I am sure will grow and change throughout life.