GRIEF comes in two phases. There is acute grief which is the sudden shock of someone’s death and your initial reaction following the loss in the short, immediate period after and then there is chronic grief that lingers for a long time and often resurfaces in a cyclical way both shorter-term like yearly anniversaries and longer-term like peaks of reaching new milestones without this person in your life anymore.
The night my mum died and I saw her take her last breath I was certain my world was going to end in that moment too, but it didn’t. It just continued and I was appalled. I don’t think it sunk in right away that this was the closest I would ever be to her ever again and that each second that ticked forward I would forget a little bit the shape of her hands, the sound of her laugh, and slowly but surely, that her confident, positive voice inside my head when weighing big decisions, when trying to stay motivated, and when consoling myself after a really hard day would fade and be replaced with my own inner voice, unsteady and uncertain.
There were hundreds and hundreds of people at my mum’s funeral. To give you an example, the chapel pews were full and there was no more standing room at the back. The girls from my soccer team had to listen to the eulogies on a speaker from a visitation room across the hall. For a long time after I thought a lot about death, and certainly after the tragic shooting at my college two months earlier I thought considerably about dying young. Little did I know five years later I’d be staring my own impending mortality in the face.
When I was diagnosed with leukemia at twenty-one years old and after my first intensive treatment didn’t work, life (or death) got really real really fast. I didn’t panic. I actually got so comfortable with the idea of dying young that I romanticized it. I had seen first-hand the impact dying young could have on people. I thought I’d be remembered as youthful forever and my legacy would forever be my unfulfilled potential and promise. It certainly would have had a bigger influence on people than anything I could do if I were to live the next fifty or so years which once my second treatment worked and we found a stem-cell donor is what has preoccupied my mind for the better part of my life since.
I was devastated when after remission, recovery and going back to school to get my administration degree I would have a mental health lapse and would lose my second car (which this time I didn’t name because it had an actual voice and that made giving inanimate objects life-like features a little creepy), I quit my very comfortable job, inflicted upon myself yet another major purge and got kicked out of my apartment which was the best living situation I had in the ten years prior, including the last five or so years I had spent living with my falling-apart family in my childhood home. It was during this time when everything I had built back up seemed to be crumbling around me that I became resentful I had lived through my cancer diagnosis and treatment. It wasn’t until I lost pretty much everything all over again that I wished I had just died all that time ago. Why would I live more years just to live more heartbreak and disappointment? Surely, I had maxed out my pain threshold, for a while at least?
Nope. After my breakdown and being admitted into the psychiatry ward I ended up literally with no address and afterwards living in a women’s homeless shelter for three months. I had already gotten approved for community housing but the building was still under construction at the time I was discharged from the hospital. After all that I couldn’t get over the fact that had my mum just been alive I never would have ended up in that situation, or had I just died I wouldn’t have ended up in that situation, and how in both those scenarios, either way, I would have been with my mum and that would be infinitely better than the trouble I had gotten myself into.
My grief process has been so screwed up from not having a typical trajectory and in the fact that my life and circumstances really would have been (or at least I like to think) so drastically different (read: better) had she survived. Even if they wouldn’t have been (different), the want to believe it would have been (better) means I’m not just mourning my mum but I’m mourning everything that could have, maybe would have, and I believe should have happened since losing her.
After having such a stable, dare I say privileged, childhood, that amount of loss was so incredibly hard to accept. I realize I have good formative years under my feet which you’d think would have made me well-adjusted enough and given me the tools to deal with the real world. But instead I had my dream life, or what I was pretending to be so perfect, so savagely ripped away. It didn’t help that my family’s main coping mechanism was adamant and blatant denial and that we were probably playing a miserable version of house for my entire teenage years at home until I begged my mum to leave with me before she died. There are definitely scenarios in one of the infinite parallel universes which my mum living left me worse off and more emotionally scarred within that denial than having to be a makeshift adult at sixteen. Initiation by fire, I guess.
I really don’t think I turned out all that okay, though. I wish there was someone back then who could have gotten through to me that I needed help. I don’t blame anyone. I was as much unwilling to give up my new freedoms just as little as anyone cared, or for a select few, actually had the traction to get involved.
After over ten years without my mum it got to a point where I was really fed up. I was furious. I felt like I had paid my dues, done my time, and suffered enough without her. After years of living in shame that I had not become the type of woman she would have been proud of, I was finally ready for her to come home and help me live a life I could be satisfied with. Her being gone makes any and all accountability pretty much obsolete because she is the one person now who’s opinion I would really care to hear.
Grief sneaks up on you and you never know what form it’ll take: sadness, anger, total and utter apathy for anyone and everything and every possible bad and serious consequence that will result from your careless actions. Okay, maybe that last one is just me. All I know is that regardless of what the situation would have been had she lived, the wondering alone will leave me with a deep sense of emptiness for the rest of my life. She couldn’t live forever, and chances are considering the normal way time and age vs. health is typically understood, I probably would have had to serve some time on this earth without her. Losing her at seventeen was just a premature albeit probably inevitable part of my story.
When other people go through grief or illness, having been through it before hasn’t proved to be of help to me and I am not any better equipped to know what to say or at least I feel like I’m not. I also think that these situations bring up something in me that I am not ready to confront. What if someone who loses their mother copes better than me? What if I’m exposed as a fraud, faker, over-exaggerator, pathetic? Before my mum died she told me it was okay to be sad for a little while, but that eventually I’d have to get over it. I’m still waiting for that day and feel as if I am disappointing her every time I miss her. It almost creates an aversion to healthy grieving. I was told that was only allowed early on.
As for now, I never let myself imagine what type of relationship we’d have today. Just the thought of some of my actions and behaviours since her death make me cringe and even though they may have been a direct result of her absence I am nevertheless thankful I don’t have to have those conversations with her. I don’t really have any answers or insight here. I adored my mother. My plea for you is to make the most of your time. I will forever hold onto the memories of our last summer together, drinking iced-mochaccinos and our favourite sandwiches from our favourite neighbourhood cafe. Luckily that cafe has thrived and every now and then I go back and get our staple meal. Just cherish it, whatever it is.