My mom’s sudden and unexpected death hit me like a brick to the face. And being someone who helps people deal with grief and overwhelming painful emotions for a living did not make my grief any more bearable. I was distraught. I felt bewildered and betrayed. And I felt all alone. How could this happen? How was I going to deal with all this grief?
After hanging up the phone with my equally distraught sister on that fateful Monday morning in July, so many thoughts ran through my mind ….
“No, this just can’t be possible, she’s much too young to die,”
“I never showed her just how much I loved her,”
“No! She won’t get to see me finish my PhD”
I had so many regrets and unfulfilled hopes. So many disappointments and unspoken words.
But as I’ve struggled to wrap my heart and mind around the pain of losing my mother, I’ve learned a few things that I am sharing with you in hopes that it can help anyone dealing with the loss of someone close. Everyone’s course of grief is different, but hopefully these five tips can help in some small way.
1. Be Patient (With Yourself and Others)
I have never been one for excessive emotions. And I’ve always been able to keep it together enough to make it through the day or to take care of important things. But in the early days following my mom’s death, I cried enough for a lifetime. Some days it seemed like I couldn’t get through one sentence without bursting into tears. Everything reminded me of my mom. For a week, I couldn’t sleep and I had an ever present headache from constantly crying. Sorting through her house and her private things was stressful and sad. Going through her photographs was bittersweet and painful.
I was just sad and inconsolable. And what made it worse was that I kept wanting to call my mom so that I could talk to her about it. I felt confused and angry. And I was quick to get annoyed with others and myself. Some days I thought, “For goodness sake, Jennifer, you’re a therapist and you should be dealing with this better.” And it was frustrating and uncomfortable not being able to be more “together”. But I’ve come to accept that my mother’s death has opened up a ton of questions, emotions, and vulnerabilities that will take time to sort through. Each day its gets a little easier. And I’m beginning to be more comfortable with the not knowing.
I also knew that I needed time before I got back into the swing of things. I took a month off from work. That’s a HUGE deal for me. At that time, I was literally working seven days a week. My mom’s death stopped me in my tracks and left me unable to concentrate on anything for a good deal of time. Instead of continuing to be frustrated, I surrendered to all of it and resolved to be patient with myself.
2. Find and Receive Support
My mom is one of eleven siblings. And nine of those eleven are women. And all of my mom’s siblings have children. Almost all of my generation now has children. And some of those children have already begun having children. There are literally hundreds of us. And though we might fight and grow distant at times, my family is super close and tight knit.
When my mom passed, my aunts were there to help my brother and sister and I with everything. We had to coordinate the arrangements across states and my aunts took care of everything on the New York end, where the funeral took place. My aunts took care of spreading the word so we wouldn’t have to. They took care of all the things that needed immediate attention and money.
Overall, they were both helpful and respectful. If we needed shoulders to cry on, they provided them. When we needed beds to sleep in, they provided those too. There were numerous family get-togethers the week of the funeral in which we reminisced and people told funny stories about my mom. After my siblings and I left New York, there were well intentioned phone calls asking if we needed anything and just to say hello. It was really amazing. I felt loved and safe and less alone.
I’m usually the type of person who tries to deal with things myself and hardly ever calls on others for help. But I quickly realized this was something I could not get through alone. It was not wise or healthy. And I had to practice what I preached to others. When I got back to Chicago, I realized that I needed additional support. I sought out an empathetic and understanding therapist who has been helping me sort through all the emotions and grief that has come up for me. It has made a world of difference.
Sometimes it’s hard to accept help, especially for those of us who are used to giving. But this is one of the most important things you can do when in the throes of grief.
My mom passing away was definitely a wake up call. People die. And sometimes, people die very suddenly. Though it’s very cliche to say, the truth is that none of us knows when our last moment will be. If we think about it at all, we like to hope that we will die peacefully in our sleep of old age with all our loved ones around us after having lived a long and fulfilling life and after we have accomplished all the things we aspire to. But the truth is that none of us knows when and under what circumstances we will pass. That totally sounds like a downer, but in some sense its liberating. Honest. When we accept the fact that life in unknowable, each day becomes a gift that you don’t take for granted.
Once I got over the initial shock and began to settle back into life, I vowed to do things differently. No more weeks, months and years of all business and no play! No more weeks, months and years without seeing family and loved ones! I couldn’t change the past, but I could damn create a different present and future.
So when the opportunity to travel with some family came up, I jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, before my mom passed, I probably would have told myself that I couldn’t possibly take that much time off work or spend that much money on an extravagant vacation. But In November and December of last year, I traveled to the bustling city of Bangkok, Thailand, the beaches of Phuket, Thailand and the desert of Dubai, United Arab Emirates while reconnecting with cousins. Needless to say, the trip was amazing and invigorating! But more amazing than seeing other parts of the world was the time I got to spend with my sister and cousins. These are awesome memories that I will have forever and I probably would not have them if my mom’s death didn’t wake me up.
4. Even in your grief, be grateful
I lost my mom much earlier than I would have liked. And sometimes when all is quiet, thoughts come into my head about the ways in which I could have been a better daughter. I know I can’t change the past, but I wish I called more. I wish I visited more.
However, part of a healthier grieving process is to remember the other things too. I am so grateful for the time I had with my mom. I have such beautiful memories of the two of us. I’m grateful for all the “I love you’s” we shared. As well as all the laughs. For example, she used to come to Chicago every year on my birthday. The last time she came was for my 30th birthday weekend. I remember walking with her along the lake front path on the morning of my birthday and looking up at the crisp blue sky. I remember feeling very content that I could bring in my third decade in such a peaceful way. And the beautiful thing is that I have tons of memories like this.
Words cannot express just how grateful I am for all of the life lessons and habits that she taught me. The things that I like most about myself I got from her- my love of reading and knowledge, my love of nature and the outdoors, my diplomatic personality, my irreverent sense of humor, my ability to persevere. All gifts from her for which I am very thankful.
I continue to honor my mother’s life by remembering her. Really remembering her. She was a voracious reader and she loved nature. My mother had integrity. She was practical and had a great big ole heart. People often went to her for no-nonsense life advice and guidance. She was also a procrastinator who was sometimes gruff and could put you in your place with 5 well chosen words and a look. She was amazing and my life is so much better and richer because of her. And even my toughest days, I know that the world is also a better place, in some small but important ways because my mom was once a part of it. And that’s more than anybody can ask for.
If you have recently gotten through the grief of losing a loved one, and now are ready to jumpstart your life, please consider signing up for my Jumpstart Your Life in 6 Weeks Program.
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