It’s no surprise that with Mother’s Day fast-approaching, the seasons of the grief around my mom’s passing are turning once again. I’ve learned more about sadness than I ever wished to know throughout the past year and a half. And while people continue to offer earnest words hoping to ease the deep, raw wound that her death has left behind– telling me it’s going to be ok, time will heal, it gets better, and that she’ll always be with me– I’ve realized that nobody knows my grief but me. I’ve found that it’s not finite (“you’ll feel better after a year…”), it’s not linear, and it’s certainly not clean or comfortable.
Until October 8, 2012, grief and I hadn’t formally met. Sure, we had brushed shoulders once or twice (break-ups, missing goals I had set out to accomplish, etc.), but in the words of my dad, never enough to say so. But in the days leading up to my mom’s transition from body to spirit, grief showed up and set up camp in the home of my heart; an unwanted but necessary house guest who, in my opinion throughout those first months, was overstaying its welcome.
Now that grief and I have gotten to know one another more intimately, I am realizing it’s not such a bad guest and in fact, is something to embrace. Grief is like that friend who asks to crash on your couch for a night and ends up staying for 3-months…sometimes that friend is busy and barely there, sometimes that friend has nothing going on and demands much of your attention. At this point though, I’ve observed the flowing cycles of grief’s presence and recognize it not as something to fix or eliminate all together, but as something to actually help me heal– something to propel me into a more sensitive, authentic future.
The 5 stages of grief, a well-known expectation of how one should experience loss (first introduced by Swiss-American Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying) may ring true for some people, but I find it simultaneously hilarious and frightening that one could think that such a massive, messy, amorphous experience could be distilled into 5 tidy steps. I get that we’re human and, especially in the Western world, reach for something logical and categorical in the midst of uncertainty….but come on. Sure, the 5 stages of grief have shown up in some way or another on my journey, but I’ve had many more stages as well. Grief is also different for a daughter vs a son, a husband vs a brother, and so on. So in honor of Mother’s Day, it is nearly impossible to put the experience into words, but I’ll give it the ol’ college try. As a daughter who once had a very intimate, soulful, fun, and cherished relationship with her mother, these have been the cycles of my existence around the loss of my best friend, my number one fan, and my greatest teacher.
1. Shock turned into numbness
No matter how old you are, there’s always a piece of you that believes your parents to be immortal. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time on July 3, 2011; the day I came back from my first yoga teacher training. I was there when she got the call and I knew the return of cancer (after undergoing chemo and a double-mastectomy in 2003) meant she’d have to push back with even more force than the first time around. Chemo took such a toll on her eight years prior, that she decided immediately that conventional treatment wasn’t an option. The news sank in to a certain degree on that day, but she never seemed sick and she went about her days with her usual chipper, bright energy. Before we knew it, I was swept up into a new chapter of my life, teaching yoga, moving in with my boyfriend, getting a cat, and she was busy helping my brother plan his wedding. She said she didn’t want to undergo any sort of treatment before his wedding (October 2011) because she wanted to be sure she would have the energy to tear up the rug on the dance floor. And she did. Everything seemed normal. She had cancer, but she didn’t really have cancer (right?). It didn’t seem threatening. The idea that she wouldn’t survive it was light years away from any possible outcome in my mind. She conquered it the first time and she would come through again this time. Stupid cancer, thinking it could take down Rita Marie Brayer Howe.
But then it happened…when I was away at my second yoga teacher training in June 2012, she called me to say that she was having piercing back pain; to the point where some days just walking was unbearable. She had it checked out, only to find that the cancer had spread to her spine. She quickly underwent surgery, but not all of it was cleared. Still, I had no doubt that she would be ok.
When I returned from my training in early July, freshly engaged to my soon-to-be-husband, I was surprised to see my mom propped up in a Lazy Boy-esque chair in her bedroom with several pillows arranged ever so carefully to support her spine and overall comfort. She wasn’t walking much and could only be up and about for 2-3 hours before needing another few hours in the chair (and this was a woman who rarely sat still in her healthy days). Even so, I thought it was just a tough phase and that she would be ok in the end. We had both fantasized about picking my wedding dress out together from age 8 on, so when she said she couldn’t make the 15 min trip to downtown Burlington to pick out a dress with me, I realized it was more serious that I had been making it out to be. Still wasn’t thinking of death as an option, though.
Our wedding was set for June 2013, but in early September 2012, my dad pulled my fiancé and I aside and strongly suggested we bump the wedding date up so that my mom could be there. In that moment it felt like someone had gathered all of the Cutco knives in the world, shoved them down my throat, and nestled them into my heart…eventually pulling my heart out all together, leaving me an empty, sad, confused vessel in front of my bawling father and stunned fiancé.
At this point, my mom was using a walker to get from her bed to the bathroom and too quickly, transitioned from a walker to a wheelchair and from a toilet to a commode. I was busy planning the wedding and settling into a new job and didn’t really have the space or emotional availability to process the drastic changes in my mom’s health and day-to-day life. We planned a beautiful wedding in two weeks. It was in my parents’ backyard because a) it’s a beautiful place and b) my mom wasn’t able to travel any further. My brothers carried her in a wheelchair down the steps of our back porch and, even in the midst of severe pain and the increasing fogginess of vitality, she looked stunning. Her body may have been preparing for an eternal sleep, but her light shown through fiercely. The ceremony was perfect and we sat together at the dinner table. I remember looking over at her plate and seeing she hadn’t really touched her meal (very uncharacteristic of her Midwestern-raised appetite)…we didn’t know for sure at this point, but a tumor in her brain was pressing down on her eyes, causing her vision to blur. I realized she couldn’t see her food very well, so I cut it up and offered to feed her. She had one bite and then said she was alright. When I look back now, I am aware that her body was beginning to reject food, nourishment, in preparation for shut down. She looked angelic, sitting there and taking it all in. She was such a sport, gritting her teeth through excruciating pain to watch her daughter commit to the love of her life. After dinner it was so bad, that she requested we do our first dance and father-daughter dance early so she could retreat to her room. So we did. It’s the first wedding my mom was present at where a circle of people didn’t form around her on the dance floor and watch in awe as she moved effortlessly and wildly to the music.
Three days or so after the wedding, it was discovered that her entire body, head to toe, was completely tumor-ridden. Even knowing I had bumped up the wedding so she could be there, even knowing the painfully slim probability of her survival, I still thought she would live through it. Until she didn’t. Two weeks later, my dad called me at 8am. It had happened; it had actually happened. My mom, the woman who flitted around the house singing tunes from musicals at the top of her lungs, the woman who was a nurse, psychologist, and health coach, the one who was always at the other end of the phone when I called…my mom…had died.
Of course all external evidence had been pointing in that obvious direction for several months, but it still came as a total shock. I drove to my parents’ house immediately and hurried through the hallway of her many brothers and sisters (she was one of 9 and most were visiting from out of town) to her bedroom. The same bedroom I had ran to as a child when a nightmare woke me up, the same bedroom I slept in when I was sick, the same one we would hang out in giggling til the late hours of the night…and now the same one where her spirit left her body. I spent some time with her body (skin still, somehow, glowing); thanking her arms for holding me countless times, her hands for smoothing my hair in the way that only a mother can, her belly for holding me for 9 months, her legs for making it possible for her to bounce from one place to the next. And her face for its countless expressions, her eyes for their instant healing powers, her mouth from which encouraging words and words of wisdom poured. All of it. It’s weird to acknowledge just the body of someone who you know on such a rich level…knowing those lips will never part again, the eyes will never open again, the legs will never dance. But in that moment I felt calm and though sad, ok. I said goodbye to her body, but not to her.
I know now that the calm I felt was a subconscious disconnect from the reality of the situation. I just had to get through it. Had to address the other family members, had to plan the funeral, be a new wife, be an insightful and dependable daughter for my dad, and power through.
While I certainly had moments of extreme darkness and pain, I was definitely in a state of shock which eventually turned into a weirdly comforting sense of numbness. I knew what had happened, of course, and in my mind I told myself I would feel the pain and that I was ready for the waterfall of emotion, but it didn’t really come. I drifted from one day to the next, thinking I was “actually doing pretty well”. Looking back, I don’t resent this period of numbness, I see it as a helpful and nearly essential part of my process in the beginning.
2. Letting the sadness seep in
About nine months after her passing and many seemingly isolated moments of despair, my heart opened up to receiving the grace of grief. How beautifully ironic that it took my mom about 9 months to bring me into this world, and the same amount of time for me to begin to truly address her departure. The sensation of sadness started to take on a new color, texture, and form. Whereas in the months before it barreled at me out of nowhere and hit hard for a few minutes, this new layer of sadness came on slowly, went deeper, and lingered longer. I was struck with a melancholy that didn’t seem to go away, ever. And for the record, it’s still here. It’s a constant hum or vibration beneath the surface of every other emotion, word, action, and smile. It’s an energy that, like the long-term house guest, is just hanging out on the couch, waiting for me to return home at night. Now, this isn’t to say I am a sad person now; just that I carry with me a sense of sadness. I love my life and in many ways, I am happier now than I have ever been before. And, I’ve opened up to grief in a more profound way. Around the 9-month mark, I was like a sponge, ready to absorb the sadness and become saturated in it, all the while making exciting leaps and strides in my personal and professional life. I think that by letting the sadness in, the process began to flow more organically. You know what they say, what you resist persists. Though I wasn’t consciously resisting grief, some mechanism within me was protecting me and intelligently made the call as to when I was ready to work with the pain and reality of loss.
3. The hard-hitting reality of my own mortality
These steps are by no means linear and I don’t remember exactly when this whole thing kicked in, but I went through an intense phase of being afraid of everything. In June, my husband and I were visiting friends in LA on our way to Hawaii. One of my dear friends lost his father when he was a teenager and we were talking about the loss of a parent. At one point he said, “You know what though? We have something not many other people have…the feeling of fearlessness.” I sat quietly, not responding. Was something wrong with me? Should I feel fearless? His experience was different, I reminded myself; he was a man who had lost a father over a decade ago. I was a woman who had lost her mother nearly 6 months prior (at the time of the conversation). And I went from being a rather fearless, independent woman to the girl who wouldn’t go off the manicured path on hikes for fear of ticks, or the girl who started to actually listen to flight attendants on the plane in case there really was an emergency (I wanted to know how to use the air mask and how to inflate that frickin’ life preserver!)…I became the girl who started worrying about what would happen even if I did survive the plane’s crash into the ocean…surely sharks would get me. Whether it was driving on the highway, trying a new food (would I get food poisoning? Would I be allergic?), taking the boat across the lake (my parents were on a boat once that blew up on Lake Champlain, who’s to say it couldn’t happen to me?), itching a mosquito bite (or was it a rare and fatal spider bite?!), or nursing a headache (was it a headache or a brain tumor?)…everything freaked me out. I knew how fragile life was. If some force of nature could take down my mom, then I surely had no chance. I played it safe…I wanted to stay alive for me, my husband, my family, and my future children. Suddenly all of that seemed so real. This phase of grief ebbs and flows just like the others, but the fact of my own mortality and that of those around me has been greatly enhanced.
4. Wringing out the sadness little by little
While all of these phases come and go, like various sections of an orchestra, this one now stays with me everyday. Just as I was once the sponge that unabashedly absorbed every ounce of sadness, I am now the sponge that knows it will always be damp, but wrings out a little bit of sadness with each passing day. What does that mean? For me, it means letting myself cry as I walk my dog in the woods, writing this, writing to my mom in a journal, looking through old photos and bawling my face off, honoring my own resilience, singing show tunes around the house, playing The Beatles “Lovely Rita” a few times over while I simultaneously weep and laugh, talking about her with friends and family, pausing before I act and taking the higher or more conscious road because I know that’s what she would do, thinking about her fondly, thinking of the many fights and disagreements we had, combing through her old clothes, selling her stylish boots and purses; honoring her through memory and real-time action. Letting there be movement.
5. Feeling bad for myself
This may seem a little self-absorbed and hint at martyrdom, but, so what? As long as I don’t get stuck in it and let it go down that slippery slope into the dark, sad, grip of victimhood, feeling sorry for myself has actually been healing in small bouts. I recently hosted my best friend’s baby shower and then went home to cry about the fact that my mom wouldn’t be at my shower, wouldn’t be there for the birth of my children (as we had always planned), how my children would never know her as their fun, vibrant, totally rad grandma, etc. I let myself feel mildly jealous of my friend (while, of course, being happy for her as well), I let myself grieve the loss of that piece of my future as I begin to re-write it in my own mind. I didn’t really let myself feel bad last Mother’s Day, but I will this year if it arises organically. I’ve learned that if I turn away from this very natural piece of my process, I’m just not being real with myself. It’s ok to hear a woman laughing on the phone with her mom and feel a pang of sadness, it’s ok it’s ok it’s ok. I think everybody experiencing any layer of grief should give themselves the luxury of feeling bad for themselves once in a while.
6. Seeking mom-love from others
Yikes. My poor husband in those first months after her passing. My mom was such a strong and present figure and force in my life, that when she left, she took a lot with her. She was my #1 confidant, my #1 fan, my go-to person for outfit dilemmas, the one I would call for a quick latté break, the one I would text a funny picture of my cat to, the one I would call when I had spontaneous revelations. Of course my husband and I have a very close relationship, but it’s different (duh). But, I still subconsciously started to project all of my mom-needs onto him, my father, my brothers, my friends, my co-workers, the lady bagging groceries at the store, the guy who gave me a weird look on the sidewalk…everyone! Ah! How accustomed I had become to the external validation of my awesomeness; I didn’t realize how often my mom told me I was beautiful, smart, insightful…how I had the power to change the world. With her gone, I was looking for that from other people. I remember after a yoga photo shoot going through the pictures on my computer. I called my husband over to show him. After a few minutes, he joined me, looked at a few of the photos, said they were great, and moseyed on to his next project. “Wait,” I said, “don’t you want to see all of them? That was just like, three out of thirty photos.” “Jules,” he said, “they’re beautiful. You don’t need my approval.” While that initially stirred up some frustration and feelings of he doesn’t even care or he doesn’t love me enough, I eventually sat with it and realized that I was, indeed, looking for approval. Ew. I mean, it’s strange to go from having someone in your life who is constantly telling you you’re amazing, to having to discover that from a place deep within your own spirit. My husband, family, and friends are incredibly supportive and are certainly big fans; the delivery of that support is different though…they’re different people! This was a big lesson to swallow and while I’m much more conscious of it now, it is absolutely something I am still working with. And what an incredible gift it is to be forced to look within to find your own light and to look into it’s brilliance…not because someone told you it was there (though that’s a great start) but because you went on the journey to find it.
7. Latching onto temporary pleasures to fill a void
This is a fun one. I shopped more in the year after my mom passed than ever before. Was I fully aware of what I was doing? Yes. Did it stop me? Nope. I didn’t even care; I was laughing in the face of my own defense mechanism. Because I knew what I was doing, it didn’t feel as damaging or controlling. Strolling through a store, I would think “Well, here I am again…trying to superficially fill the void in my heart through this super trendy vegan leather jacket.” This is no new phenomenon. Everyone has their thing…food, alcohol, sex, drugs. In the big picture, shopping didn’t seem so bad. The short-lived high of a new pair of pants or a fresh perfume would momentarily mute the song of sadness playing on repeat in my heart. For a while, I was cool with that. But after about a year, my embarrassingly full closet and desperate bank account reflected a need for change. It’s been much better lately, but once in a while the sweet fix of shopping takes hold of me and I ride that wave. I had a lot of guilt around it for a while, but I’ve let that guilt wash away with a knowing that this, too, has been a part of my grief and hold equal weight as all the other components. I gave into it fully at one point, and now I am able to more honestly notice it’s presence and address it in a more mature way.
8. Questioning my own value/legitimacy as a woman, a wife, and a future mom
Who is going to ever so gracefully guide me through the milestones that every woman goes through in their late twenties, thirties, forties and beyond? Who am I going to call when there’s a patch of friction in my marriage? Who is going to hop up and down with me when I find out I’m pregnant? Who is going to offer an intuitive hand during the first few weeks of our first child’s life? How can I be a real, vibrant, and full woman from all angles when the woman who has been my steady role model for life has disappeared forever? Ugh.
I am fortunate to have an absolutely amazing mother-in-law, dear sisters-in-law, and wonderful friends; for that I am eternally grateful. Yet, I imagine there will be moments in my motherhood where I will want to call upon the one and only who bandaged up my scrapes, cleaned up my vomit, helped me study for spelling tests, and told me I could do it countless times for 27 years.
Sometimes I feel like less of a woman because I don’t have a mom. I know that’s not true, but the feeling creeps in every now and then. I am so lucky that I was able to grow into adulthood with her (otherwise, honestly, I would feel effed), yet it’s hard not to look into the future and acknowledge all of the times I know I will be standing there, lost, without her to call upon.
This is not an incredibly strong or ever-present piece of my experience, but it does bob up in the waters of my grief here and there. It’s simply something to observe; something to welcome in and something to pass through.
9. Coming to terms with the infinite nature of this truth
This is a big one to chew off and I didn’t really let myself go here until fairly recently. When her one year anniversary came in October 2013, I had this weird child-like anticipation. Of what? I don’t know. I feel like on some level I thought I’d receive some sort of prize or award for making it through one year of being without my mom in her physical form. Maybe, just maybe, she’d even come back? No? Ok.
When I made it to the one year mark, it was at least as sad as the day she passed. I realized that after this one year, there would be many many more and the circumstances or the reality of the fact that she was gone was unchanging. Every year would just prove to be another year. The infinite nature of her absence struck me like a swift kick to the gut. But what did I expect?
Coming to terms with this continues to be a process and one that I cannot get angry over (though sometimes I still do). This realization weaves in and out of my daily existence and is beginning to land more fully with each passing day.
10. Flowing with the circular motion of grief and being ok with the messiness
The intensity of my grief caught me off-guard at times in the beginning. I remember one day crying for almost 8 hours on and off. It was like an out of body experience…I got in the car and just drove. I felt like I was falling falling falling and had nothing to cling onto and nowhere to land. I was scared. Was this what it was like to “go crazy”? Though a woman in touch with nature and going with the flow, the general messiness and lack of control over my emotions was surprising. Especially once the shock and numbness wore off– then the floodgates really opened and I had no choice but to ride the current, trusting that it wouldn’t lead me somewhere unsafe. Now the intensity has toned down a bit and I have opened up to willingly riding the wave of grief knowing that the more readily I accept it, the quicker it will flow through. I am also learning that this whole thing is far from linear. It’s not even cyclical, really. Any one of these phases and their nuances can move in and out at any time and my practice is to watch, feel, and grow.