I remember a counselor I had shortly after my mothers death who said “grieving is a process”. I sometimes wish I could go back in time and have her define “process” for me. I mean, are we talking lifetime? Because it sure feels like it sometimes. As today marks ten years since she’s been gone, I’ve had time to reflect on an extremely difficult and personal journey with grief. And for the first time on this day, I feel somewhat at peace. This is hands down the most difficult article I have ever had to write. I think that’s partially because it’s really tough to be honest about your feelings with others, and more so, being honest with yourself.
So, here goes.
I viewed my mom as a rock star. Maybe not by definition, because she certainly couldn’t carry a tune or play an instrument (sorry mom), but she fulfilled this role in other ways. The songs she sang during her battle with breast cancer didn’t require stage or a microphone. No paparazzi or overnight fame. Just a mom in her living room, dancing ridiculously to Crocodile Rock in an attempt to bring any form of normalcy to her family. Sure, she struggled more than she let on, and at times she was stronger than anyone thought she could be. She taught me more in a lifetime what I can even begin to type in this post and memories that could formulate a novel. But to her, just a mom. Nothing more, nothing less.
Even after the last strand of her beautiful auburn curly hair fell, she held her head high, threw on her “Bad Hair Day” cap, and marched forward. I was never left to wonder where my stubbornness and can-do attitude came from. She didn’t want people to do things for her or be treated differently than anyone else. In high school, she set records and titles as a pitcher for her softball team. She joined an adult league and continued to play even after her diagnosis. I would watch in amazement thinking “wow, she really can do anything.” I think of that every time I set off to a new set of challenges. This is a woman who did what she loved until she physically couldn’t do it anymore.
That is the side of her and this situation I love to remember. The moments that keep me going when things get tough. Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case and it wasn’t long after that things took a dramatic turn for the worse. Her cancer had spread into other areas of her body causing regular seizures and visual signs of weakness. With the help of my extended family, (AMAZING family, by the way) my dad, sisters and I took the very best care of her we could. She would still try to crack jokes about weird medical equipment or make sarcastic comments about how “great” she felt, but it was clear that things were not working out in her favor. A bright smile simply couldn’t hide the pain anymore.
And here I sit. Holding back tears as I think back to my last moments with her. The details I’d like to hold close between her and myself because they’re all I’ve got, but I can say that my emotions were nothing like I’ve ever felt before. I was numb. Scared. Crushed. I think I even felt relief…then guilt. Regret. And oddly, so much emotion that I became emotionless. Is that possible?
As the days passed beyond the funeral, I could feel myself shutting down. The glimmer of hope I had, was gone. The person who taught me I could do anything, gone. I had the best people in the world surrounding me and couldn’t let a single one of them in. My dad arranged counseling for my sisters and I immediately following her death, but being a teenager (the seventeen going on thirty kind) I didn’t need to talk about my feelings because what did she really know, anyway. So, that was the end of that. I went on thinking I could get through this on my own. (Grief? Psh.) So, I grabbed my super size box of band aids and began sticking them on every situation that would keep my mind off what I knew I would someday have to deal with. And as the story goes, you eventually have to rip the band aid off – these being less quick and more painful kind.
Every year on July 11th, I did two things. I did something that day to remember my mother and something to drown in my own self pity. This usually meant visiting her grave (which became harder, not easier) and bringing her an orange slurpee because they were her favorite (and not to mention, her anniversary is slurpee day. Holla.) Then, I would be so emotionally drained, I would often go home, crawl in bed, let out a good cry, and eat a box of ice cream sandwiches. (Hey, don’t judge – it’s only once a year.)
Until this year, I don’t think any of these emotions that I’ve carried all of this time really showed through until I began planning my wedding. It was like a flood that just poured in all of these thoughts that I just kept pushing to the back of my mind. It’s the first time in my life that I couldn’t do this on my own. I needed help with decisions about dresses and where to seat crazy Uncle Bob. I needed her here. And she wasn’t. It was so much harder than I ever imagined it being. I smiled through it all for the most part, but afterwards it really started to hit me. It bothered me so much that my husband and a very great friend that recently came into my life, convinced me that I really should talk to someone about it. Were they nuts? Was I nuts? Ten years and I should talk to someone now?
After thinking more and more about it, I started researching some counselors in the area that specialize in grief. I found someone whom I admit, chose solely because she looked trendy in her picture. (Word to all of you with questionable photos out there.) I sent her an email and with a quick response and a phone call later, we had set up our first meeting. Whoah. I wasn’t sure what to think after I got off the phone, so I began to panic. Should I cancel? What the heck am I even going to begin talking about? I hope she has some experience with lunatics.
The day of my appointment, I fidgeted in the waiting room of her office, flipping through celebrity mags and thinking of making a break for it. “No.” I thought to myself. “I have to do this.” No later than a minute, her blonde spiky hair peeks around the corner and invites me in. Heart pounding and nervous, this was the one hurdle in ten years I was never able to cross. I know, it seems so silly to most people, but to me, this was the hands down hardest thing I’ve ever forced myself to do (we’re talking lifetime of crazy here, people.) So, away I went. I started at childhood, in short, and summarized my life as best I could into a 90 minute session.
The response? Let’s just say is was the first time that I ever felt like someone just…got it. I was simply speechless. Wait, so no drugs? No signing my life away to an institution? No lollipop or stickers and a boot out the door? No. That was it. The first step to getting my life back. And it was in the weeks that followed that began a healing process allowing me to gain control of my emotions. I wasn’t some weirdo with a traumatic past. That whatever happened it wasn’t my fault. And no, there wasn’t anything I could have done about it. I felt forgiven, happy, confident, and a million pounds lighter. I started to take the grief and turn it into good. I started to open up, communicate and let people in.
So, this year on July 11, things were different. I got out of bed, went to work, and held it together pretty well until the afternoon. I came home with no anger, no self-pity. No boxes of ice cream sandwiches for dinner. I didn’t go visit her this year because I’ve realized I’d try celebrating the time she was living. So, I did what she would have done on a rough day. Eat cheesecake. She would bring home the largest slice of cheesecake home from work and we would share it and talk late into the night when everyone was asleep. So, my sister and I went to our favorite little store and grabbed a buffet of cheesecake slices and a bottle of wine, sat at my kitchen table and devoured them all. Who thought grieving could ever be this good?
Although I admittedly still struggle, I continue to work on the things that I can control. I actually hesitated to hit “send” on this post for a week, but I know there are some of you out there who are unfortunately dealing with your own version of grief. You are the ones who gave me the strength to open up, post it, and share this story in hopes that you eventually find your own form of peace. So, thank you.
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