The Layers of Grief, a personal post
Updated: Feb 20, 2020
My mother died on January 5th of this year, 36 years after my father, her husband, died. Her health was failing but the sudden turn within 24 hours from not feeling well to get out here quick she won’t make the day was surreal. Then the whirlwind week at her home and dealing with her will and dispersal of her things only added to the surrealness of the situation and pain.
Mom and I had a complicated relationship; one that was in the process of healing but not completely. I purposefully tied into my mother's emotions; for my safety I needed to know where she was at and to calm and soothe her when her anger was bubbling up. My mom had some event(s) occur in her life that took away her joy. She wouldn’t talk about it, but it was like she was unable to accept or feel true happiness or just let go and be silly with her family. Most of my memories as a child involve her yelling or criticizing me or one of my siblings. She set such high standards and rules, they were impossible to reach, leaving all of us, even her, feeling inadequate, not enough, unworthy.
My mom taught me to sew, she took us on family vacations every summer, taught me to clean and to reach for excellence and to pray and keep my standards high. My mom taught me that I would never be good enough, that I was unlovable, that I should serve my husband and never question a man’s authority. My mom hurt me. Our relationship was complicated. My mom called me beautiful and a great mother. She questioned why I was not more strict with my children and she did not want to spend time with them one on one. I love my mother, yet she scares me. Complicated.
The death of a parent creates grief, sorrow and reflection. The death of an abusive parent intensifies and confuses that process of grief. At times happy for her to be free of her pain (physical and emotional); happy for me to be free of this complicated relationship. But most of the time I miss her, I miss what we were working towards in our relationship, I miss what could have been…. I missed telling her I forgave her. I had just come to that realization, I found that space in my heart where I truly felt love for her and forgiveness. It was beautiful and I couldn’t wait to call her at a reasonable hour in the morning. I stayed up almost all night Saturday. Hearing how she felt so unloved and unwanted all but consumed me with anger and sorrow. I searched my heart and prayed that night - all night - and came to the realization that I had forgiven her and loved her for what she could offer me. I wanted to ask her to forgive me for not spending much time with her this past year or calling often. I wanted to be sure she knew she was loved and I was sorry I didn’t know what was happening to her, because I chose not to know. Regrets.
At 7 am Sunday morning, my sister called me saying mom was dying and to get out quick. She was in Phoenix, AZ and I in Dilworth, MN. Utter devastation! Mom would never know that a turning point was reached. I tried to talk to her on the phone quickly but she was so confused and upset, I couldn’t tell her. I arrived at her bedside at 5:15 pm. She was unconscious but alive with the ventilator pushing her chest up and down and my siblings all in her hospital room. I sat next to her, held her hand, leaned into her ear and told her, “I love you mom.” I am so sorry things were hard but so glad she gets to return and be with her one true love, my dad, Golden. She wanted that for so long. I told her I forgive you and I love you and appreciate how you tried to be a better mom. Then I turned to my siblings in the room.
I won’t go into details about what happened in that hospital room, however it was clear we were not a healthy family. Witnessing the conversations and reactions just deepened my grief and sorrow. A sacred moment with my mom while the doctors removed her ventilator and we said our final goodbyes were tainted by unhealthy reactions. Difficult at best. When I returned to my room that night where I was staying, I sank to my knees, cried and pleaded with my Lord to help me process and handle all these emotions and to please, take my mother in Your arms Lord and show her joy. I envisioned her being caught up in my father's arms and feeling so completely loved; the love she didn’t allow herself to feel the last 36 years. My mom was now on her healing journey surrounded by those who love her: her husband, parents and siblings.
My siblings and I all gathered in my mother's living room to share some memories and deal with all her worldly possessions and the will. My mom was renting a home and we needed to deal with all her stuff quickly and all of us but one sibling had traveled a distance to be there and had limited time. I wasn’t prepared for the quick turn around of mom’s death to a fight over her possessions. I still couldn’t grasp that mom was really gone and here we were expected to go through her rooms and decide what we wanted. I wanted my mom. I wanted to express our sorrow and memories together. I wanted some time to just be still and honor a mother that struggled so in this life for what she could give us and yet be real about the pain she caused us. Most of my siblings don’t talk about that side of our relationship with mom. So we didn’t really talk as a group, we just grabbed at any physical memories we could take.
Every night I had to detox sick, negative energy from myself. This is a process I have learned well as an empath. I tried to shield myself, but it would only last about half the day and I did not take the still time myself to regroup and shield again; by bedtime I was exhausted and physically ill. It was such a week of contrasts - sacred and healing yet sorrowful and painful. I came home with what I really wanted, mom’s photos and family history information, journals and her wedding ring. All very personal and long lasting. As I go through this treasure trove of items I am beginning to understand my mom better and the decades of pain and anger are fading away. My eyes are opening to her pain and sorrow that she bore and never shared. Why do we shut out the very people who were sent to earth to help and love us? Why do we forget to stop and listen and ask questions? Why is it sometimes so hard to empathize with another’s chronic sorrow or pain?
Another layer added to the grief… hurtful things said and done, broken family relationships.
Next came planning for the funeral. Luckily, mom had planned what she wanted at her funeral, wrote up poems and her history she wanted shared. She even chose the funeral home and casket, etc. and plans to have her body shipped to Maryland to be buried next to dad. That was amazingly thoughtful and helpful of her. So hard to think clearly at a time of death and if we had to start from scratch, it would have been so much harder. Thank you mom. Somehow you knew you didn’t have long and wouldn’t make it to your final destination to live with Kim in Hawaii. I thought you would make it. I asked my brother David if I could accompany him to the funeral home for planning, I even volunteered to take over this part since he was so overwhelmed with being executor of will and financials. I’m glad we went together and the tender, special moments we shared there. I will never forget the connection I saw between his son William and my mom. Those two had a bond so sacred and strong it was painful, heart wrenching to watch William react to Mom going back into hospital. I begged David to turn off the video, the emotions were so strong I was overwhelmed.
In the funeral planning stages it was obvious there was a lot of anger and pain among the extended family. It became so toxic I almost rebuilt all my walls around my heart to get away from it. We decided to do a memorial service since mom’s body could not be prepped in time and casket had to be ordered. It became apparent that many of the grandkids had a negative relationship with my mom and with their own mom. It became so toxic with negative emotions and selfishness (by that I mean they could only see their own interpretation and pain and no other view considered). It looked as if no one would attend my mother’s memorial and that pained me. In the end, they all attended with their guards up. It was still beautiful and again, I was privileged to feel my mother’s presence in the room and felt her tell me that she is so sorry for all the pain in that room. She wished that they would forgive her and realize she just wasn’t able to express her feelings well nor her love. As I listened to them express their pain or anger, I saw that misunderstanding and all I could offer was, please open up to the possibility that she loved you. Another layer to the grief… the abusive poison had spread to another generation and I can’t be around it. Too toxic. I have lost more than my mom.
On the following Sunday, I had the privilege of joining two of my sisters in dressing my mother’s body in temple (sacred) clothes for her burial. I was very anxious about that. She looked so skeletal and awful at her death, I wasn’t sure I could bear to see that hollow, death look on her again. She looked like herself, plump and made up and just resting… until I touched her. She was soooo cold and heavy. The cold. It stuck to my fingers and hands. It felt like it was creeping into my heart. So cold and stiff. After we dressed her and said goodbyes, and I was alone with my sister Kim, I cried. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. She held me and I cried and begged her to please warm up my hands. I wanted to honor mom and not let some stranger care for her. I wanted to show her how much I loved her. But that is stuck in my head - cold and still. Hard reality. Another layer of grief.
My sister took me to the airport after that and I flew home. My family was so sweet and tender and tried to take care of me with flowers, love and a clean home. They were wonderful. Contrasts. It was hard to take in. I have tried to slowly work back into life and some days it is great and others… the grief just hits me on the side of the head. It’s hard some days but how to talk about it and with who? I call my sister Kim in Hawaii to talk and it helps that she understands and struggles too. I know my two older sisters could use some help with their emotions but I can’t let go of my anger and pictures in my head of how they treated my mom in her last months of life. What they said and did in the hospital room and in mom’s house. It hurts and I don’t know how to talk about it with them… safely. So we stay distant and my grief has another layer. Anger. To be honest, I also feel guilt. I contributed to my mom feeling unloved those last months. I could have done more.
Going through mom’s pictures and scanning them in and editing and fixing them to share with my siblings adds more questions. I have never seen my mom smile and happy where it spreads into her whole face, even into her eyes. I see that in her photos as a child and some as a young single adult. What happened that she couldn’t give that laughter and smile to us? Her true smile seems to disappear as more children come into the picture. I don’t see it when she is with me. More loss for me.
Two days ago a check came for me from mom’s life insurance. I stare at it but can’t really touch it let alone deposit it into my bank account. My mom is reduced to some money. I am so grateful for the money she set aside to share with us but I am saddened that she deprived herself of fun times with her kids and grandkids being such a tight wad because she wanted to leave an inheritance to her children. She thought that was love? Money? Memories, mom. I wanted happy memories with you. It hurts. Another layer of grief. Poor choices.
I have decided that I will use some of the money mom has given us to do the travel she always wanted to do. I will go to England, Wales and Ireland and research her family in her honor. I will find joy and make great memories to add to the few I have with mom. I will remove myself from any debt as she taught me and remember to live in the moment. Speak kind words. Find joy in something each day. Be grateful and share happiness and silliness with my kids and grandkids. Create memories and spread love. I may die a pauper in cash but I will die rich in love and relationships with my family.
I love you mom and dad. I am so grateful for a priesthood blessing promising me that Mom and I will have time to heal our relationship and it will be beautiful even though we are on opposite sides of the veil. Mom is learning and improving herself and healing now. Our time will be soon enough and I will accept it. I will be open to my grief and learn from it. Layer upon layer, I will learn and improve and heal myself. Till we meet again.
This song expresses some of the thoughts and emotions I feel at this time. So grateful to my sister Kim and brother David who spent that last week with mom chasing away her monsters and loving her so freely. I will better myself Mom and make you proud while you sleep.
listen to the song “Monsters”. By James Blunt