What grief is teaching me about being fully human
My mother was my first and best friend.
A year ago, she passed through the veil that separates this life from the next. My brothers and I were by her side when she took her last breath – and, though I am inexpressibly grateful we could be with her, I have been haunted by the memory of it ever since.
Dying is hard. At least it was for my mom. She endured a litany of medical battles – cancer, heart attack, kidney failure – and somehow managed to fight her way back again and again. Her joyful, generous spirit belied an iron will to keep living, to keep watching over her beloveds like a wounded, but indefatigable mama bear. When death finally claimed her, it seemed anticlimactic and surreal.
My colleague Chris warned me I would be disoriented. “Losing a parent often means losing your bearings,” he said. “It’s like there’s been a mountain range framing your horizon your entire life and now one of the mountains is gone.”
His coaching helped. But I still spent the first several months trying to white knuckle my way through my loss, at least in public. When folks would share their condolences, my eyes would sting, but I’d swallow hard and brush the tears away. After all, the death of my mother was sad, but it wasn’t a tragedy. She’d been sick for a while. Though we would have given anything for more time with her, her passing was not terribly out of season.
Still, I felt her loss to the very core of my being. I had the sensation I was running along a soft shoulder on the edge of a cliff and the ground was crumbling beneath me. Trying to outpace the avalanche was exhausting.
Several months in I found myself sitting in a staff meeting, discussing a perfectly neutral topic, while unrelated and unprovoked tears streamed down my face. “Hmmm,” I whispered to myself. “I think I might be in trouble here.”
Finally, I made an appointment with a grief counsellor. “What’s wrong with me?” I sobbed in her office. “People go through much harder things than this, but here I am, undone.”
She listened. She was kind. She offered a second box of tissues. And then she told me to stop comparing my sorrow to anyone else’s. “The very worst grief you can go through is your own,” she said. The statement had just enough Yogi Berra-esque wisdom to it to get me thinking. “Your loss is significant and seismic,” she said. “And it’s also a beautiful embodiment of the bond you had with your mom.”
The counsellor gave me homework. Every day I was to take 30 minutes alone and dedicate it to the work of grieving. Her suggestion seemed unbearable, but it reminded me of something my friend Trevor had said a few weeks earlier. “You can’t run away from the sadness forever, Carolyn. The only way through it is through it.”
Slowly, painfully, I’ve been learning to let myself be as sad as I actually am. It has hurt like the dickens, but it has turned out to be less exhausting than fighting to keep my composure all the time. I’ve been reminded Jesus said it was the ones who mourn who shall be comforted (Matthew 5:4) – and I’ve wondered if at least part of what He was getting at is the reality that the only way you can be comforted is through mourning.
After all, the Apostle John tells us that Jesus, confronted with the loss of a friend and the grief of a family, wept (John 11:35). In just those two words – Jesus wept – the stoicism I’ve fought so hard to obtain is exposed as neither spiritual nor fully human.
Six months after my mom’s passing I was asked to sing at the funeral of another mother. Her young adult son Jordan stood to speak. “If you’re wondering if Jordy is going to cry,” he began, “you can stop wondering. It is my honour to cry for her.”
My mom was my first and best friend. She taught me how to live and even now she is teaching me how to grieve.
It is my honour to cry for her.