A woman sits with her head bowed on a dock

What grief is teaching me about being fully human

From the November/December issue of Faith Today

My mama and me

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.

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26 comments

  1. Thanks,I spent over 20 years not grieving the death of my mom and as a result not feeling much of anything. I have been learning to feel over the last 10 years, and yes it hurts like the dickens, but it also allows me to feel joy, peace, contentment and a whole range of other emotions as well.

  2. Hi Carolyn, THANK YOU for sharing. It reminded me that it is still okay for me to mourn the loss of my mother (Feb 9, 2019) and my dad (Jan 4, 2018). As my sister & I were by Mum’s side, we learned that my uncle, Alf Bell had been given 6 months. As you likely know, he has also passed through the veil and has joined them and many others.
    I find myself tearing up, and needed God’s gentle nudge through your words, reminding me to continue to mourn.
    Blessings,
    Cathy Noble

  3. Thank you, sister Carolyn. I lost my mother two years ago and don’t think I’ve grieved well. I’ve rationalized my way out of it by saying, “She’s home with the Lord and happy now. ” But, that didn’t really deal with my lingering sadness. You’ve given me something to think about. I’m sorry for the loss of your Mom AND best friend. Blessings on your grief journey.

  4. Thanks Carolyn. I found this by Oark’s post on FB. Do you mind me asking some of the things you did doing those 30 minutes each day. After speaking with Helen, I sense I need to grieve a number of losses in my life besides my Dad. I just sit there as I try to process and I just am numb. Thoughts/idea? You can just email me directly if you prefer. Thanks

    1. So nice to hear from you, Barb. For me, those 30 minutes were/are a lot of letting myself cry, write stuff down etc. I also found Kenneth C. Haugk’s “Journeying Through Grief” series of four little books quite helpful. Praying for you!

  5. It saddens me that our culture handles this so badly. I like that you call it stoicism. We love to be seen as strong, and view emotionalism as weak. If you have 15 minutes in your daily grieving time, I love the Ted Talk by Sophie Sabbage on How Grief can help us Win when we Lose. It is honest, poetic, and heartfelt. Thanks for talking about it!

  6. I totally get it, Carolyn. I’ve had more grief and loss than I care to mention. For years I didn’t even know how to grieve. I only knew what came by instinct, as an 11 yr old losing my father and then as a teen, losing my mom. There were no counsellors then. It was a tough road to navigate alone. The losses have given me a kind of compassion that can only come through grief. It’s a harsh sting and bite, like no other and yet we really have no choice but to feel the pain either now in the present or in years to come. I am so glad you’re allowing yourself the space to do what your heart needs to. Sending you love and heartfelt understanding as you continue to grieve your sweet mother. There is a sadness that will always be there, but it does get easier.
    Love
    Kelita ????

  7. Carolyn you are a master with words. They create images of deep loss and conveyed hope. But mostly I sensed the inescapable reality we all will face as we lose parents. No clichéd platitudes or hurried moves at comfort will replace the deep long work of mourning in sorrow and grief. I am glad for the safe friends (Trevor and Chris) who supply wisdom and understanding on your journey. You are fortunate for their wisdom and the deep love of your husband and family.

    1. Thanks, Jamie. You are right, I have some pretty great friends and family – I’m grateful. And you are right that it is “deep long work” – as all important things are. Grateful for you, friend!

  8. Thank you for sharing. You and your mom shared such a special bond that is is no surprise that your moorings felt torn away. God created us to be in relationship with others and when one of your primary ones has changed, it must leave a huge, gaping hole. I am so sorry for your loss.

  9. My mom passed away 6 years ago and one of her friends gave me a little book, Grieving Well. She told me to really let my mind and body grieve. Initially I thought this was kind of silly, but it is completely true. If you don’t grieve well, it does come out eventually and may take longer to be realized. I am still grieving well. I have put off opening some boxes of her stuff that were packed up when we emptied her home and am fully expecting more grieving when that happens. Your writing is so honest and helpful – your gift of writing being one of many you possess! God bless you as you grieve well.

  10. You have so beautifully expressed this. I am still on this journey, not sure if it will ever end, but it is good….not easy, but it is good.
    Hope to hug you again someday. Sending virtual hugs.
    Love you sister,
    Thea

  11. I just read your post a few days ago … now I am heading to YVR to fly, quite literally, across the country to see my dad who on life support. Disoriented … even the threat of grief over one so loved, who is still here, can muddle the brain of a typically calm, cool and collected soul. I am holding onto your message in this liminal moment, just trying to feel the feels authentically.
    Thanks for sharing your real you!
    Carole

  12. Carolyn, thank you for writing this. My mom is 87. She’s still happy, healthy, smart and pretty, but time passes, and the inevitable must be addressed. We won’t know how we will respond, until we go through an experience. I’m sharing your words with my siblings, when the time comes, and preparing myself the same. God bless you, dear friend.

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