As Mother’s Day approaches, I feel an old, familiar dread. My mother died two years ago and no, I’m not over it yet. Worse still, I may never be.
After the second anniversary of her death, I assumed I’d finally be all right. At least I’d be over the worst of the grief.
But the grief continued to rise and fall in unpredictable patterns. At first, I blamed it on external events: another holiday season, the 22nd anniversary of my father’s death, my 45thbirthday. Or perhaps it was perimenopause, I told myself. As if the peaks and valleys of my grief were simply a side effect of my hormones.
Then I found myself thinking about acceptance and surrender after reading about a man struggling with the news that he might lose his leg. Instead of acknowledging the severity of his situation, he remained in denial, which only magnified his suffering. Can you guess how the story ends? The man finally found peace after surrendering to the worst possible scenario, and accepting the loss of his leg.
This resonated with me on multiple levels. I’d heard others liken the loss of a loved one to the pain of an amputated phantom limb. Perhaps the loss of my mother was something similar. Perhaps it was something I’d never get over. And perhaps it was time to stop trying.
Anyone who’s lost a loved one will tell you that the grief, at times, appears endless, with its changing slopes and facades. For some of us, that doesn’t go away. At the end of his life, Morrie Schwartz (from Tuesdays with Morrie) still felt the pain of losing his mother—more than 70 years after her death.
What if Schwartz wasn’t the exception, but the norm? If that was the case, I desperately needed to find some long-term solutions for my grief. At very least, some more sustainable techniques. Ones that didn’t cause quite so much suffering for myself or my family.
Grief counselors suggest we keep our loved one’s memory alive through rituals, traditions and stories. Some holidays, I do this by lighting a candle in my mother’s memory or by cooking her favorite foods. One summer, I created a small memorial garden in my backyard before a windstorm destroyed that, too.
Smaller rituals are also important. Some days, I spend a few moments at the small altar I built in my mother’s honor, or I say a prayer. Other times, I bring my mother into my day by choosing her favorite cup for my morning coffee. Lately, I’ve been making my coffee extra strong, as my mother did—zesty, she called it.
But what I’m looking for these days goes even deeper. After having spent the past 28 months struggling to reconcile intense feelings of grief, anger, joy, rebellion and abandonment with a changing set of spiritual beliefs, it’s time for me to choose my own narrative.
During this time, I’ve questioned myself, my past, my values, my heritage and my loved ones, not to mention who I am in the world and who I want to become. Now that I’ve passed my mother’s second anniversary, I feel an added pressure to get on with it already, and solidify my identity. Solidify my life.
Part of this process, I’m finding, involves reassessing my relationship with my mother. Which of my mother’s ghosts am I ready to release? Which traits would I like to preserve?
This Mother’s Day, I choose to remember the funny, rebellious mother who pumped her fists in the air when she was excited and flipped people off when she wasn’t. The music-and-literature-loving mother whose passion for nature inspired us all. The woman with the tender heart.
As for the rest—the fearful, highly critical, wounded mother—well, it might just be time to leave those characteristics behind. Not just for my mother, but also for myself.
Meanwhile, I continue to sift through various grief rituals and traditions, so many incandescent bits of broken glass. There’s no right way to do grief, I’m finding. It’s messy, unpredictable and imperfect. It can also be quite frightening. And it makes us vulnerable as hell.
That’s OK. I choose to keep going because I can’t imagine any other way. I’ve chosen this open, tender heart, remember; it’s time to let the rest go.
However we choose to express our grief, let it be exquisite and true. Explore what that means, if you need to. Or experiment until something feels right—you’ll know.
For me, the method is always changing. Today, I choose story as memorial.
Tomorrow, perhaps it will be laughter. And every once in a while, I’ll give somebody the bird.