Two years ago, a good friend and admired colleague suffered the unexpected death of his wife – a vibrant, intelligent woman in her 50s. I was devastated for his entire family, but my thoughts turned to his 18-year-old daughter. I, too, lost my mom when I was in college. And, while I’d never met my colleague’s daughter, I felt compelled to share with her my learnings and advice. My friend recently asked my permission to share a copy of my note with yet another young woman who was grieving the recent loss of a mother. In the interest of helping others more broadly, I decided to post the letter here. With the exception of the recipient’s name, little is changed.
You don’t know me but I’ve worked with and admire your dad.
My mom died suddenly between my third and fourth year of college. I was 21. She was three days shy of 48. She died of complications related to a rare benign brain tumor. She was healthy her whole life. She was sick (surgeries) for about a month and a half.
When she died, she was the person I loved most in the world and the person from whom I received the most love. Like your mom, she was a rare and exceptional woman. I see my mom in pictures of yours. This summer I turn 42 and will have spent half my life without her.
Hope Edelman wrote a book called “Motherless Daughters.” It came out about three or four years after my mom died. I was given no less than four copies, but I didn’t find it particularly helpful. Then she released this one [book was enclosed] – letters that “Motherless Daughters” had written her. And it remains the only helpful thing I ever read about joining the “Dead Mom Club.” So here it is.
Here are some things I learned that may be helpful to you:
- It’s her. If you think something is your mom (a song, a butterfly, a coincidence), especially over the next few months, you are right. So don’t even question those things. It’s her.
- Why? There is no answer to the question “Why?” It took me about a year to figure that out. Someone told me in the last year that “Why?” is a human question, not a spiritual question. I thought that was interesting and maybe you too will ponder that one day. Regardless, you will never, ever, ever be able to make sense of why this happened. Maybe it will be helpful to know that now because things become a lot more peaceful when you stop asking that question.
- Write. You come from writers. If you don’t have a journal, get one and try writing about this. The first entry is the hardest. I found that when I wrote things down about my mom – things I would miss about her, things I wish could be different, things I wish the doctors had done, a dream I’d had about her, whatever – the buzz in my head about that particular topic would be quieted. Something about writing it down allowed me to turn that subject off in my head. It gave me great peace and it also gave me something to do at night besides sobbing when I had a roommate in the freakin’ dorm room with me. I filled two books with grief. What therapy that was. And it made me a better writer. Big time.
- Be gentle to yourself. You have internal bleeding right now, honey. For the next year, offload needy friends, reduce the volunteer stuff, take on only a bare minimum of responsibilities. Seriously. For a year.
- Get a therapist. This summer – about three months from now – when people stop asking you daily or weekly how you are and start to go about their lives and when all your good friends have cried with you and heard your most horrid tales of anguish, get a grief counselor or join a grief group or just talk to someone with fresh ears once a week. After two consecutive weeks of visits with that person/group where you don’t cry, you’re done with that. But as long as you are crying weekly in someone’s presence, keep going and keep crying. I learned I needed therapy when I had an anxiety attack – out of nowhere – at about three months in. Save yourself that mess and get pre-emptive help. I saw a crappy free college therapist for three months, and it was really good for me. I ditched him when he couldn’t make me cry anymore. This was the first and only time I ever used a therapist. It did me a world of good.
- She’s there. After you cry and beg for a sign from her and hope that she will make a book fall off a shelf or turn a lightbulb on and off… after you plead for her to show you anything to demonstrate that she’s still there with you, you’ll end up bawling. And after you do, resignation and exhaustion will wash over you. That’s her, honey. She’s holding you then. That’s her. And she’ll give you peace after your tempest. So just exhale and know that she’s got her arms wrapped around you and she’s kissing your lovely cheek and wiping off your tears with the back of her finger.
- You will be happy again. The Greeks have a great word – palimpsest. It refers to a piece of parchment (a manuscript page from a scroll or book) from which the text has been scraped off or erased in order that the precious paper could be used again. For the next nine months to a year, every experience you have will be written on the same parchment that documented your mother’s tragic death. So previously joyous experiences will not be joyous. And you will question, through false smiles in social settings, if you will ever experience true joy again. Please know that you will. You absolutely will. You will be soaringly happy again. But it takes time. Time is a wonderful gift. Nine months after my mom died, I was so relieved and even shocked to experience a taste of joy again – on clean parchment. Not on palimpsest. It occurred to me then that it takes nine months to bring someone into the world. Maybe it takes nine months to let them out of it.
- She will inhabit you. After you stop wanting to call her. After you stop wanting to tell her about the childhood friend you ran into. After you almost don’t even think to miss her because you’re so used to not having her there, you gradually will realize that she inhabits you. You will see her face in the mirror. You won’t miss that she didn’t “meet” your husband or see your kids because you will have a very certain knowledge that she inhabits you. Her love never, ever leaves you, and she is part of everything you do – not watching from above, but watching from within. She’s in you, honey. The love, her love, never leaves. That deep, deep wonderful love will be with you forever. She will be a part of your life forever and ever. Sincerely. My mother is with me all day, every day. She is in me. She knows my husband, she treasures my kids, she sees everything I do, she is proud of me still. She’s in me. I don’t even miss her these days. I just adore her.
- Don’t sweat the thank-you notes. People will understand if you don’t write them. Your mom just died.
If you ever want to talk to someone, absolutely call me. It would be an honor to speak with or correspond with you. I am so deeply sorry this happened to your lovely, exquisite mom.
(As always, I welcome comments… about this post or on this topic.)