We may have done everything right, but I was wrong about how profoundly bereft I would feel when I was back home in California.
My mother had “a good death” at 92. I am one of three daughters who kept her safe and comfortable as old age and dementia got the better of her. Her last chapter was as good as it gets, especially in the Covid era, managed according to her wishes after a long, happy life. Death levels us all, even when it takes a loved one who has lived a full life and is prepared for the end. During Mom’s decline, I convinced myself that grieving would be a bit easier because we knew she was on her way — as if grief were a task that I could chip away at in advance. It wasn’t easier, but it was different than I expected. No matter when or how it comes, death is a total eclipse and it is folly to think we have control over the blackout that ensues.
My particular journey through “the valley of the shadow of death” is an ordinary one, but my grief diverged from the five stages described famously by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross — which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I paid attention to my changing emotions in the past several months since my Mom’s “good death” and observed an alternative five stages: exhaustion, fragility, archiving, reckoning, and emergance.
We gathered to celebrate Mom’s 92nd birthday on Valentine’s Day this past spring — she was sweet and happy, surrounded by her family. Her demise started immediately after, as if she’d reached a milestone and collapsed from the effort. We’d known she had memory issues but suddenly dementia was winning, and she could no longer live alone. It was confounding and exasperating, happening overnight (or so it felt) and we leapt into action to stay at her side. A few months and many decisions later, we moved her to a nursing home, where she only lasted two weeks. We sisters held her hands as she crossed over. Moments later, we watched a lone heron cross the dusky sky outside her room, a poetic symbol of her freedom.
My grief has been all-encompassing but I’ve been spared the vexxing element of unjustness. Of course, there has been plenty of sadness but it isn’t accompanied by feelings of regret, anger or bargaining that comes with a loss that is ‘out of time.’ My parents both died of old age, aided by hospice volunteers who cared for their needs. Grief looks very different after the quiet end of a docile elder than in the anguished aftermath of an unexpected or untimely death of a vibrant loved one.
Life doesn’t come with an expiration date, so in the past three or four years, my sisters and I never knew how many months or days were left in Mom’s life or if we were making the correct decisions about care. Living far across the country from here was problematic in the final years, so I spent months at a time living near her, navigating visits during quarantine. As sisters, we made many decisions together as her state of health changed — often daily. The stress of an endless landscape of “not-knowing” took its toll on the three of us, so when Mom finally died, we were exhausted. Our work with hospice had helped us to prepare for the actual process of dying, but we weren’t ready for the aftermath. The first feeling was actually relief — we felt guilty about it, but we could feel the burden of care sliding from our shoulders. We were released from years of being split between our lives and hers, as well as from the confused rush of her actual end-of-days.
Tasks piled up immediately: we had to wrap up her apartment in the retirement village, settle the estate, notify her friends, and pack her things to be shipped or sold. Keeping busy in those days distracted us from being too overwhelmed. Complicating the narrative was the fact that it was the end of our lives in our hometown; we’d sold the house when our father died, and Mom had lived out her life in a nearby retirement village. Preparing to leave the place we’d known as home all our lives was perhaps the most surreal part of the strange landscape of death. I wrote the obituary, planned a memorial with all our loved ones in attendance, and we knew in our hearts that we had done everything we could to honor her wonderful life.
We may have done everything right, but I was wrong about how profoundly bereft I would feel when I was back home in California. I found myself ducking social obligations or, when I had to mix with others, feeling utterly shatterable. The mind plays tricks with the heart, and it took weeks to fully comprehend that I was suffering not one, but two, separate losses. The loss of my mother — which is grief enough. But potently, I lost my original habitat when we packed everything out of my New England hometown. My heart was anchored there with her but both were suddenly swept from my life. The dual severance left me disoriented and unmoored.
I only wanted to rest and be alone. Like Greta Garbo, I yearned to stay sequestered without any responsibility of explaining my seclusion. It is as if I was following some ancient script of grief, an internal compass that whispers to stay still. When you’re grieving, you are out of step with the rest of the world. Sideways against time. My skin felt thin. Right under the surface was a cluster of feeling that threatened to burst at any time. Within weeks of Mom’s death, I contracted shingles — a literal manifestation of the bubbling up of pain, proving that grief is felt down to the level of our cells.
I was oddly content to sit on the sidelines of my life, wary of complicating the shingles by doing too much. As in the first months of the pandemic, I was pulling up the drawbridge and waiting out the danger. Strangely, my made-up process of grief felt like a way to honor my parents, and buffered against the missing pieces. It helped me cope with the interruption of a routine that included calling Mom regularly and organizing my life around visits to care for her. But I still felt the impulse to call her daily and that was hard. I haven’t yet removed her number from my phone, and my weather app still shows the temperature in my hometown. It feels “too soon” to remove either digital reminder.
A friend told me, in the hours after Mom died, that losing a mother “is like a library burning down”. The wisdom in her words didn’t land right away because I was caught up in “closing the file” around my mother which involved canceling contracts and obligations and telling her story to friends and family. Death’s secondary phase of duty is as difficult of the first phase — we had to cope with all The Stuff. We pored through the vast repository of things built up over our lifetime, some of which had been dispensed already, but alot of which was still around. We whittled it all down into three piles that we daughters will be trying to sort for years to come —keeping meaningful items and making random decisions about selling or tossing the rest. A sifting through of the ashes, the past erased in increments.
Antique platters, tattered pillows, bits of jewelry and odd chairs are easy to sort. Old letters and photographs are more time-consuming. Sometimes it feels as though a well-organized Dropbox file of photos is all that’s left of my parents, but at least I can access their history in an efficient way. And, what of the ephemera? The feeling I get from a camp bracelet with her nickname inscribed, the story of a kindness she paid decades ago to a friend surfacing in a condolence note, the touch of a coffee cup from her collection as I sip my morning brew. Time ticks forward. Her decline and death seemed to take forever and yet it was really just a blink of an eye since she was working in New York, or caring for her three babies, or helping her daughters watch over her grandchildren.
When everything quieted down, the image of the library of my life going up in flames came back to me, reminding me how quickly history turns the page. Without a path back to prior generations, the responsibility for remembering now falls on us. My sisters and I are now the keepers of our family history, archivists of images and letters but also the ones who must build up the family architecture and maintain the lore for the next generation.
As duties fade, a more clammy sort of grief nestled into my daily life, like fog settling over a coastline. The brutal fact of Mom not being where she has always been makes itself known daily. The words of poet philosopher David Whyte were helpful to me: “Falling into grief is like falling towards the foundation that you didn’t even realize that the person you lost was holding for you.” And the loss of the second parent compounds exponentially. As a friend said “if your parents are the sun and the moon around which you orbit, the loss of those primal constellations is profoundly disorienting”.
The world’s religions honor death with varying traditions, all of which hold a period of mourning during which prayers are offered to the bereaved, who are in turn exempt from normal social responsibilities. In the West, black clothing is worn to ceremonies — in Portugal, some widows still wear black for the remainder of their lives, which was that culture’s original custom. In the East, mourners wear white — which might be a better way to help the bereaved make it back to a lighter state of mind. And in Judaism, mourners sit shiva, where they are visited in their homes for seven days. The Jewish faith also offers up a graveside remembrance ceremony, held on the one year anniversary of a death, that honors the duration of mourning.
The only true antidote is time, but surviving the active stages of mourning takes as much fortitude as patience. A friend told me recently that her father, a small-town doctor, considered grief to be an actual diagnosis, and prescribed solitary walks in nature on his doctor’s pad. I’ve heeded the advice of close friends and am taking it slow and finding ways to add Mom to my life in California. Items from our family home have been shipped across the country and I’m integrating them into my house. A beautiful antique secretary and a stately wingback chair have slid into duty in my traditional New England home. A silver coaster that she loved sits under a water glass on my desk.
I feel unnaturally caught up in the past, as anachronistic and dull as the worn silver butterknife that sits in the drawer with my stainless utensils, a relic from Mom’s formal silver that we used growing up. Solaced by the warmth of an object that she touched daily for most of my life, I reach for it each morning to butter my toast. A stuffed bunny rabbit that she held for the last three weeks of her life, and that was in her arms as she died, sits in an armchair in my bedroom. Every afternoon I visit the chair, thinking of her. Just fifteen minutes is what I allow for grief to have its center stage, before I get up and go about my day.
Friends who have gone through this tell me they think about their deceased parents every day, indicating that moving out of active grief does not erase its muted, quotidian presence. Perhaps I am clinging in this state because once it passes, my parents will really be gone. Maybe a day will go by when I don’t feel that clutch in my throat, indicating that they’re a tiny bit less present in my life. I can already feel this happening.
Parents are integral to our sense of self, even when they’re gone. Through objects, rituals, and memories they remain close, like the bunny and the butter knife. I feel the presence of my parents all the time — memories alight and go, reminding me of their spectral impact on my mind. Part of the strange landscape of healing is that by letting go of my identity as child, I am emerging as someone new. Familiar but not the same, like a snake that wriggles beyond a shed skin and continues with a new outer layer. Who is this new me, without them?
The death of our parents is inevitable, but living is what we are left here to do. My transformation is happening in slow motion. I am beginning to speak of my mother without wobbling, with a matter-of-factness that invites conversation instead of sympathy. I survived the first Mother’s Day and the first birthday without her and will soon brave a visit my hometown, even though I swore it would be too hard to return this year. The normal course of life is resuming, as all the healers promised.
Habits that connected me to my living parents are fading, but like the flowers that my mother loved to tend, will sprout new connections to the legacy of our life together. My father, who has been gone for five years, is still part of my days; I am comforted when I recognize a song or circumstance that would make him smile, and consider what he would have done when I’m making a big decision. I know my mother’s memory will evolve similarly into a regular feature of my consciousness. Maybe instead of thinking of them as ghosts, my parents can serve as Avatars for the things I cherish and need from them, and which can continue to strengthen who I am in the world.
Sarah Bowman is a Angeleno by way of Massachusetts, Blogger at The Family Savvy, Mother of 2 millennials, Photographer @sarahbowmanphoto on IG.
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