It’s been two years and nine months since my mom passed away. I was 19 when she got diagnosed, 20 when she died. It’s been a very strange journey that I never in a million years expected to be on. Words cannot describe it. But writing is the only way I know how to get it out in the open. I journaled online in a private Tumblr throughout her illness, and I’ve been writing to her since the day after she died. I’ve gone through two thick journals. I’ve learned a lot in my grief journey, but here are some things that I think it’s important to share:
1. Most people have no idea what to say. They will often either say something that pisses you off, or they will say nothing at all. Both of these things will hurt.
Before my mom got sick, I would hear about friends/classmates who had parents with cancer, or even parents who died. I would quickly glaze over it in my mind, never bringing it up to them because I didn’t know how to talk to them and didn’t want to upset them. But having gone through this, I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned that people want to talk about it. Personally, I am dying for people to bring her up, because I often feel uncomfortable making that first move. At first it was because I didn’t want to make other people uncomfortable, and then it was because I didn’t want to go through the weird dance of others saying something because they’re uncomfortable that will piss me off even more. But I’ve learned to accept what people say and not take it personally. I’ve learned that it’s ok to bring her up when she’s on my mind, and those who are worthy friends will listen. At first, a lot of things people would say to me really hurt. I’ve heard the whole gamut— from “She’s in a better place,” to “She wouldn’t want you to be sad,” and even “You’re healing and getting over it now, right?”— I’ve learned that these people will never have any idea how it feels for a girl to lose a mom at such a vital stage in her life, and that their comments are just sad attempts to connect and/or make me feel better.
2. I’ve developed a lot of empathy for others, and I’ve learned that not many people are capable of it.
This kind of goes along with #1. Before my mom got sick, I was very judgmental. I was insecure. I think most people my age are. I’m not saying I’m a saint now who doesn’t judge anyone, but it’s just different. This deep pain that I’ve experienced is also the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve suffered the loss of my mom, my best friend, my number one fan— but along with it, I’ve experienced mental illness for the first time in the form of an anxiety disorder. The depth of love, emotion, and pain I’ve experienced is something bigger than myself. I feel the pain of others. I try to understand where people are coming from in a larger context. People with addictions, people who are suicidal, people who have eating disorders— people I used to judge as dramatic or crazy or mentally weak… I’ve realized how much pain they are in. And often that’s the only way they know how to cope. Although the extent of my anxiety and grief has caused me for the past three years to lose so much, I’ve gained something very important. I can truly say I know that most people are just doing the best they can given the situation they are in.
Empathy also comes in the form of being able to listen to others. That means just being there, and asking truly curious questions—not trying to solve their problems, distract them, or give unsolicited advice. People need to be able to reach that resolution on their own. Especially with grief, there is no solution others can offer. It is a journey you must face largely on your own, but it helps to have others around who are at least somewhat understanding or willing to just listen. During my grief journey, I’ve met a few people who have this kind of empathy, and I know it’s because they have struggled and absolved themselves, either through a loss or other form of identity crisis.
3. Trivial things just don’t seem as important to me now.
I just graduated from UCSD, and honestly, it was one of the most painfully drawn out experiences of my life.
Let me back up a bit. In high school I dreamed about going to college. I was one of those people who was made to go to college. I love learning. I did well in school. I didn’t thoroughly question the system.
After I came home from the University of Wisconsin-Madison when my mom was sick, I ended up attending a local community college. And I freaking loved it. I took classes like Spanish, Creative Writing, and Art History. Things that were important and fun for me. The class sizes were small and I really got to know my professors and classmates.
Then I transferred to UCSD where I majored in public health. I don’t regret that decision, but I did it mostly because at some point I had been premed, and even though that dream died along with my mom, I still thought I maybe wanted to work in healthcare someday. And maybe someday I will. But for the most part, I just wanted to get that degree and get out of there. All I can say is that I’m so glad I’m done with college. I stopped caring about it in 2015. With the huge class sizes and classes I didn’t care about— it made me feel disconnected at a time when I really needed to connect.
Now that it’s over, I just want to live, to explore my passions, travel, and to spend time with those who matter to me. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m in my 20s or because I went through this huge transformation, but I think it’s the latter. If I hadn’t lost my mom, I would likely be on a track in life that I convinced myself I cared about, but actually didn’t. And I honestly use the expression YOLO (you only live once) now to guide my life.
4. I’m not as afraid of things anymore.
I know this sounds contradictory since I have an anxiety disorder…
But really, I used to be afraid of so much. Other people’s judgments, losing a job, getting a bad grade. Since I experienced this huge loss, it’s not that I’m immune to pain. I’m actually much more open to it. It feels good to feel, even if it’s a painful emotion. But no matter what happens in my life, there’s not much that can compare to losing my mom at such a young age. Life is a series of ups and downs. All we can do is roll with the punches.
5. I wonder what she was like at my age, and I wish she could see me now.
I have a lot of regrets about my mom’s death. I know I was doing the best I could do at the time, but I’ve become a completely different person since I last saw her. She knew me as a moody teenager, and I’m devastated that she will never know me as an adult.
Also, I wish I could ask her about her life. As a kid, you don’t really think of your parents as people, especially when you had parents like mine. They were “the adults,” the authority figures, they always knew best. But now I understand they were just people, with vulnerabilities and problems and emotions. Now that I’m getting older, I want to ask my mom so much. She moved out of her family home at a relatively young age, and I’m just now starting my own life as an independent adult. I want to ask her what that was like. Currently I’m in a relationship, and I want to ask her what it was like for her to date in her 20s. How she knew to marry my dad. What her fears were. My mom didn’t talk a lot about painful events in her life. But she went through a lot. Her dad died in a car accident when she was 3 years old and she would sit and wait for him to come home for months on end after he died. She nearly died in a car accident herself at age 16 and was in a coma for days. At age 55, she still had pieces of the steering wheel in her knee. And I know there were other various traumas in her life. But she wanted to be strong for her children so she didn’t talk much about that stuff. I wish she had. And maybe she would have as I got older. But I have no way of knowing.
6. I’ve learned and continue to learn a lot about myself.
I’ve officially seen myself at my worst, and I’m starting to see myself at my best. In some ways, I feel lucky. I feel that the decisions I make are truly mine, not based on what others think is best for me or based in fear. I’m following my passions. I’m pretty much certain I won’t have a midlife crisis because I’ve already gone through a crisis. I’ve realized most people don’t really know themselves, and it’s not their fault, but as a society, we don’t make that a priority. Productivity is our priority, and fear is often our greatest motivator. My mom always knew I loved to write, and she knew I was good at it. She was so supportive of that dream of mine, to be a writer. And now I’m finally starting to make it happen. It feels awesome.
7. So they say, “time heals all wounds,” but in my reality, grief is a constant companion.
First of all, time is a manmade construct. Yet I’ve been given all sorts of timelines for grief, such as “the first year is the hardest,” “after about 2 years it should be over,” “acute grief really only lasts 6 months,” but for me, none of these were true. Every day, week, month, and year have been very different since my mom died, but I would say equally hard in their own ways.
The first year I was in denial, my family moved to a new house, I was going through a breakup, I started a new school/jobs/life/relationship… I was trying to get out there and meet new people but my anxiety was SEVERE. Our family fell apart. I took on a lot of my mom’s old responsibilities. It was all very challenging for me.
The second year was much of the same, learning to deal with the changes in my life that the loss of my mom entailed. Still in denial. Still dealing with major anxiety, a little less severe, but still very bad. Again, I started a new school/job/breakup/got back together… My family which had once been the center of my universe was collapsing before my eyes.
And now finally, in year three, I’m starting to see some light.
Maybe those timelines are true for the average person grieving, but I’m not average. I was a child at age 19 when my mom got sick, and it was a vital time in my development. My need for independence was stifled by my mom’s illness and subsequent death. I had to grow up REALLY fast, yet I was living back at home. Additionally, there were so many secondary losses in my life. As I look back and read all this, it’s no wonder my anxiety has been so bad— my life was flipped upside-down. Everything I thought I knew to be true and steady had been shaken up and broken apart.
I’m now starting to live my own life, not for my family or anyone else, but for myself. I’m trying to heal my own wounds and become more true to myself as an adult. And it feels good. It feels right. I feel that I’ve aged 20+ years. And although things are definitely getting easier overall, I still think of my mom every single day, multiple times a day. And I know that at every big life transition, I will continue to think of her and wish she were there. I also now know that grief is different for everyone and therefore it doesn’t have a timeline.
8. Our society/culture is NOT conducive to grieving people.
The fast-paced society we currently live in is extremely new for humans as a species. We’ve lost a lot of traditions surrounding grief, and since most people now die at an old age, it’s not something on many people’s minds, especially people in their 20s like me. However, think back to just 100 years ago— it wasn’t uncommon for mothers to die in labor, fathers to die at work, children to die of infections, and babies to die during birth. The average life expectancy for a man in 1916 was 49, and for a woman it was 54. My mom would have outlived that by one year. Back then, I would have been lucky. But now, things are so different. Death isn’t a part of life as we know it anymore. We are desensitized to it— for the most part, it’s something we hear about in the news, in far away places, not something that will happen to us. The irony of it all is that it’s the only guarantee in life.
Doctors work so hard to extend people’s lives, which is both a blessing and a curse. End of life care is extremely costly, and people can end up “living” in nursing homes for years on end, oftentimes in painful conditions, burdening the patient and their family. The elderly live in the shadows of our society, reminding us of our futures, a notion which many of us would rather cast aside. But the baby boomers are coming, and I just hope that as a society we can figure out a way to handle the waves of grief that will roll in with them.
To sum things up, I would say that overall, I’m doing ok. I’m still not back at 100%, and I think that when that does happen, I’ll be 120%. I’m still healing. It’s a process. It’s not instantaneous like we expect everything to be nowadays. It’s an ancient process instilled in our DNA. It’s powerful, and even though I would do anything to see my mom again even for an hour, I will admit that this experience has changed me for the better. With her life, she brought my body to life, and with her death, she brought my spirit to life. And spiritually I believe she is right there with me on this journey.