A little more than a year ago, in the weeks and months just after my mom died, I remember feeling desperately afraid. Not of death, not of never coming out of the darkness, but of someday feeling fine. I was scared to feel normal again.
I’ve read that grief is an extreme form of separation anxiety and I buy it. Our dog had separation anxiety and when we left the house he would freak-the-eff out. He broke dishes, he peed, he threw his body against the door. He lost all sense of reality, all he could see was our absence. That’s grief. The world has become a place you’re not sure you can be okay in anymore and the loss of that security is devastating.
Which brings at first a constant ache. That ache was the strongest tie I had to her. It was painful, but it was real and almost tangible. It was the closest I could get to being with her. I couldn’t smell her anymore, but I almost could. I could almost hear her, almost feel her hands stroke my hair, almost see her face – resting, not just smiling like in all the photos. My longing was almost enough to bring her back.
So I was terrified of losing it. Terrified that when the inevitable equilibrium came – the imminent normalization everyone spoke of – I would lose more of her. I would lose what little I had left. Kind people would tell me that it wouldn’t always hurt so bad and I would smile to thank them, but recoil inside. No! Please don’t take more of her…
So I took a lot of comfort in people who admitted quietly, when they could tell I needed to hear it, that they still ached, that some days they still felt disoriented and that the longing still overwhelmed them sometimes. It’s not the thing we volunteer – the pain. We don’t want to burden people, we don’t want to be annoying so we sweep it away around Them and manage it in our bedrooms behind smut TV or extra glasses of wine. But sometimes we get brave or we are around brave people and we can admit to the universal secret: that we are not whole without the people who make us so.
My mother doesn’t feel close. She feels impossibly far – that’s the whole problem with death, that’s why we all try to avoid it. I don’t ache constantly now, but like most things I got to keep it until I was ready to let it go. I still long for my mother, sometimes with scary fierce intensity. Her absence still stings – particularly in moments when I know she would have been present. I still have hard days, hard weeks, and I still forget for a few seconds that she’s gone. It still hurts.
But gradually I realized that the pain wasn’t keeping her here. It maybe let her phantom stay, but see-through mirages are not my mother. My mother was vibrant: she made noise and ate food and held the kids’ hands on walks. She did things phantoms can’t do, things my memory can’t fabricate into new behavior. She was real. So at some point the fear of losing more of her became the realization that it was already gone.
What does remain is the love and my connection to it. What has proven indelible are the lessons she taught me: that I am worthy of love, that I can do hard and scary things. She taught me to let myself off of hooks and to trust in all circumstances that good will win out. She taught me to see beauty and appreciate humor. These are stubborn, carved in truths that have endured the cracking of my foundation. As my world crumbled and everything became a question the things my mother gave me stood firm, never wavered, bound me fast to the part of her that cannot die. I still have that and she still has me.
So when I’m longing or laughing or being brave or feeling scared or trying not to yell at my kids, in some way she is there. Not the way I want her to be and if I’m honest, most of the time it’s not even almost the way it used to be, but I am learning how to move in the world again, tethered to the things that always held me. I am learning how to be less-than-whole, but still okay.
This post was inspired by a beautiful piece by Mari Andrew. If you haven’t already, go look at her work for profound affirmations of what it means to be human.