Wish You Were Here, Mom
When Mother’s Day approaches on the calendar, I get a little anxious. No, I’m not worried my husband and son will attempt to make me breakfast in bed (though I wouldn’t complain if they did); rather, I worry how I will balance the grief that simmers just under the surface at all times at having lost my own mother with the unadulterated joy and pride I feel in being a mother myself.
I know I am not alone in feeling my grief bubble to the surface on days such as this. At an event a couple of years ago I heard Henry Louis Gates, Jr., describe his grief at losing his mother as “still as raw and as fresh, almost, as it was when it happened”—in 1987. “If I let myself go there,” he said, “I can start crying in about two seconds. It’s like a stream flowing under this carpet—it’s right there, and I can tap into that grief at any moment.”
Ah, yes. Me, too.
When Remembering Lost Loved Ones Hurts
I used to love browsing the Mother’s Day cards in the drug store, finding one (or two or three) that captured my heart for my mom—now, however, that aisle is a trigger for a feeling of aloneness. That hollow sense that descended upon me immediately after my mother died returns, and I momentarily feel like my skin is made of eggshell.
I don’t allow myself to linger in those moments (self protection, no doubt), but I have learned that if I allow them to prompt me to visit with my memories for a while, I am the better for it.
When friends or family lose someone they love, I always urge them, at some point, to let their memories provide comfort. To relish the stories they hear from others who knew their loved one. To keep their loved one’s spirit alive. On occasions such as Mother’s Day, I must remind myself anew of this advice.
Two years ago, on what would have been my mother’s 70th birthday, I shared an unusually long update on Facebook about what I was feeling. The responses both public and private from my circle of friends were overwhelmingly supportive, as close to a warm hug as I could get from social media.
Because a number of people expressed gratitude for my words that day—for recognizing my prolonged grief as their own, for glimpsing something universal in my very individual experience—I decided to share the post in this broader setting.
For all of us who have a conflicted relationship with Mother’s Day, know this:
Our mothers live on in our memories, as joyful and as painful as that may be.
From a March 16, 2017, Facebook post:
Today my mom would have been 70. It’s hard for me to fathom. And yet how easy it would be to let myself go there—to imagine that she’s been with us these past eight years, grandmother-ing [my son], supporting and guiding and loving me on weekend overnights and hours-long phone calls, making [my husband] chocolate cream pie.
I don’t let my mind go there, ever. I don’t usually imagine her in my kitchen browning oxtails for barley soup. Or sitting on the floor near our fireplace Christmas morning, relishing in her grandson’s joy over opening his piles of presents. I never think of her sipping tea in her bathrobe at my kitchen table, in my home she never ultimately saw. I especially never allow myself to feel her arms tightening around me in a meaningful hug.
My mind never goes there because my heart couldn’t take it. It would be overbearing, distracting.
There are moments that come unbidden, though, thoughts that my mind could not squash because they are made exclusively of feelings, that simply hollow me out some days: When instincts alone move my hand to hover over the phone to connect with her. When I realize anew she is gone (I had not forgotten, exactly, just not remembered, right then, that the worst had happened).
I would have guessed eight years ago that those times would have come when something sad or even a tiny bit bad had happened—when I needed her. But I would have been wrong.
Every time I have been so in the moment that I have *not remembered* that she is gone—every time—has been when I wanted to share my joy with her.
Those who knew her will recognize that, while she was one of the most supportive, least judgmental, and most generous souls to have crossed their paths (oh, the stories I could tell!), she was also gracious and grateful beyond measure—and sharing joy with her always multiplied one’s own joy.
I lost my mom when my only son was just three months old, and it was an unexpected blow to bear. And yet it happened in the midst of the most substantial, indescribable joy I had ever experienced: motherhood. I have been blessed with many great things in the years since, and I am forever grateful (a lesson learned well from her). If only I could share those joys with her. If only I could express my love for her, impossibly amplified since becoming a mom myself. If only I could imagine her as my friend walking this earthly path with me, still.
I don’t let my mind go there, not most days. But today, on what would have been her 70th birthday, I will. I am going to imagine, for just today, what it would have been like. xoxo
Holiday Grief: We may yearn for a lost loved one even more during the holidays, but know that shared memories are a balm to the soul, and that grief is another form of love.
Allison Gilbert shares a multitude of specific ways to keep lost loved ones’ memories alive—to actively remember them—in her book, Passed and Present.
Notes from a Funeral: Reflections from a funeral on remembrance and grief: sharing memories about lost loved ones to heal—and why we don't honor our families through story sharing now.
The introduction to this post has been updated for timeliness on May 10, 2019. (Original post from May 9, 2017, included details about workshops and talks that have since passed.)