Last night I sat on the porch thinking about my Mom, Char, and the way she loved me. I relived the day she taught me to tie my shoes and the way we celebrated together by making cookies. I thought her sweet laugh, like little birds taking flight, as she told her favorite stories about Dad. I remembered how she always told me I could go anywhere in the world, and then the later joy in her face when she and Dad arrived to visit me in another country. I love to remember the look on her face the first time I drove her into France. I thought of how Mom taught me it’s okay to love yourself, as long as it doesn’t make you unruly. How she brought laughter to nearly any situation. The way she’d say, “There’s no way I’m going to worry about that.” I thought of all the great cards and letters she wrote me through the years, which I still have. I realize now how hard it must have been for her to hide her worries over me through those years I had little more than her and Dad’s encouragement to keep me going. I imagined her writing the letter she wrote to me soon before she died, and I understand that she knew better than anyone how special it would be to me today as I move through the remainder of my life without her. Her letter tells me clearly how she loved me, how proud she was of me, and how much she enjoyed her life. This is a very precious gift. I don’t think of her letter as a “final act of love,” but rather an eternal hug from Mom for every time I feel consumed by her absence.
I lost my Mom on December 1, 2002 to congestive heart failure. She was seventy-two. My Dad lost his best friend of forty-two years. When I think of Dad and I together, without Mom, I begin to wonder about his experience of loss and how it compares to mine. For one, I realize that I am less of a “peer” in my Dad’s grief simply by my lack of experience in such long-term partnership. The folks who most understand his experience are those who have lost life partners whom they have loved for many years. I wish I could better understand how he must feel, but I know my understanding is limited in some ways and even though I’ve found used some online grief counselling services, I’m still feeling the pain even today.
I, on the other hand, have Dad to share in my experience, for he’s known life without his mom, my Grandma Althea, for almost ten years. We both miss her and love to talk about her, although it still moves me deeply. I miss the sound of her voice and the smells of her kitchen, the long talks we shared while snappin’ beans, and laughing over silly things until our sides hurt. Like my Mom, my Grandmother had the gifts of loving her family with kindness and determined optimism. I always knew they were on my side. I realize that my Dad carries the experience of these losses, too, which I find myself thinking about in ways that are entirely new.
On my porch last night, as the moon rose over Reddington Pass, I thanked God for the blessings given to me through these incredible women in my life. Both were strong role models, they taught me well, and they stood by me, even when my decisions weren’t so easy to support. And then, an insight: This is what we lose when our mothers die. We lose the person who rejoices in our accomplishments and agonizes in our struggles; the person who thinks we can win every race, charm all suitors, and succeed at every job; the person whose first urge is to protect, shelter, and guide us; the person who knows what is best for us, or thinks she does; the person who brags about us in our absence and offers good advice in our presence. In sum, many of us lose the person who is our biggest fan and our most ardent defender. I can’t describe the impact of this loss very well. I am sure, however, that I will feel it forever.
With all this praise, it is important to remember that all mothers are not perfect, and neither are their children. Some mothers are confidants; others are critics. Some maintain control into their children’s lives even through adulthood, and others foster a sense of independence early on. Whatever your relationship with your mother, it is important to acknowledge your feelings and grieve what has been lost.
Grieve Your Many Losses
I shared some of my memories and thoughts with my pastor. A few days later she sent me the following insightful guidance. Her notes have been helpful to me, so I’ve included them here, with permission, for anyone who is looking for support through the loss of someone important in their life.
Grieve Your Many Losses. When you lose your mother, your loss hits on many levels. Here are a few of the losses you may be experiencing:
Loss of Unconditional Love. Relationships with mothers often resemble the one portrayed in Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny, where the mischievous, headstrong little bunny cannot shake off his mother’s love no matter what he does. After repeated testing, the bunny finally gives up and comes home. It is an apt analogy for the staying power of a mother’s love. It is often tested, but rarely fails. So when a mother dies, the loss of unconditional love is often a loss that no one else can understand, much less fill.
Loss of Identity. Roberta Bondi has written in Memories of God: “It has always been the deepest of mysteries to me that my mother has an intimate knowledge of me as a baby and as a child that I myself can never have access to at all. It is as though a fundamental part of me has existence only in my mother’s memory, and when my mother dies this part of me will die, too.”
Throughout my life, people have often noted of me, “Kim is so much like her Mom” or “Kim looks so much like Char, especially through her eyes.” In each case, my mom is a point of reference in determining my identity. Even if that involves the admission that “Kim gets her stubbornness from her mom,” it is nonetheless a point of reference to who I am.
When a mother dies, we lose a piece of who we are. She reminds us that we lose the person whose story provides the beginning of our own, whose sense of self greatly impacts who we are. She adds that it is not unusual to wonder: If I am no longer my mother’s child, then who am I?
Loss of A Family Connector. Through phone conversations, visits, letters, and now even e-mail, mothers frequently stay in touch with their children. It is not atypical for adult children to ask about siblings or send messages through Mom. When a mother dies, some families recognize this loss for what it is, and others wonder why they feel as if they have lost touch with the rest of their family. One family intentionally scheduled a yearly family reunion in a central location for seven far-flung siblings. The message was explicit. Mom is no longer here to hold us together. We have to find new ways to remain family and remain connected to one another.
Loss of Protection. In the animal world, it is often the mother of the species who guards her offspring and defends them fiercely from harm. Mother birds, cats, and lions quickly come to mind, and the message is unmistakable: “Don’t mess with my children.” Just so, human mothers are rarely indifferent to dangers posed to their children. Children may minimize a mother’s efforts to protect them, particularly as they grow older. However, most folks report a sense of security that accompanies the knowledge that even into adulthood, mothers look out for their children, and God help anyone who attempts harm. That shield of protection, both physical and emotional, is lost when a mother dies.
Loss of A Nurturing Touch. When people ask me about things I miss since my mother’s death, many things come to mind. I often describe the feeling of sitting on the floor in front of my mom’s easy chair, as she would gently brush my hair while we talked of things we thought about. No one else will ever do that in the same way for me. Ms. Ekerdt states it well, she says: “There is an intimacy between mother and child that makes human touch both natural and comforting and cannot be replicated. The death of a mother means we lose a mother’s hug and caress. We lose the complete physical acceptance that a mother can give.
Loss of What We Have Taken For Granted. On Mother’s Day this year I was walking through an airport with my husband, beginning the trip home from our honeymoon. As I walked past the racks of Mother’s Day cards and gifts, tears came to my eyes. This year, for the first time, I wouldn’t be choosing a card or flowers for my mom; I wouldn’t be calling to say “Happy Mother’s Day” — ever again. Watching mothers and daughters spending their time together are more reminders of what many in our culture take for granted, the celebration of Mother’s Day, which in my case was a painful reminder of my loss endured.
Loss of What Could Be. Not every mother/child relationship works perfectly, and when a relationship has been particularly difficult, a mother’s death means that the opportunity to make peace face-to-face is gone. That is a loss of another kind, the loss of a dream, of a hope that things could be better. It may feel like there are no more options, no more possibilities for closure, and that means accepting imperfection. Many find this a very challenging process.
Be Gentle With Yourself and Others. Be patient with yourself and others. Be patient with yourself. Letting go is a long process. Remember that it is important to give voice and acknowledgment to painful realities as a first step in the healing process.
Take your emotional pulse and be honest about what you can and cannot do. Don’t feel obligated to do anything. One woman chose not to be involved in selecting her mother’s casket: “I had no need to do that, and my siblings wanted to do it. I knew I could use that time and energy in a different way.”
Keep and reread the notes and cards people send. Don’t be afraid of the tears or the reminders; they are ways of both remembering and letting go. On occasion, if you feel like it, pick up the phone and call your Mom’s friends just to touch base with them.
Don’t expect that family tensions will improve or disappear. If anything, they may well get worse, so be prepared for hurt feelings and misunderstandings. Everyone is feeling pain, and it will manifest itself in a variety of ways for each individual.
Try to remember that your Mom was human. Don’t glorify her memory by making her bigger in death than she was in life. That makes her a role model more difficult to follow.
Celebrate Your Memories. Celebrate memories by telling stories about your Mom, wearing her favorite perfume or her jewelry, framing her favorite pictures and giving them as gifts to your children. Bake her favorite pie or make her favorite recipe. It is a bittersweet reminder of the many ways in which she nourished you. I always feel very close to my Mom when I prepare her best dishes for my Dad and his friends.
Keep her memory alive not only through stories, but also by making a contribution to a favorite charity, donating books to the library in her name, planting a tree at your place of worship, or endowing a scholarship at the local high school. In cherishing and celebrating your memories, you transform your relationship with your mother and ensure that it will endure.
When we lose our mothers, we lose much that can’t be replaced. But we are also left with much to cherish: memories, unique personality traits and strengths, wisdom, and hopefully an example that can inspire us to offer nurturing love to those who remain in our lives.