Grief is a Journey

I have what I have, and I am happy.

I’ve lost what I’ve lost, and I am still happy.

My mother died from pancreatic cancer when I was 6 and it has been the most defining part of my life, my cornerstone. When most people find out that my mother died, they respond, “I am sorry for your loss.” However, I don’t know if what I feel is loss… it’s more of missing out. My mother died so early in my life (6 years old) that it feels like she’s a half-remembered dream with details that are too fuzzy to recall. I have photos of her, of us, and as I look at these photos I would like to say that I remember these moments. A moment like the scent of her coffee when I sat on her lap at the kitchen table in the mornings before school watching the vibrant red cardinals and blue jays fly around in our garden, pecking at the bird feeder. Or the time we went to Universal Studios Orlando and my mother was petrified of the large black snake; hazy memories of her shrieks and shrills are still comforting. The funny thing is, I am not certain if these are real memories or stories around the photos that my mind created to help fill this void, to this missing part of me. But regardless, I have almost no memory of my mother. Losing my mother has made me who I am today, and I have no regrets and through an unusual series of unfortunate events, I would like to say that I am happy.

I am a strong believer that grief is a journey.

It has been over 20 years since I lost my mother and I still grieve to this day. Grief comes in many forms, but it is always an endless journey with several milestones along the way. I accomplished one of the hardest milestones on my grief journey on December 15th of last year- my wedding.

Growing up I had been to many weddings and always lost control of my emotions at the Mother-Son dance, knowing that inevitably that was a moment I would never get to experience. If you have met me, you wouldn’t know the trials and tribulation that I have endured, you wouldn’t see a sign of the anxiety and sadness that I wear on my sleeve only when I am alone, or the ever-present craving to be mothered. If you have met me, it may appear as though I see vulnerability  as weakness and have over compensated in the other direction. (Self defense is a funny thing.) But all of my pent up anxiety and sadness always escaped during the Mother-Son dance at weddings and my vulnerability has been on display in those moments knowing that eventually on my own wedding day, I would have to face my loss. I have locked my fears and vulnerabilities in a box and the Mother-Son dance has always had its key.

On December 15th I had to face my own Mother-Son dance, my box filled with my fears, with my older sister (and part-time surrogate mom) standing in for my mother. Leading up to the wedding, I had so much stress about the dance that we considered removing the dances all together from the wedding, about shortening the songs to make it more endurable, and changing song choices, etc. My loving husband was willing to do anything to make this moment easier for me, but I quickly realized that this was the biggest milestone on my journey of grief yet and I needed to experience it. This box of vulnerability had been compartmentalized for so long and I needed to let some of it out- and it was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.

For those of you don’t know, Coldplay’s song Yellow is about the writer’s mother dying of cancer, “It was all yellow” referring to the jaundicing of his mother’s skin as she battled the disease. For its beautiful melody and heartfelt lyrics, I chose this song for my sister and I to dance to to honor my mother. This emotionally charged song was a very important part of my journey; a song with lesser meaning to my experience may have been less emotional, but would have blunted the impact of the monumental moment for me. Being this vulnerable in front of 75 of my closest friends and family and allowing their love to uplift and support me was another stop on my train ride of grieving.

Yellow has an even deeper relation to my journey as he later goes on to sing “Your skin and bones, turned into something beautiful” and I interpret this line to be about her physical body remaining beautiful until she died, but I believe there is another, less tangible meeting. Once something dies, it’s gone, there is nothing beautiful about someone on their deathbed. What is beautiful is the grieving process, the sense of community and togetherness, the bond that is created from someone that has lost and grieved. It’s interesting, I have been in the dead parent club for over 20 years now and it’s a club that I hope none of you experience for a very long time, but if you are unlucky enough to be inducted into this club, get ready for the hazing- its endless. It’s a wound that you are constantly tearing open, everyone is constantly pouring salt into (mostly accidentally), and it’s a defining feature of who you are- to everyone.

All you can do is embrace it.

My wedding day was difficult, I still cry about that dance every time I think about it. But the emotion was both heavy and light from the joyous occasion we were all brought together by. There was a heavy weight of sadness, tears, anxiety, and empathy countered by overwhelming  love and happiness. Having happiness and sadness throughout the night was what I needed to get through it.

If you don’t seek it out, things will not get better.

My conclusion is that if you don’t let yourself experience those dark moments on your journey of grief you will never be able to truly cope with your loss. I will not be naive enough to say you will get over loss, the death of a loved one never goes away. As helpless as you may feel at times, all you can do is cope with it and try to understand how loss affects you. Every time you see something that reminds you of the pain; do not run from it or compartmentalize it. Do your best to understand it, show it love, and do not be ashamed of it. Grief is a journey with no end, but try to find the beauty in the vulnerability and allow your community to support you.

Grief is necessary.