Monday, August 24, 2015

Mother Loss: When Can I Think of Her Without Crying?

[Reviewed and updated August 12, 2023]

There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than 10,000 tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.  ~ Washington Irving

A reader writes: I just wish for the day when I can think of my mom without crying. Why does it seem to last for so long? It’s been five months since my mom passed and I still can’t think of her without bawling. I’ve been very depressed lately and some days are better than others, but it often feels as if I’m on a roller-coaster. I just want to keep it together for my daughter; I don’t like falling apart in front of her.
I wish there was an easy solution to all of this pain. I just want my mom back in my life. I want her to be here for me! I want my dad to not be lonely, but I know he is. I don’t know if writing to you allows me to express how I feel, or is it just a reminder of how much I’ve lost?

My response: I’m so sorry for the reason that led you to write to me, and I’ll do my best to address some of your concerns. You say it’s been just “five months since my mom passed and I still can’t think of her without bawling.”

First of all, consider the fact that for your entire life on earth so far, your mother has been an important part of your daily life. Is it reasonable to expect that, barely five months after her death, you would be able to think of her without being moved to tears? Five months is a very short span of time, considering the magnitude of your loss – and because the initial shock that normally serves to cushion a blow like this is beginning to wear off, you’re probably just now feeling the full force of your grief. This is normal and to be expected.

Your description of feeling as if you’re on a roller-coaster couldn’t be more accurate – it is as if you’re stuck on a terrifying, nightmarish ride that you never asked to get on, you have no control over the ups and downs of it, you don’t want to be there, you have no way to predict when the ride will end, and you want desperately to get off as quickly as possible, but the person running the ride is nowhere in sight.

You feel dizzy, nauseated, terrified, disoriented and confused, and your entire world has been turned completely upside down. Nothing feels right, and you don’t know when it all will end. Is there any more accurate description of grief than this? All I can tell you is that, gradually and over time, the ups and downs of this unwelcome ride begin to level off somewhat. It won’t always feel as bad as it does right now, and eventually you will regain your bearings.

You say you want to “keep it together” because you don’t like “falling apart” in front of your daughter. I don’t know how old your daughter is, but may I suggest that if and when she finds you crying, you can simply reassure her that it’s not because of anything she did or failed to do that has you so upset – and then you can go on to explain that you are simply feeling very, very sad because you’re missing Grandma so much right now.

Feeling, showing and verbalizing your own pain gives your daughter an example to follow, while holding back implies that feelings are to be suppressed. Refusing to cry in front of your daughter may lead her to wonder if you would cry if she died! Children need to know that crying is a natural and healthy way to release emotions.

You say you don’t want your dad to feel lonely – and yet, isn’t this exactly how you would expect him to feel at this point in his own grief journey? You cannot bring your mother back to him in a physical sense, but I wonder what would happen if together with your dad and your daughter you could find some ways to remember your mom, to bring her back in a different way, by bringing her to life in your conversations with one another?

You can model reminiscing and talking openly about how much your mother meant to you and your family; you can go through photo albums and share special stories and find all sorts of ways to keep her memory alive, in your minds and in your hearts. So often we keep ourselves from mentioning the person who has died for fear of upsetting the bereaved — but do you really think your dad is thinking of anyone BUT your mother anyway? Maybe he is longing to hear someone speak her name and to talk about how much he misses her.

Finally, you say you’re not sure whether writing to express your feelings is helpful or whether it simply reminds you of how much you’ve lost. I suspect it’s both, my dear – but I want to encourage you to think not just of how much you’ve lost, but also of what you still have that your mother has given to you, to your dad and to your daughter, and to everyone else whose lives your mother touched in one way or another. How would she want to be remembered by you? What is the legacy that she has left to you? What has she given to you that will sustain you now, as you learn other ways of keeping her here with you, now that you are no longer separated by time and space and distance?

Death may have ended your mother’s life, but it has not canceled it. She will always be your mother, and you will always be her daughter. She will always be a part of who you are, and the relationship you have with her will go on forever.

I invite you to tell me what you think about all of this, and I hope our other readers will share their thoughts on these matters, too.

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