Monday, February 5, 2018

Mother Loss: Years Later, Still Can't Cope

[Reviewed and updated August 25, 2019]

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is NOW.  ~ Chinese Proverb

A reader writes: I lost my mum to cancer 8 years ago. I was 17. My brothers were 15 and 13. We have no dad as he never wanted to know us and left years ago. So now I have neither parent. My beautiful mummy was 42 when she died, she would have been 50 this year. She had 16 months of pain and suffering with us by her side until her cancer finally got the better of her and we lost her.

Watching her suffer was torture, I actually wanted her to die. How evil is that. But watching your mum the most amazing person in the world die slowly of that horrible disease was the worst thing I've ever gone through. That pain is still so raw 8 years on I can't see that I will live on to lead a happy life without her. All I can think of is after finding out it was terminal and she wouldn't last much longer is the helpless feeling. This feeling I will never forget. I couldn't do anything about it, she was alive, unwell in front of me and getting worse by the day and she was going to die. Soon. Deal with that one. And there's nothing in the world you can do to change that. I'm so angry my head is jumbled. How is that even possible? How and why? Why did she leave me? I'm so angry. Broken. I can't see through this black and tears. She's gone. But she must come back to save me. Is it possible to die of a broken heart?

This pain hasn't left me not one bit. It's not easier. In fact it's harder. Please someone tell me I'm not crazy. I feel like it. I miss her more now than ever. I've had a tough year and need her more than anything. She died before my 18th birthday, we had planned to have a party together. Why? I'm crying so much I just want to scream. All I want answered is why? Why her?

This affects every part of my life now and has ever since. This fear of being left alone by people I love that much gets in the way of leading a normal life. I have to ask her everyday to put white light around my two brothers and my fiancé to protect them because I cannot feel that pain and helplessness ever again.

I don't want to give up. I feel like it but I can't. But my stupid brain ruins everything because I can't get to grips with losing her. I don't like the person it's made me become. I find a problem in everything. I can't accept things and move on. Every tiny problem is the end of the world. I love too much. Then it scares me because of losing my mum. What if I lose them too?

I used to be so confident. Now I am not. All I want to do is sleep and be with my fiancé. I find peace when I am with him but I need and want to find peace on my own. I feel like I am a burden to everyone.

How do I get over this? I never will. I don't even know how I will ever accept what happened. I'm angry. There must be someone out there who understands? I don't want anyone to understand it's too painful. I don't get any joy out of anything. I'm tired but I don't want to sleep, I'm hungry but don't want to eat. I am bored but I don't want to move. I'm just existing in a world that's moving forward without me. She must come back I need her advice. I need my mums help right now. I want to know where she is and if she heard me tell her I love her when she took her last breath?

Il never be ok. I want to be ok. That's what she would want but I just can't. It's holding me back from everything. I love her and miss her.

Please help. I havent felt like I can talk about it properly until now. It's too painful. I'll cry for days non stop if I talk about it but I feel like it's time.

My response: I'm so sorry to learn of the death of your mum to cancer when you and your brothers were so young, my dear ~ and sorry, too, that you didn’t have any support from your father at the time. You say that even though this death happened eight years ago, the pain is just as raw. You also say you feel as if you haven’t been able to talk about it until now. I’m not sure what’s going on in your life that you’ve decided now is the time to acknowledge the impact of this loss on your life and face the reality of it, but it could be that you're close to experiencing one of those "hallmark events" in your life, when you're more acutely aware of your mum’s absence. In any event, the “why now?” question doesn’t really matter. What matters is that, for whatever reason, your grief is demanding your attention and you're finding it impossible to ignore.

That's the thing about grief. As you have discovered, if we don't give it the attention it demands at the time of our loss, our grief doesn't get resolved ~ it simply goes underground and waits for us to take care of it. And sooner or later, out it comes, often every which way but straight ~ or it hits us just as if the loss had happened yesterday. One of the greatest myths about grief is that the day will come when we "get over it." Grief is a normal reaction to a significant loss, and it's something we all get through and learn to live with, but we never, ever get over it. And there is no time frame for grief, either.

You say that you feel angry that your mum was taken from you, and it may help you to know that grief produces all kinds of conflicting feelings, most commonly those of anger and guilt ~ which over time can become quite distorted, unless we share them with someone else (a trusted friend, a relative, a clergy person, fellow grievers in a support group, a grief counselor). Feelings exposed to the light of day can be acknowledged, examined, evaluated, worked through and resolved. Feelings that are stuffed just sit there and fester, making us feel miserable, crazy, sick and alone. You may have heard that "time heals all wounds" but I'm sure you've learned by now, eight years after losing your mum, that the passage of time doesn't do anything to heal your grief ~ time is neutral. It's what you do with the time that matters.

When the pain of grief keeps coming up for us despite our efforts to ignore it, we are wise to pay it the attention it demands. Grieving successfully requires the hard work of confronting, expressing and working through the pain of your loss. The good news is that it is never too late to do the work of grieving.

So I strongly encourage you to find someone to talk to, my dear ~ someone who respects the relationship you had with your mum and who knows something about the normal grieving process. You might call your local hospice, mortuary or church to see if there is a grief support group offered in your community. Read all you can about grief to learn what is normal and what you can do to manage your own reactions (for example, click on the Marty's Articles tab at the top of this blog, and read some of the pieces listed there). Find and read some of the wonderful stories written by others whose mothers have died (see the sites listed on our Death of a Parent page); this will help you see that you are not alone, and will give you the hope that if others managed to get through it, then somehow you will find your own way, too. See also our Comfort for Grieving Hearts page to read what others have to say about this experience. Grieving is very hard work, but you don't have to be doing it all alone.

An article I read a while ago describes in detail a presentation given by Hope Edelman, author of the bestselling book, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss. Drawing from relevant themes from her books, research, and her own personal experiences, Edelman identified 9 Things to Know about Motherless Daughters, and I think they are important enough to share with you (and with others who may be reading this):
1. A daughter’s grief lasts a lifetime. 
2. Predictable milestones and life events may reactivate mourning. 
3. Reaching the age at which a mother died can be a strange experience for a daughter. 
4. Fathers matter.* 
5. Fathers matter even more than we think. 
6. Early loss of a mother represents an “imprinting” loss that affects a daughter’s ability to cope with later loss. Thus, motherless daughters often develop an external locus of control (that is, the belief that events, whether good or bad, are caused by uncontrollable factors such as the environment, other people, or a higher power, and she has no control over them), with an ever-present anticipation of "waiting for the other shoe to drop." 
7. Additional family stressors may make it difficult to tease apart the impact of mother loss from the effects of other events, some of which may be instigated or exacerbated by the death. 
8. Motherless daughters have specific and unique fears (e.g., dying as one's mother did or losing other important persons) and goals (e.g., wanting to stay alive for one's own children, spurning both determination and anxiety). 
9. Motherless daughters have their own “standard of normal.” 
*Citing research findings, Edelman emphasized the influence of the surviving father on a daughter’s long-term adaptation. Of the women interviewed for her book, 59% of the surviving fathers had remarried and 31% of the women who reported “poor relationships” with their fathers had experienced the remarriage of their father within one year from the time of the mother’s death. From the basis of this understanding, Edelman strongly recommended that surviving fathers wait a minimum of one calendar year before moving towards remarriage.| 
[Source: The Forum, ADEC 2014 Annual Conference, July 2014, pp 12-13, reported by Lara Schultz, PhD]
If you haven't done so, I encourage you to find this book and read it, my dear ~ I'm sure your local library would have a copy. At the very least, it can help you to feel less "crazy" and alone in what you are thinking and feeling. See also Hope Edelman's listing of Motherless Daughter Support Groups.

I think these articles will have resonance for you as well, as they deal with the matter of delayed grief:
Just as you grow and develop through the years, your grief will change too. It will change you as well, influencing who you are in the present and affecting who you'll become in the future. This death of this important person ~ your mother ~ must be worked through, adapted to, and integrated into your life repeatedly, as different situations and developmental milestones will require you to accommodate this loss of her again and again. You will re-visit your mum's death continually as you grapple with its meaning ~ emotionally, socially, economically and spiritually ~ and as you struggle to find a place for her in your present and future life. There is important work to be done here, my dear, and the time to begin is now.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC

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