“You let time pass. That’s the cure. You survive the days. You float like a rabid ghost through the weeks. You cry and wallow and lament and scratch your way back up through the months. And then one day you find yourself alone on a bench in the sun and you close your eyes and lean your head back and you realize you’re okay.” -Cheryl Strayed
The second anniversary of my mom’s death (a.k.a. her “angelversary”) has come and gone, and although it was a month ago, I want to write about it, to offer a message of hope…because I have found that the difference one year makes borders on miraculous.
The first year was spent mostly recovering from the shock and coming to terms with her absence as the parade of birthdays, holidays, and other special occasions marched on. Year One was like one big, long NO! I was acutely aware of the brevity of life and of everything that felt misaligned in mine. Her first angelversary – actually, the whole month of May 2015 – was brutal! It found me about as downhearted as I’ve ever been in my life, standing at the confluence where a year’s worth of grief, discontent, and confusion in different areas of life converged – for sometimes the tears from big losses give birth to tributaries of thought and action that lead to additional disillusionment, heartache, and letting go, thus complicating the process. The first year felt a little like my mom was away on vacation somewhere, but when the anniversary rolled around, it came with a sense of permanence. It had been a full year, and she wasn’t coming back.
The second year was a big time-out for soul-searching and letting go of what no longer seemed to fit. Big things, like leaving my teaching career (which, despite how long it took to muster up the courage, I haven’t regretted for a moment). I decluttered my house and my life to make space for new possibilities and did everything I could to build a foundation for new beginnings. Mercifully, there weren’t any more “first” holidays to get through – although the first member of our family’s newest generation was born in January.
At the beginning of Year Three, my youngest child graduated from high school, and I anticipated that my mom’s absence would be felt at the graduation. But it wasn’t so bad after all. I wore my necklace that contains some of her ashes and carried her with me in my heart – as I do every day. In Year Three, I feel ready to resume my life in earnest – albeit a different version than I was living a couple years ago. I have lightened my load, tried a lot of new things, and assumed some new roles. I still don’t know “what’s next” but am at peace with not knowing. I’ve always sensed there was some kind of divine hand involved in the events that transpired following the death of my mother and that important work was being done, no matter how screwed up it appeared on the surface. “Believe in the integrity and value of the jagged path,” advised Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild. Amen to that.
Although I still miss my mom every single day, thank God her second angelversary was nothing like the first. On the actual anniversary, I took it easy. I walked the labyrinth just as I did the day she died, and it felt quite the same. The weather was the same, and feelings of loss and sadness lingered in the humid air. When I stepped out of my car, a bunch of purple irises greeted me, just as they did the day she died. As I walked the labyrinth, two young girls noticed a butterfly right next to my car, which reminded me of when my daughter told me she noticed the first butterfly of the year the day my mom died.
I took a long walk and felt grateful for having such a wonderful mom in my life for as long as I did, for her voice that continues to echo inside my head and heart, for the dreams in which we are together again for a few awesome moments, and for the dear souls who have come into my life as a result of our shared grief. A couple days earlier, I’d found in my dad’s freezer the last remaining bags of strawberries my mom had picked. I visited my dad on the evening of my mom’s angelversary, and we enjoyed strawberry shortcake made with her hand-picked strawberries.
As the sun set, I took another walk and felt strong and peaceful. Strong because now I can handle the grief that threatened to shatter me last year. I can handle my mom being gone, although I really miss talking with her (though sometimes we have conversations in dreams). It occurred to me that a year ago, I wanted nothing more than to feel the way I feel now, and I am immensely grateful for that.
Cheryl Strayed wrote:
“It took me years to take my place among the ten thousand things again. To be the woman my mother raised… I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there.”
I wondered how long it would take me to find my way out of the woods. Would it take that long to find my way back into the light?
When it feels like your grief will last forever, you have to realize it’s just an illusion, a trick of the light. Something is blocking you from seeing the greater picture and finding hope. Maybe it’s the belief that things should be different. Maybe they’re exactly as they need to be so you can evolve in the way you need to – perhaps the way you intended to before incarnating in this world. The image that comes to mind is a flower plant underneath an overcast sky in early spring, when winter refuses to relinquish its hold. After several gray days, it seems like the sun will never come out, and spring will never really arrive, and the flower wonders if it will just wither where it is, without having the opportunity to bloom. But the weather can change any moment. The clouds can shift enough for a beam of light to come through. The next day or even in a few hours, the clouds might give way to blue sky and warmer temperatures. You just have to know that it won’t be overcast and wintry forever and trust Divine Timing. Eventually, the clouds will break, the sun will come through, spring will overpower winter, and you will bloom. The wonderful secret is that growth was taking place all along, even when it felt like nothing was happening or that you were going backwards.
My blooming moment was when I realized that what felt like it was going to destroy me and break my heart to pieces no longer felt so big – and let me tell you, it’s a wonderful feeling. Moments of shock and sadness may still arise, but they don’t endure. I’ve found my mom’s voice inside my heart and have learned to look forward to when she appears in my dreams or there’s some kind of wild serendipity or “sign”. I really miss picking up the phone and talking with her. I miss her loving and exuberant energy and the unique light she beamed into this world. But as much as I still miss her physical presence, I feel much more deeply connected with her essence.
I’ve learned how to use my breath to breathe over the top of a wave of grief so as not to be overwhelmed by it. I’ve learned to be much more aware of my thoughts and to choose thoughts that are more positive and hopeful. And I’ve practiced leaning in to my feelings and learning what I can from them and watching them dissolve. I’ve learned to face my fears and release what no longer serves me, to have the patience to wait and see, to tune in and trust my intuition and hear a loving voice inside me that feels like my mom’s essence, or perhaps my Inner Mother growing stronger. To know that whatever arises, this, too, shall pass. I’ve learned that on days when the wind picks up, and the waves are strong, it’s best to keep things as simple as possible, practice self-compassion and nourishment, and treat myself as my mom would want me to be treated. I’ve learned to cultivate the essence of what I lost, only to realize that it was within me all along – and that what was taken from me is a part of me, so I can’t actually lose it in the first place.
Now, when grief-waves arise, they don’t tend to last more than a minute or two. They still crash into me, but they don’t come as often as they did last year, and my recovery time is much quicker. A year later, there is much more space between the waves, and more often than not, when I think of my mom, it is with more gratitude and appreciation than sadness. There is a new a voice in my head and feeling in my heart, and when they arise, I feel closer than ever to my mom’s essence .
Every now and then, it stuns me to realize that she died and that I will never see her again in this lifetime. It strikes me as the most inconceivable reality ever and sends a chill through me. So I have learned to lean in and sit with it, rather than resist or struggle with it. And then the feeling passes. It can’t feel that big for too long because you just can’t live like that! You learn to allow the bitter reality and to have a more accepting relationship with what is – even if only because arguing with reality only compromises your peace of mind and quality of life – and you finally get tired of suffering and decide there must be another option. And in the mercifully expanding spaces between the waves, peace enters in, and you learn the waves will pass. You learn how to let them pass right through you without holding on to them, losing your footing, or running away. You allow yourself to be touched by them, like a cool wave that crashes against your skin when you stand at the edge of the sea. And you learn that who you really are is so much bigger than any loss you can experience in this lifetime.
The point is that the loss gets easier to bear in time. It doesn’t mean that love has gone anywhere or diminished. It just means you’re able to pass through to the other side and evolve. And that’s actually quite wondrous.
When someone leaves, holding on and carrying the weight of grief isn’t something we need to do in order to prove our love for him or her. There are so many other, less self-destructive ways to continue loving a person. But sometimes grief sets other dominoes in motion, and you have to hit rock bottom emotionally before you become tired of suffering for real. And then an inner voice arises and asks: Do you really want to do this work? Do you really want to change? Do you really want to give up suffering? Do you want to transform your life into something higher? And if you answer yes, then you have to love yourself enough to break the habits that cause suffering, beginning with the thoughts you allow to take root in your mind. You realize you have a choice in the first place and choose thoughts that bring relief rather than suffering. Or at least, that’s the radical and empowering transformation my grief produced, and I am ever so grateful because it has set me free from so much more than grieving the loss of my mother. It applies to everything – which is some serious blooming.
If you are grieving, please know that no matter how much it hurts now, you are going to find your way to the other side of this grief. I don’t know how or when, but time is your friend. For me, it’s been a jagged path, but whatever it takes, thank God for it because what I feel now is night and day from what I felt then. The anguish that came with the reality that I would never see my mom again in this life has evolved into feeling more connected with her than ever. Finding her anywhere.
And sometimes jagged paths make the most interesting and inspiring stories. I’ve been living and writing mine for the past two years so far and feel certain that someday I’ll be able to place it within a context that will reveal its ultimate themes and integrity and allow it to make more sense. But that time is not now. And that is okay.
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