The Need to Share Grief: My Mom's Death Taught me Strength Comes from Weakness
After my mother passed, I had to accept my vulnerability
There’s a brutality to grief that I didn’t see coming.
When the doctor first pulled me aside and told me my mom had cancer, it felt like my brain short-circuited. I looked at him and said, “She can’t be sick. We have plans.”
When a different doctor called me to tell me she was terminal, it was late at night, and I was on my way to a bar. I forgot to eat all day, downed six tequila shots within two minutes of arrival, then eventually vomited while crying. I don’t recommend it.
When she died two months before she was expected to, I tried sleeping on the bed and couch before I finally fell asleep on the floor on a pile of blankets. It was comfortably uncomfortable.
I thought I knew how much it would hurt to lose my mom and how bad the grief process would be. She and I talked about it. I spoke with friends and family, read books and articles on her illness and dealing with grief, and did plenty of overthinking.
Then she died.
Life was suddenly split into two parts: before her death and after.
A couple of days after she passed, I was in line in a store and saw a teenage girl mouthing off to her mother, something I, unfortunately, and regrettably, did myself as a teen. I’ve heard many other teens do it over the years out in public but this time was different. I wanted to yell at her. I wanted to tell her that she had no idea how lucky she was to have a mother. I wanted to say that she needed to be thanking her for buying her the armful of clothes she was holding instead of complaining about how a pair of $60 shoes didn’t come along with it.
It took everything I had not to say anything.
I’m not going to pretend to understand what it was like for my mom to get a terminal cancer diagnosis. I was too scared to ask her, and I think she was too scared to tell me. Instead, we focused on the day-to-day, and I think there was a bit of denial on both our parts. Instead, I brought her makeup and comfy clothes to the hospital because those were two of the very few things that made her feel better. In return, she told me about all the attractive doctors she would see daily and encouraged me to be less responsible and spend more time at the beach. When she was home, I would get up every two hours to ensure she was still breathing. We got to celebrate my birthday one more time but missed hers by a little less than a month.
The loneliness came not long after her death.
I was lucky I had friends who were there for me. Though I couldn’t understand how I could sit in a room with several of them at a time and feel like I could stand on the table and scream but still feel like no one would hear me.
It wasn’t their fault; it was the vicious nature of grief.
I had one friend tell me, “I honestly don’t know how to help you, and I don’t know what to say to you. Just know that I’m here.”
In a sea of well-intentioned, love-filled “thoughts and prayers” and “I’m sorry for your loss,” it was a refreshing statement to hear. I also learned that I really hated the question, “How are you?” Again, it was full of good intentions, but it was a question to which I wanted to scream the answer “How the hell do you think I’m doing?”
Grief is ugly, and I felt like I constantly had to evaluate my words before speaking them. Ever since experiencing that, I no longer ask someone going through a tough time how they’re doing. Instead, I ask, “How are you holding up?”
I knew I needed to feel everything after she passed, even if it was the last thing I wanted to do. I felt like if I didn’t run right into the grief if I somehow tried to mask it or shove it down, it would fester and turn me into someone I didn’t want to become.
Some days I thought the pain would kill me, and other days I thought the numbness would.
One day, I went out to lunch with a friend, and she stopped mid-sentence to tell me that I didn’t look or sound like myself and that she felt I needed to go to therapy. She was the type of friend who knew she could freely say something like that to me, but I told her I didn’t think it could help. Then I remembered the promise I made myself about running through the grief and how my mom wouldn’t want me feeling as terrible as I did every day.
So, not only did I go to therapy, I went to a bereavement group. I credit both as a major influence as to why I’m alive today. I couldn’t prevent my mom’s passing, but I had a say in how I handled it.
Therapy certainly helped, but it was the bereavement group that made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I walked in there with the impression that no one else understood how I felt, like there was something wrong with me for feeling how I did, and I left there knowing that there were (unfortunately) a lot more people than I realized who understood completely. I needed to know that. Each appointment and each meeting gave me back a little piece of myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I still had bad days, hours, and moments. One evening, after a series of relatively good days, I decided to clean my mom’s food items out of the fridge. I picked up a bottle of her favorite soda and lost it. I sat on the kitchen floor with the fridge door wide open clutching the soda and sobbing for 10 minutes. When there were no more tears left, I continued cleaning out the fridge.
For a long time, going through the grief process felt like riding a wooden roller coaster. Some parts were fine, bumpy-yet-bearable; others felt like I was plummeting with no stability under my feet, and I was holding on for dear life.
Many might give you unsolicited advice about how to manage your grief, and honestly, there’s nothing wrong with hearing them out, even if you don’t want to. If I wasn’t willing to listen to my friend about therapy, I’m not sure I would have decided to go on my own.
However, it’s up to you to find healthy coping mechanisms to get through the day and to find what works best for you. There were days when I was so numb I wanted to feel anything, and days I felt so much pain I was willing to practically do anything to make it stop. Sometimes, the grief felt so heavy, I felt like I had to crawl just to make it to the bathroom. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t tempting to lose myself in a bottle of alcohol or curl up in bed and stay there. With my mom’s memory as motivation, I avoided anything that could be a negative trigger. It was a conscious decision I had to make every day.
The healthy coping mechanisms I tried made me feel much better than anything unhealthy I did; the latter was a half-assed bandage that only made me feel worse.
So what worked for me? Playing with my pets, blasting music, going for long walks, spending time with good people, doing crafts, and downsizing (I cleaned out a lot of junk drawers and closets). However, I can’t emphasize enough how much therapy and the bereavement group helped me.
Since my mom’s death, I can tell you that the good feelings now far outweigh the bad. It’s been a journey and a process, and it wasn’t always pretty. I’ve had to forgive myself and show myself a lot of kindness and grace. I do something special in honor of my mom every year on her birthday and the anniversary of her death.
I’ve also become more open to telling people how I feel in general and about them. There’s nothing like watching your beautiful mom waste away to less than 100 pounds to drill home how fleeting life is and how important it is to tell people how much they mean to you, even if you’re scared or nervous.
I needed to find the beauty to make sure I got through the darkness. I wanted that, and my mom would have wanted that for me.
Grief is messy and horrible, so if you’re currently going through the grieving process yourself, out of the 1,000+ words in this article, these four are the most important:
You are not alone.