The Dynamics of Grief: Losing My Mom

In February, I wrote a piece on what it was like having a mom with stage four lung cancer as a 20 year old. Well, five months later, I’m writing a piece on what it’s like having a dead mom as a 21 year old.

Heavy, right?

I’ve tried to write about this a few times, but it’s been difficult to say the least because there aren’t words for this pain. It’s unspeakable. And as a person who relies on language as my main form of expression, not being able to find words that explain how I’m feeling has been especially hard. But here goes nothing.

Long story short, my mom got worse. Around the time my first article about her was published, we found out there were no more treatment options available for her. We always knew this could happen—her diagnosis was terminal from the start—but it was still shocking when we reached that point. During the last weekend of February, things started to look really bad, so my sister and I came home from college, the flurry of midterms and social commitments forgotten in an instant. A week later, Mom was gone.

The whole experience was unbearable, but I am in awe of the strength and grace with which my family handled it. I could not have gotten through those last, precious days of my mom’s life and those following without them, and I am so lucky that I had such a strong support system waiting for me.

I was out of school for about three weeks, and then I came back at the end of spring break with the rest of my classmates. Everything was exactly the same at school, except for me. I was drowning in grief, swallowed whole by her absence. I don’t think I seemed that different to people who don’t know me well, aside from having a little less patience for first world problems. I still smiled as I walked through campus and fulfilled my extracurricular requirements. I even managed to catch up in my classes and maintain my GPA despite missing so much school. I seemed pretty okay because I held my breakdowns in until I could be alone or with people I really trusted. I tried to be my normal, upbeat self as much as possible in public because these feelings are so private (I’m sure that sounds ironic as you sit here reading me spill my guts). My grief is complicated, intimate, and chaotic. Even I don’t understand my emotions a lot of the time. I don’t feel comfortable sharing these emotions with people I don’t completely trust because it just makes everything worse when I try to share how I’m feeling and don’t get the response I’m looking for. Sometimes I worry not talking about my grief doesn’t do my mom’s memory justice, because what if not talking about it makes people think I’m totally fine without her? Does my silence make it seem like she wasn’t the best person imaginable? Despite these worries, keeping my feelings about my mom private is what’s best for me because it gives me some measure of control over these feelings that are anything but controllable.

This experience has taught me that there isn’t a textbook way to grieve. I can’t predict how I’m going to feel based on others’ examples. I can feel denial, anger, depression, and acceptance all in one day. Every moment is different because my whole reality has changed. My mom was my due north, my center of gravity. And now I’m standing here alone, trying to figure out what my life looks like without her. The whole thing is just exhausting, the worst emotional roller coaster. Sometimes, I feel like I get it—that she’s never coming back and this is really my life now. Other days, I grab the phone to call her, actually forgetting it happened for just a moment. And on my worst days, I feel like I’m watching this sad girl’s life play out from above as she cries tears that have no beginning or end. Because how on earth could this be happening to me?

One of the weirdest parts of all of this is that I feel like I’m grieving both the loss of my mother’s life and the person she was before she was sick, which I’d never given myself permission to do before she died. Cancer changed her. My mom was the life of the party, never met a stranger, and enjoyed life more than anyone else in the room. But this disease took those things away from her despite her amazing efforts to prevent that from happening. Cancer made her tired. She slept often because she was fighting for just one more second with our family. It made her quieter. She didn’t have energy for work or parties anymore because of all the chemo, so she didn’t have stories to tell. And the losses of those parts of my mother are as tragic as her death. Before she died, I didn’t let myself miss the way she was before she was sick because I was just so grateful she was there at all. But now I understand I am allowed to miss pre-cancer Mom. I spent 18 years with a vivacious, loquacious woman, and all of that went away even though she was still physically here. I’m allowed to grieve that loss. Regardless of my double grief, I would give anything to have any version of my mom back. I miss every part of her, and missing the way she was before she was sick is just one facet of understanding my new life without her.

The good news: I still feel joy. I was worried I wouldn’t be happy again if she died, but I am. I still laugh and have things I look forward to and reasons to get up in the morning. Some days are harder than others, but most of the time I can think of a reason today will be a good day. I feel closer to my mom when I look at the world with hope because she wouldn’t want me to stop living just because she did. Holding onto my optimism in the wake of the biggest tragedy of my life is brave, and it empowers me to want to see what my life will be like now, even if the person who made it all possible isn’t a visible participant anymore.

I wish I had answers on how to deal with this kind of loss, but I don’t. No one does. The best advice I have is to not hide from your feelings, and to process them in whatever way works best for you. Grief is huge and overwhelming, and ignoring something of this magnitude is useless. Instead of ignoring your sadness, try to be hopeful despite the heartache. Try to look for the good and become the good you wish you were seeing.

I ache for my mom every second. But I’ll see a blue sky or a book she loved, and I smile because she’s not gone while I still have my memories of her, her blood in my veins. For her, I keep moving forward. I hope.  

Feature photo: Taylor Leopold/ VIA Unsplash.