If I had to sum up grief in one word, I think I’d choose lonely. The most aching loneliness you could imagine. It’s consuming. It’s dark. Some days it’s as cozy and familiar as your favorite fuzzy blanket that you reach for night after night. Some days it’s foreign and unfamiliar and feels different that any other day you’ve had yet. But the one thing that it always feels, is painfully, debilitatingly, lonely.
It’s also deeply personal. And wildly different for each of us. I am one of 3 sisters and each of us have, and continue to, feel it all completely differently. While we grieve the same loss of the same mama, we each grieve it differently. I could sit here today and tell you what I needed (still need) as I grieve my mama, perhaps to help you navigate your own grief, or maybe so your lovely heart can attempt to ease the grief of a friend. But hear me now, I don’t think that would be right. Grief is profoundly different for each of us. Each of my last three years in this lifetime of grief have looked different.
Today, as I reflect on my mama three years to the day after she died, my grief feels distinctly changed. Often, the weeks leading up to this day cause me deep anxiety. My mama’s death was not kind, peaceful or lovely. It wasn’t like they show you in the movies, where everyone says their goodbyes, where the mama gives one final kiss and tells each child and grandchild how she loves them, how she’ll always be with them. There are no words or memories from her long slow death that I continue to carry with me in my heart three years later. Her death was long and agonizing. In the end, it was so terrible, I begged my mama to go, to leave her earthly body and stop fighting so hard. I begged her to quit. I can still vividly recall the sounds and feelings in those final days.
And so, as one can imagine, every year as April 29th looms near, those feelings and memories resurface. When grocery shopping, I put back milk and yogurt cartons with that date on them, instead rooting around for ones with any other date to greet me when I open the fridge each morning. I take that day off work. I make arrangements for my daughter Reese to go home with someone after school. I make plans with my two dearest friends, who walked through that horror with me and never left my side in the middle of it.
Year One I went to Disneyland with my sisters, and we remembered my mama in a place she loved, eating treats and drinking her ubiquitous Dr. Pepper in front of that castle. We laughed, we cried, we got sunburned, and yes, we definitely wore matching shirts. That day was filled with joy, even among the tears. Year Two, those two dear friends cleaned her headstone and brought an obscene amount of carnations to it (carnations were mama’s favorite. I hate them, I think they’re hideous, but that’s what mama liked, and they knew). We took a private yoga class together, indulged at the spa, and remembered my mama over dinner. Together, we’ve always made space to honor and remember my mama.
And now, year three. Year three in quarantine. In lockdown. In the era of social distancing. Away from friends who know and hold space for you without saying any words. Away from friends who’s hugs and laughter hold years of memories. Away from the spa, from Disneyland, from anywhere you might run to remember, or to hide. Instead today, on the day that marks three years since my mama died, I’ll get up and make breakfast. I’ll attempt to homeschool and teach math in the most befuddling of ways. I’ll wrestle and bike ride with my Reesey girl. I’ll make lunch. And then snack. And then dinner. In the middle we’ll play Uno. We’ll bake banana bread. I’ll crawl into bed next to my girl and sing her to sleep. And today, for Year three, that feels ok.
Today, for the first time in three years, my grief feels shared. It is not as lonely and isolating as it usually is. Life is not just going on for everyone around me. This year, everyone else has had a full stop placed on their life too, and oddly (selfishly?) it’s comforting. We’re all grieving right now. Life looks different for each of us than it did six weeks ago. And while your grief is different than my grief, we’re still all sitting together in that space today. No one is out living their best life today, and so, as I grieve my mama, I feel less lonely knowing that. My heart feels buoyed by the fact that your heart also hurts today, just like mine. And though our reasons are different, there’s community in that.
Next year will certainly look different. Feel different. Be different. I am not going to worry about that right now though. Tonight, as I pull the warm cozy blanket that is my grief around me, I feel seen, known, and together with all of you. Each of us grieving what life used to be like, while we try our best to live the one in front of us. Today there is just messy confusing grief, commingled together, and in each of our homes, we’re all leaning into it together. I see you, and you see me, and in that community, I find solace and peace for Year Three.
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A couple of nights ago, my husband and I sat and watched another episode of A Million Little Things. The episode, unbeknownst to me, was about the sudden loss of one of the main character’s mothers. Unexpected, too quick, too soon. She was just here – and then she was gone. And the character was left with a father and a brother, each of them scrambling around trying to make sense of the cards they’d been dealt and their feelings about the future they now faced.
The character gave a beautiful speech at his mother’s funeral:
“When I kissed my mother goodbye, I never thought it’d be the last time I’d see her…And as sad as I am to say goodbye to you, there’s nothing else I needed to say. And there’s nothing else I needed to hear you say to me. It’s such a blessed place to be with someone.”
The words struck me immediately, as they were intended to do. Clearly, the writer knew the things one wants to feel when they have to say goodbye to someone or something they love. That the most beautiful goodbye is one in which all of the things have been said or done. But I can’t shake the feeling that as lovely as the scene was, it just isn’t actually true.
I had an amazing relationship with my mama. It was the same, I believe, for her and my sisters. We had our differences and ups and downs, as all mothers and daughters do, but on the whole, our relationships were good. Strong. Easy. They got better and better as we each got older. She was there watching each of us be a bride. I watched her become a beloved Nana to my sister’s daughters and I watched her champion my sisters as mothers. New roles, new encouragements, new joys. We knew we were loved. She knew she was loved. We all lived our days inside of the same truth, an ease and an effortless to our communication, grounded in the knowledge that the love we had was safe.
Maybe, you could even say we were in the “blessed” place that the writer of that episode is trying to speak to.
What I’ve found though, what I’m finding, is that grief, even at the end of some of the strongest relationships, may not be as tidy and clean as that monologue wants you to believe. Or that it isn’t, at least for me. That the end of even the best relationships may still leave you longing. That gratitude for what you were given may never erase the desperate desire for more.
My mama told me I was a good wife. And still, I want to hear it again.
I told her she was a good mama. And still, I long to tell her again.
My mama told me I was a good mother. And still, I want to hear it again.
I told my mama thank you, for all the work she did. And still, I want to tell her again.
There’s a thousand things she told me, a thousand things I told her, and it wasn’t enough. I’m not sure that it ever is, for any of us. I’m not sure that any of us ever stop longing to be told we are loved, known, valued, believed in, respected, seen. And I’m not sure that any of us can ever truly feel like we’ve told the people that we love all of those things, enough times.
So for me, unlike that TV show, I haven’t been able to put such a beautiful spin on my own goodbye. Maybe, for some, there really is a time or season in which you feel you said all that can be said, where you’ve heard all you need to hear. I envy that space, if it does exist.
But for today, I continue to wrestle with an enduring desperation to hear my mama again tell me the things I want to hear her say. For the ability to again remind her that she was a very good mama. I appreciate the people who have tried to stand in her place, people who have tried to fill the silence and loneliness that she has left behind. I am grateful for what we had. I recognize that there are many that get so much less. But I still long for so much more.
On this, year three, as I grieve in the time of quarantine, I continue to learn how to be okay with holding both gratitude and longing. To live in the dichotomy of what I have versus what could have been. To walk the delicate balance between healthy grief for what has been lost and wallowing self-pity for what I wanted.
Ironically, right now I think it’s a space we’re all inhabiting, as we navigate this age of social distancing, sacrifice, and so much individual loss. There’s some sort of sweet community in this space, as we each look around and realize that grief is real, tangible, and so different for each of us. That none of us escapes the tragedy of loss – and that each of us is allowed to respond to it in our own ways. That there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to love or be loved inside of grief, that the way I do this and the way you do this aren’t wrong or right, they’re just different.
This isn’t my favorite space, and I’m going to bet it may not be your favorite space either. But it’s a necessary space. It’s a communal space. It’s a very real space. And today, with so many of you, it’s a little less of a lonely space.