High School graduation is a mixed blessing for those navigating grief. In my latest Rural Rambling, I share en excerpt from my book Now What? Navigating Life After Loss where I look back at 6/6/96. The first big milestone sans mom.
Chapter 4: The Waterfall
Two months after my mom died, I found myself standing on a bridge, staring into a rapid, root beer colored river contemplating what’s next. This bridge, located on a former railroad turned bike trail, was a spot my friends and I often went to do the things innocent teenagers do.
There was the time my friend dropped her pants for my French foreign exchange student after asking him if he wanted to see a full moon. Or, the time that a Park Ranger busted my boyfriend and I making out after hours in the nearby State Park. We skipped rocks, shared stories of love and heartbreak and talked about our future. We ate candy, slammed Dr. Peppers, and carefully treaded into the rapids for a quick swim. We had picnics, late night walks and maybe even a skinny dip or two in this river.
Today, I am alone. In a few hours I’ll receive my high school diploma in front of family and friends. Then, I’m off for a two-week cross-country adventure with my favorite friends performing a contemporary Christian musical and living out of an oversized van. When I return, I’ll work full-time at the town’s paper mill trying to save up money to supplement the student loans I’ll need to pay for college. Then, I’m off pursue life on my own terms. These adventures, while daunting, scream freedom and fun. In this moment, I feel nothing but shame.
Grief is odd that way. At times, tsunami sized emotions hit me. I never know when to expect them, or how to handle them. They are unpredictable. Sometimes I catch myself laughing at a joke a friend made and hate myself for not holding on tighter to my grief. Or, I feel my mom’s presence and wait for the tears to flow only to find myself grateful that she’s moved on. That the timing of her death opens the road for me to travel this summer and attend college next fall, not fearing I’ll be absent at her death. Other days, there’s nothing but pain—where even the simplest of tasks feels like pouring salt on an open wound. I find myself in these moments, filled with rage, cursing her for leaving me with so many unanswered questions. I hate her for making me angry and am fearful that she’ll be disappointed that I’m sad or allowing such ugly feelings over and over in my head. The truth is, living with her illness was complicated. But this new normal is simply impossible.
Addicts are often taught the acronym HALT. It stands for hungry, angry, lonely and tired. These four cornerstones are critical to one’s overall health and well being, and so addicts are often told they should not make critical decisions or HALT when feeling these because they can result in relapse.
The same rings true in grief. Grief is an incredible stressor in life. Many things trigger it. We are taught to plow ahead. Toxic positivity puts a timeline on our grief. I wish that weren’t the case. Great grief is a result of great love. Despite the loss, there is no timeline, just an ability to function. Understanding triggers and taking basic care of one’s self is foundational to ever feeling normal again. I wish I had understood this while standing at the waterfall. It’d be over 25-years later when I learned this acronym while watching a Sex and the City remake. Instead, I did everything in my power to table these mixed emotions. It was my attempt to put this pain on layaway until I’m emotionally strong enough to process it.
Solitude seems to be the only way to survive right now. I find comfort by water—perhaps that is the Pisces in me. I stare at the turbulent waters below me and try to play out how the next 24-hours will go. A part of me feels my life is on display. My friends and family have already hinted to me how hard this day will be without mom. As if I need a reminder of who I’m missing. They are ready to support me, love me, comfort me in what is sure to be a difficult day.
I feel an inherent pressure to get today right. To grieve her loss at the appropriate level. Yet, in so many ways I welcome today’s distraction. I am excited to receive my diploma and stay up all night eating my weight in sugar and celebrating the last 18-years of my life. I worked hard to wear the honors ribbon on my purple gown. I don’t want today to be about her. The past 4-years have been about nothing but her and her needs. I’d like today to be about me.
This desire scares me. I find myself wondering if this selfish desire somehow breaks the rules of grief that have been engrained in my brain. That somehow, if I celebrate today, I will somehow have moved on. I will have moved past loving the women that made me. The woman that remains an integral part of my life. The woman I do not want to live without.
I look to the river for answers. It bares none. Instead, the rapids drown out my grief. The continuous flowing of water reminds me that time does not stop for grief. The clock keeps ticking. I find myself wondering how it’ll feel when two months becomes two years and two years becomes two decades. Will I still remember the sound of her voice? The advice she so wisely shared with me at the most opportune moments? The love she had for her family? How she canned pickles and made a mad flat jack?
I fear forgetting but dread remembering. The wound is too fresh to revisit now. Now, I need to figure out how to get through today. How to embrace what I’ve worked so hard for while not ignoring the empty seat that’ll be at graduation.
A few hours later I’ll return home where my father is anxiously pacing the kitchen. He casually asks about my where-abouts, an unusual question in our household. I look to his face and see a sea of worry. I don’t ask him what he’s thinking. I can feel his pain.
“Is everything ok,” he asks?
It is a simple question. One that months earlier resulted in me oversharing stories about my boyfriend who cheated on me… a third time. His response at the time,
“I thought you were the smart one. Why do you keep going back to him?”
I was so angry at dad in that moment. How dare he give me advice about the boy I love.
Granted, it was solid advice and the guy didn’t deserve another second of my heart. What I’d give for that to be the context of this question today.
Instead, my father and I bond over our unspoken grief. Will we ever be ok, I think to myself?
“I’m good,” I respond.
In that moment, I can almost convince myself I mean it. For just today, I try to forget my new found reality and just be a teenager.
My dad seems relieved by my response. The neighbor stops by to help me iron my graduation gown. It is one of many life lessons I never had a chance to learn from mom. My grandparents and sisters arrive. We snap some photos. We make small talk. I head to the high school.
There, nothing about the evening is about my mom. It is about the life my fellow graduates and I have spent the past 18-years living. We laugh and cry and share memories. We throw our caps, a final moment of high school rebellion. Afterwards, we enjoy an all-night party that symbolizes the kick-off into adulthood but is spent reliving much of our youth. Many happy tears are shed.
Driving home the next morning, I’m elated yet exhausted. It was in fact the perfect day. Walking into the house, I stop by my mom’s room without thinking. Perhaps it is the fact that I’ve been up for 36-hours or the power of habit, but I throw open the door ready to say, “mom, you won’t believe what happened last night.”
In an instant, I’m reminded. My mom’s belongings remain untouched. It’d be months before we’d clean her room out. Unopened books I had given her for Christmas sit next to her bed. Family photos and a framed version of Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Sonnet 43 adorn the bookshelf above her now empty bed, “I shall love thee better after death.”
A crack in the numbness knocks me off my feet. I slink to the floor and bury my head in my hands. I realize she’s never coming back but I will continue living. A gap begins building between the moments we had together and the ones I endure on my own.
I find myself telling mom anyway about the guy Mike I just met and how he’ll soon be deployed to Bosnia but there’s something about him I like. How he’s mysterious and kind and boldly serving his country. I also know due to his deployment; we’ll never get close and therefore he cannot break my heart. I laugh about the liters of Dr. Pepper I slammed and the funny old-time photos my friends and I took at the all night graduation party. I tell her how excited I am for my two-week upcoming adventure where I’ll travel cross country with friends in a 15-passenger van performing a Christian musical while living on church floors. How I’m nervous about paying for college and more importantly fitting in and finding my voice. The conversation flows freely, after all, what can mom say in return? No longer sick, I can finally speak to her unfiltered about my life, my dreams, my hopes and fears.
In movies, this is often where a ghost appears and reassures me everything is going to be ok. Or, I have some spiritual awakening and closure. My reality is different. She doesn’t appear or tell me everything is going to be ok. I realize that part is now on me. But somehow, talking to her in this moment makes it less real. It allows me to believe that maybe she can hear me. Maybe she can help me. Maybe there’s a meaning to this madness that I do not understand. For now, that is enough.
It is in this moment that I start to understand that you don’t stop loving someone when you lose them. My 18-year-old-self thought that to get through my grief, I needed to let go of my mother. To get to the other side. But honestly, what does that even mean? I don’t want to let go of the 18-years we had any more than I want to live the rest of my life without her. Yes, she’s physically gone. My relationship with faith is complicated. Yet, my love for my mom remains and nothing about that ever has to change. Likewise, I never have to stop missing my mom. My grief doesn’t have a time frame. The reality is, I can keep living my life and still mourn my mom. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. I can even experience joy again while still wishing my mom was here on earth to bear witness to it. This lesson will play out over and over again throughout my life.
If you want to read more of Now What? Navigating Life After Loss I’m offering 25% off on my Book Baby site through June 30, 2023. Just enter code June2023 at check-out.
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