I was browsing on Twitter last night, and I came across someone who just lost their mother in June. She was searching for a support group to help her cope with her loss. I offered her my support, but it really got me thinking about what it was like to grieve for the loss of my own mother in 2010.
Losing a parent at any age is difficult. Growing up, you think your parents will always be there no matter what. They are immortal in your eyes. You never expect to lose them at any age of your life, just like you never imagine on losing anyone else in your life. Their loss leaves a place in your heart that always tends to be empty, no matter what you try to do. It’s something you never truly get over, and it seems you are constantly reminded every day that there is that piece of you missing. I’ve been learning to continue on in life without my mother for seven years this November.
My mom was 43 when she died in 2010. It was a day like any other day. I was a freshman in college. I went home every weekend because Mom was still getting used to me being away, and I didn’t really have many friends in college yet. I stayed home from classes that day to drive her to the hospital for a routine appointment. She had a lot of health problems ranging from heart problems, mental health issues, and so much more. That day I drove her to the hospital with my mentally-disabled uncle in tow. I wheeled her into her room before taking my uncle to sit in the waiting room. Eventually, the nurse came and got me so I can see my mother. I followed the nurse into the room and found my step-father in the room with her. Mom was upset. Her feet had begun turning purple and blue, and they were going to transport her to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I don’t remember thinking much of it. I kissed her on the forehead, and I promised her I would pick up my brother and get him dinner so she wouldn’t have to worry about him.
Who knew that such an ordinary day could turn into a nightmare? My step-father came home that evening. We ate dinner and decided how we were going to do Thanksgiving. It was 3 days before the holiday, and we weren’t sure when Mom would come home from the hospital. We were settling in when the nurse called my phone with the news Mom was not responding. Stunned, I gave my step-father the phone. Within minutes, we were in the car on our way to Baltimore. We reached the outskirts of Baltimore 45-50 minutes later when my grandmother called my step-father and told him the bad news.
My life changed forever that night.
Losing Mom put a lot in perspective for me. I had been lucky in comparison to my brother. She attended my high school graduation. She sent me off to college as the first person in our family to go. She watched me graduate in the top 10 of my high school class. The picture above was the last picture I got with her, taken at a church during a scholarship ceremony. I was 18 and my brother was 16.
That night I had to email my college professors to inform them I would need some time off from classes. They were all supportive, especially my English professor who would grow to become my mentor. She asked me to stop by her office when I could, which incidentally was the day after my mother died. I had to shake myself out of my grief in order to remember the dorms were closing for the Thanksgiving holiday. All of my clothes, aside from the weekend outfits I had packed, were in my dorm. If I wanted to wear something, I would need to make the 45 minute drive to campus.
Reflecting back on that day, I absolutely needed that trip…aside for the important essentials such as clothes. I had towed my brother and uncle with me, so I left them in my dorm room as I walked to meet with my professor. The support, educationally and emotionally, that she gave me was detrimental. It made an enormous impact on me to sit with her, freely cry, and have someone warm and supportive to talk to. Furthermore, she suggested I speak with the psychological services on campus that provided free therapy to students. Her advice persuaded me to seek therapy for the first time, which would be an incentive for me to return to college later on.
For an 18 year old, losing my mother was an enormous loss, but my life was further shattered when I realized I had to transfer out of college. My step-father wasn’t exactly a parental figure, which became horribly apparent when he tried to take advantage of me. He was a truck driver who was away for most of the day. My brother was a sophomore in high school, so he was gone during the day. With the two of them gone, it left my uncle alone. He was mentally-disabled, who lived with us for the majority of my life. As an infant, he had a high fever that caused brain damage when his father wouldn’t allow my grandmother to take him to the hospital. He could shower himself, dress, and he loved to dance. He loved Elvis and Michael Jackson. He was a great guy, but he couldn’t be left alone in the house. He wasn’t eligible for a day program, so someone needed to be home with him. After much encouragement and struggle, I finished my first semester of college before transferring out for almost two years. I had to give up my life to care for my uncle and brother. I became their guardians and responsible for them. I figured out how to afford a tuxedo for my brother’s prom or how to do grown up things. I long since learned the stress of being an adult, but what 18 year old knows how to raise a 16 year old? I was in for trouble.
After losing my mother, I went into a mechanical sort of mode. I hyperventilated myself in the car the night she died while we were parked on the side of the freeway. However, I literally had to suck it up and push forward. I shut down my emotions. I spiraled into a depression that I hid. I helped plan her funeral, I got up every morning to get my brother off to school, and I made sure he got his work done while trying to finish out my own semester. I learned to keep groceries in the house and manage my step-father’s paycheck. However, I had no insights into how I felt or how I could cope. The coping mechanism I used to get away from childhood abuse disappeared during the time I needed it the most.
Something you struggle with whenever you lose anyone in your life is what you didn’t tell that person. Yes, Mom knew I loved her. However, there were things I didn’t tell her. In my late teens, I discovered I was bisexual. It was a hard thing to realize because Mom was absolutely not supportive regarding things like that. I wanted the chance to open up to her and confide in her about that, but it was too late.
Then, there were things you want to hear from the person you lost. For example, I always wondered how proud of me Mom was. Growing up, I rarely remember her praising me for anything. My straight A’s were an every day thing for her. When I was in the 4th and 5th grades, my grades slipped. I took out my frustrations with Mom’s divorce, the fighting, the fear of my biological father… all of the home troubles affected my behavior. I took things out on my teachers (my poor, poor teachers) and my classmates. My mom had a lot to say then, but I didn’t hear how proud she was of me until I graduated high school and was heading to college. I was always jealous of my best friend because his mom told everyone how proud she was of him. My mom always told everyone about our problems and how frustrated she was with her kids. I loved my mother, but I would have loved for her to brag how I’ve gotten this or that award or how great I was in choir (how many solos I got!) or whatever it was. Even now I wonder if she would be proud I graduated college cum laude or that I was president of a club or vice president of an honor society or that I survived after suffering so much pain.
Today, I often get jealous listening to my friends, no matter what their age, talk about their parents. They can’t wait to share their news with their mother. I often lash out when people talk about how irritating their mother is or how burdensome they are. I try to remind them their mother won’t be there forever, and they should appreciate her. My step-father kicked us out of the house when we lost custody of my uncle because “I was too young” to care for him at 19 (which is utter nonsense when you consider babies are having their own babies these days). When he couldn’t have what he wanted from me, lost my uncle’s social security check, and we were a problem with his dating life…he threw us aside very, very roughly. I mean, without food and scrambling for shelter in a run down trailer where the floors were falling through literally. It left us parentless.
As an independent student, not having parents to rely on is still horrible. My opportunities are cut in half and then in half again. I wanted to do study abroad programs, but I had a brother to care for and a full-time job to work at so we had food on the table. Even with a minor in the house, we didn’t qualify for federal assistance. Even today at 25 I’m at a disadvantage to my peers because their parents can help them survive if they decided to do a teaching program that requires an internship during the day, classes in the evening, and then the nighttime to do the work. Sure, I could do the program if I used the nighttime for classwork, but I would also have to work full-time overnights so my sleep would not exist for a year. Sometimes I want to shake my fellow students and make them realize how lucky they are just to have a parent or both of them alive. Heck, some people have more than two parents!
You never know how empty your life is without a parent you relied on. My mother was my best friend. We were relatively open with one another. Every time something good happened at school or I was just waiting on the bus to Walmart I would call her. I remember one night after a long day in classes and a minor breakdown on campus I decided to go to bed early. My mother continually called my phone until I called her back the next morning because she had not heard from me all day. I loved that she cared so much. Although, I’m fairly positive she would have made the trip to my dorm room if I didn’t answer when I did. I couldn’t share with her my college graduation. The only family members that showed up was my brother and one of my best friends who drove over two hours to get there. The rest of my family stood me up. My brother couldn’t share his high school graduation with her, so Mom couldn’t laugh with me when my brother fell off the raised bleachers on the stage.
It is easy to think of the things that have passed that she missed, but it gets harder to think about the things she will miss that are still, hopefully, in my future. My kids will never know their grandmother. I can’t tell my mother how excited I am to finally have found something I’m passionate about. She can’t see my art progress into what it’s turning into. Regrets come quickly, such as not taking enough pictures with her or of her. My mother wasn’t very active, but I would have loved to show her some of nature’s beauty I have found while living in Western Maryland.
However, it is easy to think she is always around whether I know it or not. Religion never stuck with me growing up. I was forced to become baptized as a child. I rarely went to church. It just never stuck with me. I’m slowly becoming more open to the possibility of someday trying it again. Let’s face it, things are so much easier to do when you’re not being forced into it. A lot of people who are religious tell me she’s in heaven watching down, and I’m grateful that they care enough to show me support in the only way they may know. I may not be able to say she’s in Heaven with a god, but I can easily agree that she’s somewhere watching over me (which is ironic considering as I write this part of my blog “Every Breath you Take” by The Police is playing on my Spotify).
I know I mentioned it before in an earlier blog, but I don’t think you ever stop grieving over the loss of a parent. It has been seven years since she died, and I still cry every time I think about her or talk about her. I’m even crying as I write this post. As my therapist has successfully beaten it into my head, it’s ok to cry. I got my sensitivity from my mother. If I see someone crying, nine chances out of 10 I will start crying myself just because the other person is crying. Ugh. The pain is still fresh. The memory is still as clear as though it happened yesterday.
However, you gain more perspective as time goes on. You learn how much stronger it made you as a person, and it teaches you how to manage that grief. Her death was a catalyst for changing my life. It made me a more independent person. I was a completely different person seven years ago. In fact, I would be interested in hearing from my mentor how different she perceives me to be. I learned that family is absolutely important. My brother is all I have left of our little family, and we have to support each other no matter what… no matter how much I would like to strangle him sometimes. I learned you can’t take life for granted. Tell people how you share, do things you want to do (for me is more like finding what I can afford to do), and don’t let little things stand in your way. Sure, I can’t do a teaching program on campus without pretty much killing myself. However, I’m looking into going into a Master’s program for counseling in grade school.
Her passing got me involved in the department on campus that helped me eventually find the therapist, who has been an absolute lifesaver. I’ve learned how to cope with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and so much more. I’m untangling my web of trust issues that I developed as a child. I’ve faced what my biological father did to me face on, and I learned to accept myself as a survivor rather than a victim of rape. I’m not sure I would have gained all of the therapeutic knowledge I have now if her passing had not pushed me into meeting with a therapist.
When something that traumatic happens, it might seem like the world is ending or that your life is over if you really want to be that dramatic. In a sense, especially for me, you are experiencing an apocalypse…the life you knew is over, but a new one is just beginning. It has taken years, seven to be exact, for me to learn this. It is easier for me to find the positives in a barrel full of negatives. I will still need to learn how to cope without having a mother. There are days I just want a hug. My mom was a big hugger. Instead, I have to suck it up and just keep going on unless I’m lucky enough to meet with my mentor or my best friend.
For those who have lost a parent like I have, I absolutely understand how difficult it is for you. Let yourself feel the grief. Let yourself cry. Scream, jump up and down, and fall apart if that is what you need. But please, please remember it’s ok to grieve, but you have to move on as well. It doesn’t mean we forget them. I may have forgotten my mother’s voice, but I will never forget her. It just means we recognize it is unhealthy to remain in that phase, and we understand it is time to find something positive to work with and move on in life. At any age, I believe, it is a struggle to lose a parent. Whether you’re 18 or 50 you are losing someone in your life that you have known since the day you came into this world… someone who supported you, loved you more than anyone else in this world will, and who (I hope) would accept you no matter what when the world doesn’t. As I say to those suffering from depression or another mental health issue, seek support. Talk to friends or family. Find a therapist you are comfortable with. Find something you are passionate about. I don’t remember dedicating myself to art so absolutely until after Mom died. Find something healthy to lose yourself in. Strive to do your best in life, always knowing your loved one is watching and being your personal cheerleader. Find ways to remember them every day. For me, I look forward to having a daughter (one day in the far, far future) and passing down my mother’s middle name: Yvonne. Until then, I settle by remembering her in the good and bad times. I visit her grave when I’m in town. And I always, always wish her a Happy Mother’s Day or happy birthday when the time comes around.
It’s absolutely important to keep fighting afterwards. When Mom died, I wanted nothing more than to give up. As a typical teenager being slightly over dramatic, my life was over. *Rolls my eyes at my 18 year old self.* Your loved one would want you happy and moving on. My mother would have wanted me to continue with everything I got. Sure, it took me almost two years to get my life back on track, but I had to think of my brother and uncle who didn’t have the ability to be an adult.
To those of you struggling… from my favorite gif from Lana Parrilla… hang in there.
— Tiffany Arnett (@Tiffany_Arnett) September 27, 2017