Yesterday was August 8. The date meant nothing to me specifically, except that it was one month after July 8.
Just an ordinary day for most people, but for me, it marked the one-month anniversary of my mom’s death. The only month of my life that I have existed without her. Only one month ago, I was holding her hand and talking to her and kissing her warm cheeks. I’ve had exactly one month to figure out how to cope with loss while you keep living. And I’m blogging about it. (It’s called self-therapy, people. Thanks for helping me process.)
I wonder how many other people in the world remember July 8 as a day where everything changed for them. Or perhaps today is one of those days for someone–a day that can’t be forgotten? It makes you think . . . every day, all year long, someone, somewhere, swallows hard because of the date on the calendar. Because that simple number in a little square bears the weight of a life-altering moment in his or her life.
I have a few of those dates. February 11 is the day my dad died; I approach it every year with reverence for the loss. March 20 is my Grandma Bandy’s birthday. I don’t recall the exact date of her death, although I was there when she passed; instead, I remember her birthday each year, and I pause every March 20 and picture her face and her smile. I picture us huddled together on the couch, pouring over books about England. I remember her teaching me how to needlepoint and embroider and arrange a room. I picture her house, with its carefully-placed antiques, now filling the rooms of my house.
I have many happy calendar dates–my engagement on April 15: Shane took me on a hike to discover a giant banner attached to the rock face on Paris Mountain that said, “Sue, will you marry me?” in black spray paint across white bed sheets. There’s my wedding date on Dec. 22, the coldest day that year; and of course, the births of all my children. Anxiety, pain, travail, joy. Exuberant, exultant wonder and joy. The best dates in the world.
And on July 7, I had a mother I could touch and talk to. On July 8, I was an orphan.
I realize now that you are never too old to be an orphan. Someone else who had lost both parents said to me, “No matter how old you are, when you lose your parents, you feel once again like you are eight years old.” For those of you who’ve lost parents, is that your experience?
Grief, simply stated, is an amputation. Your body remembers and responds to life as if the limb still exists, but the mind and heart must train to function without it. I must have fun doing things without my mother that I used to do with her. I will think, every time I enter a museum, a bookstore, or a library, “Mom would love this,” and I must still go there and live life and not fall to pieces. I must enjoy it for both of us.
This past month, I’ve had moments of feeling like the orphaned child. It’s similar to the feeling of panic at being lost in the store when I was young–the fear that I might not find my mother. Those feelings resurfaced on July 8, and I expect they will continue, on and off, for some time.
In the wake of panic comes its evil twin–regret. I am fighting it as valiantly as I know how. I have many thoughts of what else I could have said, what else I should have done, what opportunities I had missed along the way to be present and engaged with her, to savor every second and diffuse every annoyance. But that thinking is not helpful.
It’s human nature to regret things. We live as if we are immortal because that’s what we were created to be, yet we are trapped in the fragility of mortal bodies and minds. We can never live long enough to suit us, and neither can the ones we love. We will never have enough time, nor will we have enough wisdom to use the time we have, until we are wiser and the time no longer exists.
I’ve done some reading on the topic of how to handle special days that remind you of your loss. How to get through Christmas and birthdays. Mother’s and Father’s Days. Yuk. I dread them already. Experts agree on some basic tools for grieving your loved ones–some suggestions for self-therapy, which I’m relieved to see that I’ve unconsciously been doing already:
- keep a journal
- look through pictures
- keep something that belonged to them and use it
- write or talk about them; tell stories
- set up a memorial to them
- visit their gravesite, birthplace, or former home
- participate in a cause they’d approve of
- befriend their friends
- do something on their “bucket list” they never got to do
- comfort another person who’s grieving
The trick, I think, is connectivity in these activities. I’m not sure how much closure you can get if these things are done out of guilt. Perhaps that’s helpful, even then.
What I do know is that grief is like a person. It grows and changes and matures and settles into rhythms. It becomes a place you respect, care for, and live with, that doesn’t dominate you or terrify you (because you don’t let it). But when your next July 8 comes around, you give it the respect it deserves and you live there for a day. Or a week. Or whatever is needed for you to grow a little more.
And then you settle into a new rhythm.