I can’t overemphasize the value of finding somebody to talk to about your grief; somebody who understands, somebody who cares, somebody who listens without judgment. We are rarely totally alone on the path of mourning, although it does sometimes feel that way.
For years and years I didn’t talk about my loss. I was only eleven when Mam died, so I didn’t process her death as I would have had she died when I was an adult. I went about my days, playing with friends, getting into trouble at school (minor troubles like talking too much when I should have been listening or cracking up laughing with my BFF when we should have been paying attention to the teacher), spending hours on my homework and enjoying home-life with my dad and brother. But, there were times when things were hard for me. Hitting puberty without my mother caused anxiety and embarrassment. Meeting new friends who didn’t know about my loss caused anxiety and embarrassment. They would mention something about parents and as I’d quickly relate my situation I’d end up almost wanting to apologize for being the bearer of such bad news while hoping that this new fact could be ignored by the others and we could just move on. There were other things too. But, what really would have made a difference I believe is had I met another little girl who shared my experience at the time.
There was no little girl who ever said “My mother died too.”
I didn’t hear those words ever. And in that way I was alone in my loss. My dad was, and is, always willing and open to talking about Mam. I am blessed in that regard. Dad was there for me every step of the way. But in social circles there was nobody who understood.
And that is why, when in my late twenties I found Hope Edelman’s book ‘Motherless Daughters‘, that I found a tribe of women who were like me. I couldn’t believe there were so many of us because I had never met another young woman who was without her mother. Many blessings come with finding your tribe. We don’t all share the exact same feelings and experiences and that is okay. We understand the power of sharing our stories and the value of having people there to listen.
Here in Portland, Oregon we are fortunate to have the Grief Rites Foundation which provides awareness, advocacy and education to the grieving community. On a monthly basis storytellers come together and share their stories of life, loss and love in a safe space. Grief Rites says they are about “Taking back our right to grieve. Our right to mourn. Our right to live. Our right to love. Our right to remember.” I just love those words, especially ‘Our right to remember’, because often when we lose someone we don’t feel that we have the right, or the safe place, to remember those dear loved ones we miss so much.
People don’t know what to say when I tell them that I’m writing a memoir about losing my mother to cancer when I was a child. When the conversation comes up about mother loss people try to say the right thing with good intention but unless they really get it, clichés are usually offered. I’m used to it after all of these years and I don’t take it to heart. A listening ear, or a kind word is often all that is needed.
What hurts is when people say something without putting thought into it, something that is said to invalidate your grief. A few years ago I was reading Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Wild is a gorgeous book about bravery and loss, self-discovery and healing, love and heart-ache. My friend had also read Wild just a few months before me. We were sitting together having lunch, looking out over a beautiful lake; Wild beside me on the wooden bench. “Her heartache, her loss, her grief is so huge,” my friend said to me. I was only a few chapters in but I was already familiar with Cheryl’s aching heart, and I related to her words in a way that was not only powerful but refreshing. Cheryl had experienced the loss of her mother, one I experienced as a child, and although our experiences were quite different, we both loved so resolutely the woman who had birthed us, and we both felt all those emotions that came following her death; anger, frustration, bitterness, guilt, emptiness and on and on. I was connecting in a deep and meaningful way with the author when my friend said, in between bites of her sandwich, “I know you lost your mother when you were a child, but she (the author) was so close to hers, they were like best friends! Her loss was felt at such a deep level because she grew up feeling so close to her.” She went on to say a few things about why Cheryl’s loss was more harrowing than mine while I sat dumbfounded, hurting and in disbelief that anyone, let alone a kind, smart friend of mine would compare mother loss like that. What hurt me most was that she didn’t know what I had lost. I didn’t know what I had lost when I lost it! But nobody else can possibly know anything so personal, and nobody should be the judge of that.
We can all make comparisons. I met with the wonderfully smart author of The Mercy Papers, Robin Romm, at Powell’s recently and when I told her of my loss she was very sympathetic. She said it was difficult for her to lose her mother when she was a young adult but that it was another thing to lose Mam when I was a child. I appreciated her sentiments but said that it was difficult either way. In Robin’s gut-wrenching book she shows us how difficult losing her mother was for her.
What happened in my life is of course very sad. I didn’t get to have my mother for long and she was a kind, devoted, intelligent woman who could’ve taught me so much. But there are friends of mine who lost their moms at an even younger age than me. I get messages from women who lost their mothers when they were only babies. These stories break my heart in two. I’m broken for the sweet mother who had to leave her baby and I’m broken for the baby who will grow into childhood without her mother and into adulthood yearning to know their momma. Losing the person we love so deeply rips us apart at any age.
It’s not kind or valuable in any way to use our stories to undermine somebody else’s story, or to seek to accrue more sympathy than somebody else. What we need to do is deepen our understanding of one another by hearing what the person is saying, asking questions and really listening to the response, reading about other people’s experiences and thinking before we speak. If we can increase our powers of empathy and emerge from our experiences as new people we can tear down the artificial wall that stands between us and the other. We can grow as humans. We can support one another. We can create safe places for those who need to grieve, share, laugh and love. This goes for anybody’s story, whatever it is. Let’s reach for one another, use our voices and connect with love.
“When we share our stories, what it does is, it opens up our hearts for other people to share their stories. And it gives us the sense that we are not alone on this journey.” Janine Shepherd