David Ferguson - March 2016
Saying goodbye to your mother is a pain we all must face. That doesn’t make it any easier to do
Two dear friends of mine lost their mothers this month, a high school friend and an old love. I’ve been sitting here trying to write condolence cards to them, but the inadequacy of everything I’m trying to say, especially having lost my own mother 18 months ago, is leaving me stymied.
“I’m so sorry you’ve lost your mother,” sounds like they might have left her at the mall or in their other pants. It doesn’t even begin to convey what I understand about losing your mother, that even if her death came peacefully after a long struggle, it still feels like a wrenching severance, an amputation.
We have not “lost” our mothers. We say that to be polite, but in truth, we have become un-mothered, like Marie Antoinette was un-headed or that wilderness hiker who sawed off his arm was un-handed. It feels violent. It feels raw and fundamental, a pain that reaches all the way down to your ligaments and bones. Our mothers were our first firmament, literally, our first homes, the universe from whose substance we were formed.
And while this is a pain that all creatures who are born must face, it does not make saying goodbye to your mother any easier to do.
To my grieving friends I would say: “Brace yourselves.” Grief on this scale is like a physical object that the body must expel.
My uncle fought in Vietnam and was close by when a fellow soldier stepped on a landmine and died instantly. My uncle survived, but with serious injuries. For years after, pieces of shrapnel would occasionally begin to work their way up and out through his flesh.
Grief is like that – it’s inside you and it has to come out. There are no shortcuts. Be prepared for sudden explosions of feeling that overtake you at inappropriate times. Once, upon seeing a mother with twin toddler sons at the local grocery store, I had to abandon a nearly full cart of groceries and rush out of the store to go cry in the car in big, ugly, gulping sobs.
Over the course of the first year, I became quietly obsessed with Victorian mourning customs. I checked the calendar periodically to see at what points it was appropriate to exchange black crape for bombazine, at what date the black ribbon should be taken down from the house’s front door, and how long as a male member of the family would it be appropriate to wear a black armband or hat band, a signal to the world that says: “Be kind to me. I am in pain.”
Nowadays, of course, we don’t do any of that. We take a few days off of work and then we’re back in the game, ready or not. Please, no crying in the break room, like Joan Holloway on Mad Men said. “There’s a place to do that – like in your apartment.”
We’re left to wander back into the world, where everything looks the same, but for us, every movement and every breath feels weighted down by this suffocating cloud of sadness. What are we supposed to do with that? How are we to function?
My high school friend, a West Point graduate who has done multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan, wrote to me: “For the first time in my life, I know sorrow. I’ve felt sadness, deep sadness, but this is another thing.”
“She will always be with you,” say the well-meaning, but if that’s true, I want to know why I still feel so miserably alone. Why can’t I talk to her or smell the sweet, clean scent of her hair when I hug her one last time?
There’s nothing good that comes out of the death of someone you love, but I have learned this: the magnitude and bottomlessness of the pain you feel is a testament to the love you shared. And while I don’t ever expect to arrive at a point in life where I’m alright with the fact that my mother is gone, I know that I am so, so lucky to have loved and been loved that much by anyone.
That may be small consolation against the howling wind of sadness that is blowing through my friends’ lives right now, but it’s the best that I can offer. That pain you’re feeling is directly proportional to how much you loved and were loved.
It does not ever, apparently, go away altogether, but over time the howling diminishes to a roar, which degrades to a sigh and you find yourself able to go about your life again, though sadder, different. Be gentle and kind to yourself and honor each stage of what you’re feeling and, as much as you can, be thankful for your mother’s love.