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Dealing With Grief After Losing Your Mother

April 15, 2021

15 April 2021

It’s exactly two years to the day since I lost my mother and it still consumes my life every day. Rarely a moment will pass that my mind won’t drift onto her, and that’s amplified in times of solitude. The common refrain from anyone else that’s gone through the experience is “it gets easier”, and that is partially true. There are several components of grief that hit you and while some parts do get easier, others become harder to reconcile while others won’t fully manifest for years. The three main components I’ve identified are physical, emotional and psychological.

Mumsey in Osaka (top 2), Miyajima Island near Hiroshima (middle), Washington DC & New York, June 2014.

The Physical Loss

The physical loss is the trauma of losing someone. The tears, the pain, and possibly some anger, and that is the component that gets easier over time. I lost my mother on the Monday before Easter in 2019 and I cried everyday for the following four weeks. Mumsey, as we called her, was such an integral part of my life and losing her was devastating. The only day without tears in that four week period was the third Tuesday, which was my first real week back at work. While I went back the Tuesday after Easter (8 days after her passing), I couldn’t cope, so went home early. I recall vividly being in tears just walking towards the office building, and needing to wait downstairs for my eyes to dry. On Wednesday I worked from home, not that I did much. Then it was Anzac Day and the week was over as I’m part time, Monday to Thursday. On Friday was the funeral. That night, I would sleep on the couch. It felt comforting to snuggle under the quilt, watch TV and drift off to sleep. It became my comfort zone and I’m still there, adding a proper pillow and sheets since.

The middle Monday of that 4 week period was the first day of trying to return to my normal life and I quickly learnt there was no normal without her. I remember mostly crying as I rode home from work and wanting to be with Mumsey – in the grave with her. Thankfully, that was the only time of such nonsensical thoughts and I could just hear Mumsey saying, “don’t be so stupid”. I also tried to retain a rational perspective and would soothe my grief with positive thoughts, especially that Mumsey was with us for a long time. She was 85, had a good life, and was in no pain. She had her “rabbits” (as she called us children) with her and was so well looked after. In fact, almost every photo I have of her in her final week she was smiling. That’s why I never felt angered. I know some people aren’t so lucky with their parents. A girl in my grief counselling group was 26 when losing her mother to cancer.

Any period of solitude during these initial weeks would always make me cry. Bike rides to and from work were the most common, along with taking a shower or even just going for a wee. In that small room alone, there’s no distractions or anything. During this early phase, the main trigger was thinking about Mumsey in her final few weeks. Those thoughts were almost all the time. Over the months, specific events or activities would become the trigger. Anything, even if very small, associated with Mumsey would trigger tears. Going to the supermarket was a struggle because not needing to buy her things reminded me she was gone. Another time was playing the Super NES game, Yoshi’s Island, with my sister, as as that reminded me of our lives in Port Melbourne in the 1990s.

Mumsey would always buy a game for my birthday and Christmas. In fact, she bought my first game system – the NES, along with the game, Wrestlemania. That was about 1989 and it started a tradition of giving games. I still have all these games. When I bought the SNES myself, the first thing I did when she got home from work was place the bare console down in the kitchen to show her how sleek it was. She was curious to read about games herself, and would save news stories from newspapers about them, along with so much other stuff.

The common trigger event for tears is a change to cooler weather. With April the time of year I lost Mumsey, cooler weather is a strong reminder of that period. February 2020 was one such period it suddenly got cold, my mind shifted gears, and I sobbed in the office. My coworker heard me, much to my happiness. I really wanted to talk to someone. Obviously, milestones were tough. My birthday wasn’t until September, my sister’s in October, and my mother’s not until the following March. Even with that time lag, they were tough. The first Christmas I took a photo of Mumsey to her parents grave and reunited them. The last time we went as a family was on a Christmas Day, about when I was 14.

One bad trigger event was the movie, Forrest Gump. I’d never seen it before and so Forrest losing his mother and then his wife had me in tears. I would sleep in my Mumsey’s bed that night. While looking in her room usually made me sad, sometimes it was a great place of solace. Her room still makes me think of her life’s progression, right to this point. That she had her own place for so long and accumulated so much stuff. When she made her move to a new public apartment building around 2012, we threw out so much stuff. Mostly books and newspaper clippings from her years of university study later in her life. Once she was diagnosed with failing kidneys, I had her move in with me. Then a whole bunch of more stuff went out as her domain was now one bedroom. Gradually her material life reduced and reduced, and now her bedroom and remaining belongings are all we have. Then I think, in years and centuries time, nothing will exist. We’ll all be forgotten. It’s sad.

I should say, Mumsey loved the final year of her life with me. It’s something I always planned to do for her, that once she was beyond living alone, she would live with me. I hoped this would be at least 5 years and I was always sensitive to any signs she needed me more. If there’s any slight feeling of resentment or feeling cheated in her passing, it’s that I didn’t perhaps push her to move in earlier. Then I think she was reluctant to let go of her apartment once she moved in with me, and that I got one year with her is still one year longer than many people get. First thing I told her is that it is her place now, even if she lives to 100. She loved her independence and didn’t like to be a burden, so it was important to reassure her. So many of my most vivid memories now are in that final year. Just little things like her enthusiastic “Yes, please!” when I asked if she wanted another tea. She loved her tea, and I loved making it for her. I should be grateful for that.

Mumsey at the Imperial Palace East Garden, Tokyo, November 2017. She loved Japan. We went 3 times, with this one to see the autumn leaves.

The Emotional Loss

Having someone part of your life since birth, and knowing nothing else, it’s a huge loss. It’s magnified in that Mumsey was a sole parent and we became very much a team. This loss manifested itself as a permanent dark cloud hanging over my head. I can’t say I ever reached the point of depression; it was more this constant feeling of despondency and emptiness. It dominated my existence. It sapped my energy and dampened any interest in previous joys of life. There was now nothing to live for. Talking helps, and I did a lot of it, mostly to myself. That helped rationalise my feelings, and then being able to release these thoughts to other people felt liberating. My most pervasive thought in the early stages is that I’ll never be the same again. I’ve lost part of my core, and while it might fill over time, it won’t be the same. Much like replacing a chunk out of an apple with a piece of orange. Whole again; not the same.

The days between tears would begin to get longer and longer. First a few days, then a week, then a few weeks. Thinking about Mumsey during her final few weeks was still the main trigger. The toughest period I ever had was in November of 2019. The hospital had a memorial service and I wept and wept for ages. Not just there, for most of the rest of that Saturday. While it was a nice way to remember her, it didn’t help emotionally. To compound the sadness, the next morning her final fish, a zebra danio, passed away. I had taken over her aquarium and it was strange how it aligned with Mumsey’s life. The filter stopped working around the time she went into palliative care and it caused an ammonia spike. Among her fish were two bronze catfish, one an albino, and the albino passed away soon after the spike. I cried and was in panic, not wanting to lose them all, as they were a living connection to Mumsey. A week later, the other catfish, her favourite fish of all, passed away the morning Mumsey did. He stopped eating a few days prior without showing any signs of illness. Perhaps he missed his friend. Who knows. She said she had him for 5 years, if not more, plus the year at my place. A couple of zebra danios succumbed over the weeks, while the three remaining seemed to escape mostly unscathed. They would swim happily for many more months until that final one passed away. I had replaced the lost ones to ensure an unbroken spirit between the fish was retained. I subsequently set up a second aquarium so there’s one representing my mother’s life and one representing mine. I also have her plants as a living connection.

There were times of feeling good, if not euphoric. They were often linked to small, simple triumphs like cooking, or doing the dishes. They were temporary escapes to a normal, previous life. Temporary in that they were very short lived. In a snap, I’d be back to that depressive state again. These are the waves of emotion you’ll often hear grieving people talk about. While the intensity and duration can change depending on the situation, you always return to that constant, interminable depressive state. There was a period, around the middle of 2020, I was sick of it. I felt it many times over the months, usually in that great place of reflective thinking – the bathroom. I would reconcile it as part of the process and just got on with life. This was the period of the COVID-19 lockdowns. The first one started just before the first anniversary of losing Mumsey, while the second one, the four-month one, was from June 2020. My work hours were slashed to just a few a day. In some ways this all helped. The time to myself felt like I could honour Mumsey properly. I could visit her grave more often and consider solely my own needs. I didn’t have to be anywhere or see anyone. It was just me, my thoughts and looking after myself.

Nowadays, the waves of emotions have subsided and changed a bit. Instead of a dark cloud it’s more a grey cloud. The peaks and troughs are longer and not as extreme. While I don’t get the short, euphoric moments that often anymore, I get sustained periods of perhaps a week of reasonable contentment, and then a week or two of moderate despondency. Again, they often align with the weather, or an event associated with my mother. The America’s Cup in New Zealand in early 2021 was one such event. Mumsey loved most sports and we were both fans of major international competitions. For the 2000 event, she’d record the races on videotape off pay-TV and I’d pick them up on the way home from work. We always lived close by. I made sure of that when I moved out a few years earlier. The Tour de France was something else we both loved over many years, and it was me recording the daily highlights for her to watch when she got home from work. In later years we’d still text and talk about it. Without her around, these events now cause sadness and overall interest has declined, and new experiences feel hollow. It’s not the same anymore.

Mumsey in New York, September 2015. This was our first morning.

The Psychological Loss

This is the component I’m only now confronting. It’s the one that will more often trigger tears these days. I still haven’t comprehended I really lost my mother. I can’t believe it’s possible, nor can I believe I’m living this reality. I still can’t even think about the d-word when it comes to Mumsey, much less say it. Every reference is “I’ve lost” or “passed away”. While I’ve begun to accept, or realise, she’s gone forever, I haven’t fully reconciled why. It’s not something fathomable. Other than leaving flowers, plants and other adornments, my sister and I still haven’t done anything with her grave site. I guess this is part of the acceptance process. We’re not ready yet. This part, I believe, will take many years to traverse. It’s a journey that’s only just starting, and it’s the one that seems to be getting harder too.

Mumsey buying some Uniqlo at Hakata Station, Fukuoka, November 2017. Yes, we travelled a lot together. This was our last trip.

Today

When I’m asked how I’m doing, the answer is always “getting by”. That’s still life at the moment – getting by. While I’ve transitioned out of the daze of the early grief period, I’m far from normal. Especially as I’m now only beginning to fully deal with the psychological part. I’m still in that grieving stasis, and who knows how long it will last. The first test might be appreciating a birthday – anyone’s birthday – because birthdays are not happy for me and I refuse to sing Happy Birthday, nor do I want it sung to me. Another test will be Christmas. Since losing Mumsey, my response to someone saying Merry Christmas is “thanks”. I haven’t said Merry Christmas to anyone for two years. There’s nothing merry about it without Mumsey. Although, today, I did say “you too” when a client said “have a nice day”. That’s something.

What I’ve learned most about the grieving process is that it is silent. This being my first loss, I was totally unaware of the difficulties. I was bemused by the expression “Sorry about your loss” you hear often from Americans. I didn’t understand the magnitude of the meaning behind that statement. I didn’t realise there was such a strong feeling of loss. Sadness, yes. Trauma, yes. Loss, no. Coming home, even from a walk, still provides strong feelings of loss. Mumsey’s bag, that I placed on the kitchen table after arriving home from the hospital, is still there, probably to help fill that void. Then there’s the public facade. You often hear of public figures losing someone and then a week later they are back on TV as though nothing has happened. Quite simply it’s a facade. Grieving people easily switch modes. They seem completely like their usual self while committed to a task or activity, much like my euphoric moments doing the dishes. Then it’s straight back to dealing with their loss once in their private time. Those private times can be at any time too. If you hear someone weeping at their desk, talk to them.

Also from November 2017, this is on the train to see Nitama the cat – the stationmaster of Kishi Station.

Many of my thoughts now are about reliving time, especially that final week. The knowledge I have now I’d love to use then. I’d like to ask more about her specifically. In that moment, you’re really thinking about the extra day or the extra week, not about the end. While Mumsey would probably hate it, I’d like to talk more about our memories together, and say a proper goodbye. Although, she did seem to do that herself in her own special way. I’d also ask about the grieving process she had when losing her mother and father. I was 6 and 8, respectively, when it happened, and all these years I never thought to ask. My main memory was Mumsey taking a phone call and then bursting into tears and hugging me when her father passed away. Of course, my one real wish is to see Mumsey again. I still think she’s out there someone, that we’ll unite, and discuss our experiences since she’s passed. I miss her so much. I always will.

Our Maneki-Neko today. See the link below.

Gotokuji Temple – The Tale of the Maneki-Neko and Tribute to My Late Mother

From → Warrior Life

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