I both know what it’s like and have no clue what it’s like.
I say this because I, too, lost my mother so quickly and so shockingly by surprise. One day she was alive and vibrant; the next she simply wasn’t. I was caught off guard. I didn’t know what to do, what to think, how to feel. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye or have goodbye said to me. I know what it’s like.
At the same time, however, I share my own experience losing my mother with no one. Everyone’s moment is unique with different circumstances, different consequences, and different thoughts and emotions scattered around one’s life like the remnants of a vase shattered into thousands of pieces. Those individual pieces are different shapes than those which were my mourning, and even as a whole my time with my mother was different than the time with yours. I guess what I’m trying to say is that nobody can claim to know 100% what you’re going through. Nobody has had the exact chain of events occurring like you have them now.
There are those of us, however, who have had similar experiences. That’s why I’m writing this to you. Actually, I’ve told you most of these things on the phone a few days ago, but I know that both you and I share a passion in helping others who may benefit from our past experiences, and putting this out there may reach others who can use these words.
We talked about you being on “auto-pilot.” This is normal; it was my experience when a rush of tasks had to be completed and had to be completed immediately. Neither you nor I had been prepared for what took us by surprise, and there suddenly were plans to cancel, people to call, places to visit, arrangements to be made, and physical inevitabilities to occur. Both you and I had to be the first ones to fully realize the transition that had to be made. I don’t remember most of the details when I went through it; looking back at it it felt like I was fast-forwarding through those tasks in my life. Those around me said that I was amazing. That I remained composed. That I had really stepped up and completed some incredibly difficult things. From what you’ve told me and how you’ve told it to me, it seems like you’re also auto-piloting incredibly well.
We both ran into so many obstacles regarding things we simply didn’t have answers for; things that were never discussed for no other reason than death happening far too soon. It’s easy to beat oneself up about the things for which one is not prepared, and I applaud you for not doing that through these past few days. If you do — it’s okay. There will be a lot of “what if” playing that will occur as time goes by. It’s important to know, however, that this was not, in any way, your failure to do anything. It’s just the way it is. You’ll likely have a hard time believing this because, like me, you are your own harshest critic. I will perpetually be here to remind you otherwise if you need me to; so will the others in your life you care about you.
I told you about the way that my Jewish tradition views the person who is grieving the loss of a close relative: there are two stages of “mourner” that one can be. The first defines that stage of disorientation and shock that one goes through when one begins to realize his/her loss. This person, called an onen, is supposed to channel his/her energy to the funeral/burial process — and is able to bypass other certain Jewish laws and customs in order to reach that end goal. The second stage is after the funeral where one is considered an avel, someone who then goes through the gradual process of grieving and being helped by the community. I know that this isn’t specifically your faith tradition, but I found the distinction helpful: you, my friend, have been spending the recent days preparing for your mother’s funeral. And during that time you’ve been that superhero version of yourself, pushing yourself toward that one goal. That’s okay. Just know that there will be mourning after the fact as well, and you may be experiencing things on a different level at that time.
It is always — always, always, always — okay to ask for help. You’re so used to being the one who is there to help someone out. You enjoy helping others and being the resourceful one, whether at work or with your peers. There is no shame in feeling that this is something you can’t go at alone. It does not make you a failure. It does not make you weak. It makes you a human being going through a difficult time.
And with that? You’ll find that some people will be wonderfully helpful. Others will not. Some will grant you some wonderful advice. Others you’ll just want to shut the eff up. There is no one right way to grieve, and there is no one right way to console. Some will simply want to give you hugs. Others will want to bake casseroles, send flowers or share memories. It’s because they care, and that’s what you may want to take out of the experience as a whole. But it could be helpful to see it all as a “consolation potluck:” — it’s all right if you don’t try absolutely everything that is brought to the table.
About your kids? And kids in general? The way you and your spouse explained what happened was fine. And age appropriate. There are many others out there who would agree with you (and me); there are others out there who feel that they are the experts in all things death with children; they may claim to know what’s best for your kids better than you do. I call bullshit; you know your family and your family’s belief system. And if the kids don’t quite understand it fully? That’s okay. I’m 38 and, frankly, neither do I…
Finally — there is no right or wrong way to feel and emote. We all do this in different ways. You can weep, trying to hold back tears. You can have a long, good cry where it becomes a waterfall of emotion that takes you for a ride until you’re ready to set foot back again on dry land. You can do so in private or in public. You can feel a whole range of emotions — or you can simply not feel that the emotional volume need to be turned up to maximum. It’s all about you. You’re the one with the power here. You’re the one who will get through this in the best way you know how.
It’s not a bad thing to cry or scream. Nor is it bad to smile or laugh if you feel it appropriate. I’m proud of you for not feeling ashamed of finding some humor and lightheartedness in the situation. For me, a tipping point was finding some family friends who regifted some garden-grown tomatoes as an offer of consolation — but the bag they came in still had the original card which congratulated the recipients on their new home. How can one not laugh at that? The point is: you have that control. Whether to laugh or shed tears. And at what intensity. There is no right or wrong aside from what you feel in the moment.
I’ve seen you climb some incredible mountains in the past; this one certainly is one of the harder, steeper ones to climb and you’ve been making some enormous strides in scaling it. There’s a whole lot more mountain to climb, and I have no doubt that you’ll continue that journey at your own pace.
Just know that you’re not alone as you take these steps.
With much love,
Your mountain-climbing buddy