As the two-and-a-half year mark looms of my mother’s passing, I’ve been thinking a lot about loss, grief and moving forward. Each of those terms are quite ambiguous, I know. Each holds a different meaning or expectation for every person. But, over the last few years, and having had conversations with friends who have also lost significant people in their lives, I’ve come to conclude a few things.
1. It is truly amazing the number of people I have spoken with that speak specifically of the difficulty of raising their own children after having lost a parent early on. By this I mean the constant sense of loss when seeing their child or children doing something spectacular and not being able to share it with their parent or parents. The comfort, but heartbreak, in recognizing similar traits between the child and the would-be grandparent. The knowing that their parent would never have the chance to meet and enjoy time with their child and vice versa. I cannot speak to this, as I don’t have children of my own – nor do I want them. But, knowing how much my mother wanted to be a grandmother someday, I can imagine what this would be like. I think about the difficulty of even being an aunt someday and experiencing these same sentiments.
2. One of the biggest struggles for me, post-loss, comes with the perception that you are now an ‘expert in death’ – particularly where a parent is concerned. Yes, I have experienced loss. Yes, I live with that loss. But in no way does that make me an expert. What my own loss, and the conversations I’ve had with others, have taught me is that the experience of loss or grief is not the same from person to person, even in cases where the loss is of the same person or figure (a parent, sibling, partner etc.) Grief is personal. Grief is hard. Never have I heard an account of loss that is close to my own relationship with it – including my brother’s. No one truly knows what it’s like or how you feel, because no one will have ever had the same relationship with that individual as you. Of course there may be similarities in your experiences, but that’s not the same thing. And this, to me, is one of the most irritating aspects of the process. Nothing annoys me more than hearing the words I know how you feel.
3. Blame, what-ifs and if-onlys have no practical application in the process of moving forward – not ‘on’ but forward. This is a tough one, because it is so easy to do. I’ve done it – I think most have. I’ve used all three and none of them helped me. They made it all much more painful. Maybe if I had done something different that day, she’d still be here. Or maybe everything would have ended up the same. I’m not capable of knowing. No one is. To focus on this is counterproductive. It’s not healthy. It’s not helpful.
4. Missing someone doesn’t fade. The loss numbs from time to time, but it never goes away. Perhaps we learn to not think about it every minute of every day. Perhaps we learn to block those thoughts just long enough to make it through a day or to complete a task. But then there are those moments when you’re doing something completely unrelated to the loss, and it somehow triggers a memory. Sometimes these bring moments of happiness, laughter or a simple smile. Sometimes they bring up moments of sadness, and out of nowhere you are brought to uncontrollable tears. What I’ve learnt is that embracing these moments – good or bad – provides a sense of comfort, almost like that person is somehow with you. This, of course, is more easily appreciated when those memories or flashbacks are followed by positive reactions.
5. Laughter truly is the best medicine, and everything does happen for a reason – whether we can explain it right away or not. These are two really heavy clichés, but two that also really hit home, at least for me. It is easy to become overwhelmed with grief and sadness immediately and following the loss of someone important to your life. At times, it can seem like there is never going to be a light, or like it is wrong to experience moments of happiness. I’ve been there. But I also know my mom really enjoyed a good laugh. I cannot tell you how many moments have been saved by the power of laughter – sometimes on my own, sometimes with friends or family. There are studies, I’m sure, that articulate exactly how these bursts of laughter actually aid the grieving process; I am not an expert in these sorts of things. But let me assure you – laughing helps, even when it seems impossible.
Now, when it comes to the second cliché, I have learnt to become quite the advocate for it being true. I’m not saying that there aren’t circumstances that leave you unable to comprehend what has taken place, or ones that make less sense than others. What I’m trying to say is that, things usually have a way of providing some sort of explanation. Maybe this is just part of my own process of grief, or maybe, somehow, it is true. Here’s what I know for certain – it has been one difficult journey since my mother passed. It is one that I was not prepared for, and one that I still struggle with every day. But, because of the loss I am doing things that would not have otherwise been possible. I have travelled. I have studied abroad. And, currently, I am working abroad – a childhood goal that I have been able to realize. Of course, I probably could have accomplished these things without losing my mother, but it was the loss that pushed me. It took away my fear. It has allowed me to live. Would I rather have my mother be alive? Yes, without a doubt. But her unexpected absence has pushed me to do things I would have been too afraid to do, because I now know my strength and what I’m capable of overcoming. It took me well over a year to understand this – to see this positive aspect. I think of it as her greatest gift to me.
6. Finally, the next steps are up to you. You can live in the loss or live with the memory. Choose the memory. As I have already alluded to, it is far too easy to be sucked into the loss. And, as difficult as it can be to live each day without that person, what I have come to understand is that every day without them, living in their memory, is far better than living in the loss. Strength and resilience, for me, have all come from living life. I wish I had the opportunity to share the experiences I’ve had since my mom’s passing with her, but knowing how proud she’d be is almost as comforting. Make the most of the memory, and live. Life is too short to waste. So go out there, live life, and create memories for someone else to live off of!
Emily Kennedy is a writer from Nova Scotia, Canada. She currently lives and works in Kampala, Uganda. Read more by Emily at The Orange Canadian.