One year ago today I lost my mom.
There are a lot of books and articles on how to deal with grief. Of course, they don’t really help if you ignore all of them. My way of dealing with grief has been: shoving it wayyyy into the back of my mind and pretending I don’t hear it bellowing to be let out. I know it’s not healthy. I’ve seen Inside Out. I’m not an idiot.
Although…am I? Because it took me almost a year to deal with it, despite some pretty epic meltdowns when grief has broken down the door and stormed to the front of my brain.
I’ll give you an example. I work as a fashion copywriter and, as you probably know, Christmas is kind of a big deal for retail. Around this time (about seven months after mom passed), I had just started writing some sort of holly-jolly marketing email when I began crying. Hard.
I hadn’t cried since the morning of my birthday, back in July. Although once you hit a certain age, birthdays are kind of a love-hate event, right? Because you don’t want to think about getting older, but also…cake. And presents. And birthday wishes on Facebook from coworkers you haven’t seen in 10 years even though they’re all “Miss your face!”
Anyway, I cried on my birthday because it was the first one without my mom. She had always made a fuss over birthdays, probably because she grew up in a time and place where very little fuss was made, over anything. Ironically(?) she hated her own birthday, scowling at the numbers on the cake as if they were personally responsible for the aging process.
So crying on my birthday sucked, but at least it made sense. Crying while writing a marketing email? That made no sense. Yet there I was, gasping for breath with my fingers frozen over my laptop. It lasted about 15 minutes and I thought, Okay, that was weird but it’s over! Back to writing about fashion!
Once again I started typing. And once again I started crying.
I cried all day. All day.
I have never understood, before that moment, people who claimed they cried for “hours.” I was a little judgy about it, in fact. Like seriously? You cried for HOURS? How is that even possible?
I didn’t even cry after the funeral. One would assume that’s when I would finally “let go.” Nope. I went home, changed into comfy clothes, and poured myself a very large glass of wine. No tears.
Speaking of funerals, I’d just like to pause for a second and vent a little on the funeral traditions in this country. I mean, we force the grieving family to get dressed up and stand in a crowded, stuffy room greeting mourners for two days straight. Then, even though by this point they look like actual zombies, we expect them to serve appetizers and make even more small talk. What is that?! Why is that?
Anyway, back to my epic meltdown: it was like all the tears I had shoved down just exploded out of me like a grief volcano. And you would think, after that disgusting display of emotion, I would be done, right?
But grief isn’t like that. There’s no end date. Before my mom died I always thought grief was a thing that started off huge and then gradually disappeared with time. Like one of those huge, under-the-skin zits. Right? The ones that are uber-painful every time you accidentally touch it yet you can’t stop touching it. But then eventually it goes away, usually after a big date or event, so in all the pictures you look like a you have a third eye. Ugh, hormonal acne, WHY.
So I thought if I ignored my grief long enough, it would get the hint and slink away.
I also thought “phases of grief” meant that Denial, Anger, Guilt, Depression and Acceptance would all arrive in order and while one would go to work, the others would politely wait their turn.
Wrong. So very wrong. It’s a damn Lord of the Flies-esque scene of debauchery and mayhem, all of them clamoring for my attention. I just wanted them to go away.
I hate crying. It’s the out-of-control-ness of it. There’s no way to hide if you’ve been crying…in fact, it’s worse if you try to hold it back. And I think a lot of working women experience this: the shame of crying. Because God forbid you get labeled “emotional.”
Anyway, whenever a memory popped up or I started feeling teary, I shoved it down. My most-used phrase of the year was probably, “NopeNopeNopeNopeNopeNopeNope!” Not going to feel feelings! Running away now!
Shocking revelation: running away doesn’t work.
Over the holidays, my dad gave me a folder from their safety deposit box. It was full of old vaccine records, newspaper clippings, legal documents and other random papers my mother had deemed too important to throw away.
Tucked in the middle of some very unimpressive grade cards, I found a letter: “A Mother’s Day Message to My Daughter.”
“NopeNopeNopeNopeNopeNope!” I shoved the letter back in the folder.
That letter lurked in my dresser drawer for months.
Until one Sunday, our pastor preached on grief. How you can’t just ignore it. That it’s okay to feel grief months—even years—later. That you have to feel your feelings and let the grief just…come. In other words: you can’t ignore it.
It’s not like I hadn’t heard that particular piece of advice before. But for some reason, on that day, I actually listened. My grief poked its head out, but instead of shoving it back in, I let it out. It was the guest I never invited, but I finally let it stay.
(So many metaphors, you guys. It’s unbearable, I’m really sorry. Blame it on the grief.)
It took a few weeks, but one day I sat down and finally read the letter.
Weirdly, after all that, I didn’t cry. So anti-climactic, right? I had prepared myself! I took a dramatic deep breath before I read it and everything!
But at least I was willing to cry. Instead of getting angry with my emotions, I was finally open to feeling them.
P.S. You guys, this is basically the plot of Inside Out. I’m clearly the sad blue girl voiced by Phyllis from The Office. I’m so sorry for wasting your time. Go watch (or rewatch) Inside Out, because it’s wayyyyy better than this.