Grief Interrupted

Losing a loved one can be the most challenging and life changing event for some.  For Kimberly, the loss of her mother caused a flood of emotions and thoughts about life to cross her mind.  But after two years, she can look back and realize that she is wiser now then she was before.  Her mother taught her so much and Kimberly has been able to find strength and a new identity.

By Kimberly Elmore

Two years? I can’t believe it’s almost been two years.

My mom went into the hospital on September 23, entered hospice on October 15, and on October 25, 2009 (six days after her 57th birthday) she passed away after fighting lung cancer for almost four years. If you’ve ever watched a loved one die, then you know it’s one of the hardest, if not the hardest, life experiences to go through. And, to have to go through this type of loss at such a young age (I was 29), makes the experience have a different kind of pain associated with it.

My mom and I have been robbed of spending many more years together. She won’t be at my wedding or become a grandmother. What hurts the most though, is that she’s no longer a part of my daily life. I miss talking to her. I miss having her as a best friend and confidant. I miss her laugh. I miss how she wore a ring on every finger and how her finger nails were always painted! Most of all, I miss her unconditional love.

Some people may think that as time goes on the pain goes away. Reality is the pain never goes away; it just changes. The pain isn’t as sharp as it used to be nor is it as easily accessible, which sometimes causes me to feel guilty (although I know, rationally, that doesn’t mean I miss her any less). I’ve learned to live with the permanent ache — the void.

There are times my mind wanders back to the hospice and her last days. Watching her gradually slip away, just laying in a hospital bed, struggling to breathe, no longer responsive — saying good-bye to her each night for four days in case she happened to pass by the next morning. Although my pain is no longer bubbling at the surface, it’s still there — I carry it like a scar.   Just writing this article brings me back to that time – the lump in my throat returns.

I’ve come a long way since that time, though. After my mom died, I felt lost. I’d think, “Who will love me like my mom?” I had to accept that the answer to that question was no one. I had to teach myself how to live without her unwavering support, which is a difficult task; one that’s hard to put into words. My mom had been a constant in my life from the moment I was conceived. And, all of a sudden, poof, she was gone.”

No more visits to the doctor, no more chemotherapy, and no more PET and CAT scans every three months to agonize over — that had become a normalcy for me and my family and now it was all over. I thought, “There’s nothing to fight for anymore. Now what?”

For the majority of that first year after my mom’s passing, I’d have many moments of questioning the point of life. Why do some people live to be 90 while others’ lives are cut short? That saying, “Life is good” annoyed me. Is life really that good? These were the kinds of thoughts I would have.

People say the first year of grief is the hardest, and I guess there’s truth to that. I used to get annoyed when people would tell me that. I’d think, “Oh, that’s it? Just one year and it suddenly gets better?” I think the better way to phrase that statement is: the first year of grief is the most challenging as far as adjusting goes. For me, it took a year to adjust to my “new normal.”

Reflecting on that first year, my initial reaction is, “WTF happened?” It has been a tough road. Not only because I was dealing with my mom’s death but because other life-changing events occurred shortly after my mom died. My grief became interrupted. I couldn’t grieve the way I wanted to — there were distractions that compounded my feelings.

In addition to dealing with my own feelings, I worried about my brother whose coping mechanisms are unhealthy and had to figure out how to manage my relationship with my father. Plus, our family dynamic changed drastically. My mom was the glue and suddenly we, including my extended family, became (and still are) like separate islands. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I have much of a family bond anymore — luckily I have friends who have extended themselves and their families to me.

My brother struggled with guilt after my mom died, and he continues with that struggle today. He’s realized he made poor choices that disappointed our mom — and the finality of her death made him recognize he couldn’t make right what had gone wrong. To have to live with that type of guilt must be incredibly hard. I worry for my brother — to have to carry this type of burden. I admire him for putting one foot in front of the other and going forward to the best of his ability.

My father was (is) a challenging person. My heart was broken several times because conversations I had with him didn’t meet my expectations. His actions and selfishness caused me a lot of pain. I owe my father thanks, though, because it is he who truly taught me how to forgive. It took me almost two years to forgive him, but I did it — not for him, but for myself. The only person my anger was hurting was me. It took me a long time to learn this. What’s that saying? Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong. It really is much easier to stay angry than to come to a place of acceptance and forgiveness.

Other people let me down during this process as well. Those I thought would be there at the end of my mom’s life weren’t. Those I thought would be more of a support system were and are noticeably not present.   In time, I was able to reframe this experience. I know that these people were/are not noticeably absent because of malicious reasons. I view it, instead, as another life lesson in forgiveness.

I’m grateful for my friends who were (and are) there for me more so than my family members. They came to the hospice often and brought me clothes, food, magazines, and laughter. I learned the power of friendship during this time, as well as the fact that family isn’t necessarily blood-related. As sad and scary as death is, my mom’s hospice room was often filled with laughter. She had countless friends come and sit with her, hold her hand, and reminisce. It is then when I truly learned (or should I say witnessed) what the sign of a good life lived is. It’s in the quality of our relationships with others.

I had to deal with the anger I felt towards my mom. I was mad at her for smoking — because her poor choice, her addiction, is what took her from me all too soon. Some people get cancer and there’s no concrete reason why, but with my mom, we all knew why. I had to figure out a way to make peace with my anger without being able to discuss it with my mom. It’s a difficult thing to accomplish.

Then, four and half months after my mom passed away, something else happened that I wished I could have discussed with my mom. I found out I had a 40-year old half brother from my father. My dad told me by handing me a picture and saying, “Here’s a photo of your half brother.” Of course I had tons of questions, not many he was able to answer. From what I gathered, my dad knew of his existence all these years, but chose not to be a part of his life. My “half brother’s” cousin found my dad on Facebook and the rest is history. My dad threw himself into this other “family.” My brother and I felt like we had been replaced.

My entire world as I knew it changed when my mom died and now it had changed again. I kept thinking, “What’s happened to my life?”

Four months after this revelation, a close family friend decided to make a series of hurtful decisions. This person made these choices during the height of everyone’s grief — a kick-a-wounded-horse-while-he’s-down kind of thing – and it’s because of that lack of empathy that I no longer have a relationship with this person. To better cope with this experience, after several agonizing months, I reframed it into yet another life lesson. I thank this person, too. Because through this experience, I learned the true value of, “Do unto others, as you would want others to do unto you.” In other words, BE NICE. Sometimes doing what’s right is different from what we want to do. Do what’s right — in the end you’ll feel better about yourself. Doing what you want may provide temporary satisfaction; doing what’s right builds character.

Many of these grief interruptions, as I’ve coined them, were blessings in disguise. While I was going through them, I was pissed — I’m not going to sugar coat that. My emotions were all over the place, and at times I thought, “Is this what a breakdown feels like?” As time has gone on, I’ve come to realize that all these experiences have made me a better, stronger person. I now do my best to focus on what’s really important in life: nurturing personal relationships, appreciating those who lift you up and letting go of those who do not, taking the high road no matter how tempting it is to return spitefulness with spitefulness, the power of an apology, living in the present, and last but not least the freedom that comes with truly forgiving.

Over the past two years, I’ve weathered through some sad, tough, life-changing experiences, so sometimes I have to dig deep to offer up compassion for people who are clueless (or perhaps ignorant) to what real tragedy is. I don’t mean for that to come across as self righteous — that’s not my intention at all. No matter what, remember someone out there has it worse than you. I do my best to focus on what I have, instead of dwelling on what I no longer have. If you think you’re having a bad day, go visit a hospice or cancer center. Life is a matter of perspective, right?

The one life event that helped me “snap” out of my pit of sadness (and anger) was the birth of my goddaughter, Natalie. The first time I held her (anytime I’m in her company, really), feelings of joy came over me — it’s hard to explain. But in that moment I thought, “Life is good”; there is a reason for it. I recently read a quote, “The soul is healed by being with children,” and I believe that is true. Children, by merely existing, teach the rest of us that life must and does go on.

As the second anniversary of my mom’s death approaches, I feel stronger, wiser, and more secure than I have in a long time. I miss my mom now more than ever — that feeling, I’ve accepted, will never fade. I struggled with how to reframe this entire experience to not come out of it being a bitter person. I remember after my mom’s parents died, she became bitter. I didn’t want that same experience for myself. After all, we cannot control what happens; we can only control our reaction to what happens. I didn’t want my experiences to define the person I was becoming; I wanted the person I was becoming to be defined by the awareness I gained through my experiences.

Don’t get me wrong, I have days when I slip up, make mistakes — but I do my best. And on days that are extra hard, I remind myself that my mom would want me to go on and be happy. So I do my best each day; for myself and as a tribute to my mom.

“There are things that we don’t want to happen but have to accept, things we don’t want to know but have to learn, and people we can’t live without but have to let go.”   ~Author Unknown

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