The education of a motherless daughter

When we talk about grief, we pull out all the clichés. “Life changes in an instant,” we remind ourselves. “You blink and everything safe and familiar just slips through your fingers.” Our ominous monologue sounds more like the voiceover intro to an episode of Grey’s Anatomy than real wisdom.

The truth is, death never plays out like it does in fiction. I didn’t even cry when I first heard my mom died. I just started shoving black sweaters, black skirts, and black heels into a suitcase. I worried about having enough money to pay the cab driver. I speculated if the eyelash curler I had packed was considered a weapon. I wondered if I’d ever get on that plane when my underwire bra tripped the metal detector. But I didn’t ask myself how I would live the rest of my life without a mother, because I wasn’t ready for that answer. I was 19, and suddenly I no longer had to wonder what it felt like to be an adult. The line in the sand separating me from my childhood had been drawn.

I’d like to say that people ask me a lot about what it’s like to be a motherless daughter. But the reality is that I’m a ten-year member of a club that no one ever wants to join. When my friends complain about their overbearing or unavailable mothers, I try my best not to cough or make sad animal noises. Death may have stolen the adult relationship with my mom that I never had, but it’s gifted me with a version of myself I’ve grown to admire. A version I wouldn’t trade for the girl who never had the rug yanked out from under her.

You see, I was the kind of kid who always expected the worst. I would tiptoe into my parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night just to check that they were still breathing. Raised in the Bible Belt, I anticipated that Jesus would come back too soon and ruin all my favorite TV shows. But the day my mom died, I finally learned that holding my breath in anticipation of life’s surest gut punch didn’t protect me from anything.

“I can’t live without you,” may be a romantic lyric for a song or an Oscar-worthy plot, but the reality is that even with all the stops and starts of grief, we can live without someone we love. Our very biology has programmed us to be able to laugh, cry—to focus on death and distract ourselves from it all at once. But we seem to have this amnesia when it comes to our own resilience. Basing your life decisions on the fear of losing someone is like spending every car ride bracing for the air bag to deploy.  Life is horrible and wonderful all at the same time, so you might as well stick your head out the window and admire the view.

Writer Anne Lamott compares grief to breaking a leg and never having it heal quite right. “It still hurts when the weather gets cold,” she writes, “but you learn to dance with the limp.” As I limp towards 30, I am sure of a few things. I’m sure that no one will ever love me as much as my mom did. But I’m also sure that grief opens up the space to accept and give love in a way like no other.  And for that, I am grateful.

We buried my mom two days after I got the phone call. In my memory, the vagaries of that Friday are a massive, overpriced caricature. A coffin cheaply veiling the absurdities of cushioned lining and a box-spring mattress. The funeral director opening a heart-shaped wicker basket releasing overworked doves into the dim sky. That Friday has circled around nine more times like a bad carnival ride, catapulting my emotions or sending me home with a stomachache. But when I think of those 364 days in between, I see how grief is planting great things in my life. There are friendships that might have been pushed aside and kindnesses I might have ignored if my life had not been forever rerouted as a teenager.

If you’ve lost your mom or someone else you love, I have no magic wisdom for you. There are no strategies for getting to the other side of grief, because being human is about being in the middle of it.  That’s where the worst things happen, but it’s also where the best things happen. And if you pay attention and are kind enough to yourself, you will find that that’s exactly where you want to be.

Kathleen is a licensed therapist and an eternal graduate student. When she’s not reading dystopian novels, she runs the blog Fangirl Therapy and writes about mental health. If you also enjoy speculating about what’s going on in North Korea, send her a tweet @fangirltherapy.

(Image via Belle Zhen Zhao)

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