After Life – Trying to Heal Without Letting Go

Lately I find myself haunted by memories. During waking hours, the smallest thing can set me off. Sometimes it’s explicit reminders, like visiting familiar sites that I associate with her or cataloging old photographs, letters, voicemails. Other times the connection is intangible – shopping at the grocery store at a certain time of day, overhearing unrelated snippets of conversation in public, even something as simple as watching the sunset alone. Every day, no matter where I am or what else is happening in my life, I find myself retreating inward, pushing others away, crying continuously and choking on the sobs that squeeze their way out of my body.

The Pain of Remembering

It’s been three months since my mother passed away but it feels as though I’ve merely blinked and time stood still. I still have the last text she ever sent to me saved on my phone, though I will remember her words forever. With her hands paralyzed, she used her thumb to type out each word, one letter at a time:

Jia cie kocham Buddy

Thanks for showing me California i love it

Thanks for all you did to help me

I was always be in ur heart

 

The next morning she didn’t respond to any of my texts. When I came into her room at the nursing facility I found her kneeling next to her bed in prayer looking scared, lost, confused. The nurses in her room urged her to stay in bed for her own safety. She had refused any food, water, or medications that day, and had likewise refused to let the nurses suction the back of her throat – an important, near-hourly process since she had developed severe difficulties swallowing. The look in her eyes was one of disorientation and desperation, a look I will never be able to forget. She knew it was the end.

I helped her sit on her bed, and when she refused to sit I helped her lie down. The nurses continued telling her to stay in bed so she wouldn’t fall. She was scared so I laid next to her, lengthwise, held her body tight next to mine while trying to reassure her (even though I knew that she was near the end), reminding her that I was present and that I love her.

She died in my arms and even after the nurses washed her body and set her in repose I laid next to her until just before the mortician arrived some time later. I have no idea how long I was there or what happened in the interim. I had to step outside to take a short walk and get some air, but otherwise phone calls were made, information was conveyed, all while I clung desperately to my mother’s arm on the twin mattress of her hospital bed. Looking back I can tell that I was strictly operating at a base functional level, that in those ensuing days and weeks I was not capable of rational thought or even rational emotions. Everything was in ruin and I remember very little, feeling for weeks as though I were standing stationary while the whole world moved past me, an inverse treadmill on a colossal scale.

Trying To Make Sense Out of Loss

This was not my first death. My paternal grandmother died when I was around seven years old and my paternal grandfather when I was 20. On my mother’s side, my grandmother died when I was 22 and my grandfather passed away two years later. One of my neighbors and childhood friends passed away when I was in my late-teens. During my junior year in college, a girl I had dated was in a canoe that tipped over, mere months after our brief relationship had ended. She’d moved away to Alaska for a job and drowned in the freezing water. My senior year in college, a friend and classmate who was only 20 years old drowned the exact same way, mere weeks away from graduating with his associate’s degree. Within the last three years another two friends from college have passed away, one by heart attack and the other by overdose.

So many lives to lose in one lifetime, made heavier by the realization that I’ve just turned 33 and will undoubtedly experience even more deaths as time continues to pass.

But this death was different.

I’d bounced back from each of those other losses, managed to continue carrying on with my day-to-day life. Those deaths make me sad when I dwell on them, but the emotional wounds have healed enough that I don’t think about them involuntarily.

This death left a perceptible hole inside of me – I can still feel it, this cavernous void inside myself, nearly three months after her passing. It’s less raw than it felt in the days and weeks immediately after her death, but it still stings with every thought, every breath, every movement, every single day.

I’d read all the self-help platitudes and heard all manner of condolences: It gets easier. You’ll move on. Time will heal all wounds. But it hasn’t gotten any easier. I haven’t moved on. My wounds still sting with freshness.

In some ways, it felt incomprehensible to me after her death that life could just go on. And of course it does; logically I know this. Countless people die each day, countless new lives are birthed each day, all of humanity a tangled mass of bodies inhaling first breaths and exhaling last breaths for hundreds of thousands of years after millions of years of evolution (a mere snap of the fingers on geological and paleontological timescales). Why should one death determine things differently? But that first morning after she passed, confronted by her absence, it felt unfathomable to me that the sun could have risen, that the rest of the world could keep going without missing the slightest beat.

Six weeks to the day after my mother passed away, Stephen Hawking died. I took his passing harder than any other celebrity death because he was more than just a recognizable name to me; he had been my personal hope for my mother since her diagnosis. He lived with ALS for decades while continuing to have a fulfilling, meaningful life, and I had desperately clung to the belief that my mother could, too.

 

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No matter how much ALS affected her, my mother never lost her ability to smile.

 

I wanted her to outlive the illness, to outrun it and savor every day we had together. Of course, that last part is exactly what happened – we spent nearly every day together after she moved to Los Angeles, and we loved every moment we had together. I’d visit her after work, eventually leaving my office job for a freelance, work-from-home position to make it easier for us to spend time together. It was exhausting at times, especially when I was commuting from my office to my mom’s, not getting home or eating dinner until 10:00, 10:30, 11:00 at night. And yet, because of the memories we made together, I wouldn’t trade those exhausting nights and sleep-deprived mornings for anything. They were not our happiest memories; each of us was keenly aware that our time together was limited. But each moment we spent together was infused with so much love and understanding, as though she knew I’d need those memories and those moments of love to carry on without her.

Every day I’d help her open her mail and write bills, deposit checks, read cards and letters out loud to her. Every night when I left to go home I’d hug my mom, kiss her on the cheek, and as I walked to the door I’d wave and say Jia cie kocham (“I love you” in Polish). I never deviated from this because I wanted to remember the exact thing I said and did, knowing that any night could be the last time we’d see one another in this life.

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The day before my mom passed away, we took a long walk around her neighborhood. She couldn’t reach the roses so I picked this one for her to smell. Roses were always her favorite flower.

Those memories bring me a great deal of comfort because the brevity of her remaining time was always on my mind, but her composure was always one of peace and contentment. Sometimes we’d sit outside next to each other and watch the sunset, an explosion of color in the California sky. Other days we’d walk through the garden and smell the fragrant jasmine that covered the grounds of her nursing community, or I’d push her in a wheelchair all around her neighborhood and we’d pick flowers that grew along the sidewalk. On days she didn’t want to go outside we’d lay side-by-side on her small hospital bed and watch TV together. During Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune I’d call out answers aloud and my mom, unable to speak, would either rub my arm or nudge me with her elbow, smiling and nodding with approval when I got the answers right.

I also have fond memories from what turned out to be our last Christmas together. We watched carolers sing Christmas songs outside while a fake snow machine blew flurries across the nursing community’s yard. I helped her decorate her room, and she was so pleased that she asked me to leave the string of lights up past the holiday season. They hung on her walls and around her window until the day she died in February, when I switched them off as I left her suddenly-vacant room that night.

I’ll never forget that she kept the lights on around the clock, perhaps a reminder of happier times and simultaneously an emblem of hope – that no matter how dark the world seemed, she would always be surrounded by light.

 

Holding Onto Hope

About two and a half weeks after my mom died, her life having slipped away in my hands, I locked myself in the bathroom and wrote a suicide note. I honestly don’t know how it happened. I’d been crying until my face hurt, and when I went to wash my face I simply sat down and it all poured out of me: all the pain, the self-loathing, everything I’d been bottling up inside for weeks since her death and even longer – for nearly two years since her diagnosis. I didn’t act on those impulses, but I felt like I needed to get the thoughts out of my head and put them into written words. In the wake of my mother’s death I genuinely didn’t know what would happen with each passing day. Every time I closed my eyes I’d see her face, the expression she wore when she took her last breath. I couldn’t erase or replace that image, no matter how hard I tried, and it haunted me.

It felt impossible to go on, and the guilt of having survived while such a good person perished weighed on me constantly. I’ve struggled with chronic depression and crippling anxiety since I was a teenager, so self-doubt and fear have consumed me for more than half of my life. There were so many times through the years when my emotions felt impossible to manage, but never so bad as those weeks immediately after my mother had died. Seeing her every day, helping her in any way I could, and spending as much time with her as possible had become my whole world.

With her gone, I felt I had no purpose, no future, no reason or right to keep living.

My lifelong friend and childhood neighbor, who worked with my mom for several years and became one of her closest friends, told me I had to have hope. I saved her words in writing, like my mother’s texts, and I’ve returned to them many times when things have felt too heavy. I’d like to offer them to anyone else struggling with a loved one’s illness, because I think my friend’s words ring true:

“We have to find hope and optimism where we can,” she said. “Otherwise ALS claims you too as collateral and you can’t let that happen.”

I’d been feeling as though I couldn’t go on since her death, but my mother didn’t have a choice. If she could have, she would have kept living, no matter how much of a struggle it may be.

Continued therapy has helped me process my grief in a way that takes some of the burden off of surviving her, and to anyone who has lost someone or who is watching a loved one die of an illness, my resounding advice is to work with a therapist. I’ve talked to so many people who feel they would benefit from therapy but have a vague fear, an apprehension, about actually seeing a therapist. I honestly can’t imagine losing a loved one and not working through it in therapy. Going on without her hasn’t gotten any easier, but it’s begun to feel increasingly possible. Every day is a small offering to my mother, an atonement for her own lost life.

Coping With Loss

We all have our own ways of coping with death. For me, the process involved a lot of withdrawal. I spent many days cloistered inside. I developed unhealthy habits and stopped doing the things that I enjoyed. I stopped grooming myself, spent whole days indoors eating junk food while looking and feeling like a senseless mess. Because that’s what my life felt like: a tangled, meaningless web of days and weeks and years leading up to loss after inevitable loss – nothing made sense, because how could it in moments like those?

In the weeks and months that followed my mom’s passing, I found that I suddenly understood the weight that my grandmother’s death must have had on my mother – the weight that everyone bears when they lose a loved one. I was reminded that it’s normal to struggle with loss, that we all grapple with death in our own ways and in our own time.

Death can feel so isolating, so lonely. It’s a universal experience that is so intimate, so overwhelming, we often feel like we cannot talk about it, as though no one else could possibly understand such a loss. And yet, everyone has lost someone they love or will eventually lose someone. Why shouldn’t we be able to discuss it with others – if not for our own benefit, perhaps for theirs?

Dreams

Over the past year, memories of my mother have entered my dreams with some regularity. It started while she was still alive last July, the day before my mother’s 62nd birthday, her last birthday. I dreamed that she picked me up from work and was asking about my day while she drove us to our destination. Everything felt familiar but slightly off. It wasn’t until I woke up that I realized my mom was healthy again in my dream. Her speech wasn’t slurred, she hadn’t lost any muscle function – in my dream she had never even gotten her diagnosis. It was the first time in my life that I’ve ever woken up and started crying, but it wouldn’t be my last.

Three weeks (almost to the day) after my mom’s passing, I had another dream that caused me to wake up in tears: I dreamed that she was healthy, could move and speak with ease, and we walked around together in a city or town I didn’t recognize. We came across an ambulance and my mom said goodbye to me before getting in the back. She wasn’t afraid and she wasn’t suffering. She was content – she said in the dream that it was simply her time to go. In my dream I was wearing rollerblades and I skated after the ambulance, chasing it outside of town over rolling hills and prairies that eventually led to a National Forest. It wasn’t a forest I had ever seen in real life, but I actually dreamed about my mother and I hiking in this dream forest several months or years ago. On an isolated forest rode I lost the ambulance for good, watching it trace the road and rise up to the horizon before dipping out of view down the other side of the hill. That dream led me to wake up in tears, already crying even though I had still been asleep.

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On vacation together in 2003, which seems like a lifetime ago.

Healing What Remains

When a tree is gashed, whether by nature or by human hand, the wound closes over whatever has landed inside the inner grain. I’m always amazed by photographs of trees that have grown around items they were tethered to: old sign posts, fences, an old axe blade left cleaving the trunk, even long-rusted bicycle frames. What fascinates me most about lumber is that cut wood swells and contracts, a long-dead organism breathing in and out with the moisture in the air. It will continue to do so forever, long after it’s been cut. It keeps living, in its own way. I suppose memories are much the same way: even after periods of dormancy and seeming normalcy, some days they swell and expand, pushing their way into present awareness.

After three months, I still think of my mother constantly. Not a day goes by that I don’t remember something she said or did, or simply think of her face, and fall into tears. I cherish our memories but struggle not to become overwhelmed by the weight of them. I hold onto her belongings like talismans in the hopes that they might bring her back, yet I struggle to find space for the mountain of mementos that crowd my small apartment. The truth is that I still don’t know how to keep going without her – each day is a process of figuring it out a little bit more.

 

 

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Author: thisbittersweetlifeblog

I’m a writer, editor, and hiker living in Los Angeles. In 2016, my mother was diagnosed with ALS. In 2017, she moved out to California so we could make the most of our time together. This blog is about making the most.

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