Updated: May 31, 2020
What death taught me
It’s crazy to think that this year will be the 25th anniversary of my mother’s death. She went into the hospital just before my 14th birthday, with something seemingly benign as not being able to breathe well at night; less than a month later she was gone – late stage stomach cancer. Having two significantly older brothers and my dad, we didn’t know how to cope, so we did what we thought was best: all the photos with mom in it went in my room, and we pretended like nothing happened.
Years later, I continue to deal with my grief. I’m sometimes disappointed that I’m not “over it,” and yet I don’t think I ever will. Looking back, the older me would like to share the following wisdom with the younger me:
1) Don’t do it alone
Like I said, we acted like nothing happened. We hardly talked about it as a family. In fact, crying about it was not acceptable. We needed to steel ourselves and “be strong”. I didn’t want to ask for help, be a burden, or embarrass myself, and instead, I sat in shame and sorrow alone. I wish that that I had gone to professionals, like counseling and coaching, that would have given me a safe space to grieve. It took me years to learn to ask for help and not feel like I have to struggle alone, and it really delayed my healthy healing journey.
2) Don’t abandon yourself
Of course, the pain was so hard to bear that I wanted to be anyone else but me. I slapped a band-aid on the wound so fast, I didn’t want to see it and be reminded that there was a gaping hole. But in doing that I shut down the connection to myself. When I pack away my willingness to be with the grief and pain, I end up packing away my memories of my mom. Not being able to tolerate my stories of her, the best things about her, even trying to remember her smell, made me realize that I didn’t honor her or put her in the place that I wanted. I wish I had some tools and space to feel and process my feelings with someone so I could be kinder, gentler, and more compassionate to myself. By embracing my sadness, I became able to embrace myself as a whole, and was able to integrate my mom as part of it.
3) Have the talk now
My biggest regret was thinking that my mom was going to live forever; that later would be a better time to talk about her dying. I didn’t have the courage to talk as if this could be our last conversation, and there is so much I wish I had asked. A classmate once asked me what I would have done differently, and I said I would have asked her life’s questions and recorded her answers. Like: What’s the hardest part of marriage? How did you know you wanted kids? What were your fondest memories? What piece of advice would you give me about life? What do you want your legacy to be? What do you want me to remember about you? And the list could go on forever. It would have been optimal of we had done this before she was in the hospital, it could have been fun, likely less emotionally charged and hard. And yet, all the way up until she died, I didn’t believe she could, and I never talked to her about it or asked her my questions. A loss that I think about at so many milestones in my life.
There is wisdom in death, and it’s taken me some time to learn these lessons. I hope that I can take these pieces and use them to guide me going forward, and even share them with my kids. I invite you to come to Death Over Dinner (www.boldconversations.ca) to find your wisdom and have the courage to talk about death!