It’s been a while. If you know me in real life (or follow me on the instagram), you’ll know already my mom died in the spring, shortly after midnight on the 27th of May, at the tender age of 61, less than eleven weeks after being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. I’ve barely written anything since then. A couple of journal-y entries in a random notebook. Two letters to my mom asking many unanswerable questions. A handful of instagram posts. It’s been surprising to find myself at such a loss for words in the aftermath of her death, but the shock of it all has been unexpectedly paralyzing. I’m also continuing to remind myself on an almost daily basis that she did, in fact, die. Because even though I was with her when she left us, there is a persistent and defiant part of my brain that refuses to believe she’s not somehow still here.
Being plunged into this kind of grief has been overwhelmingly disorienting. I tried to prepare myself for this loss by reading everything I possibly could about death and grief and watching your mom succumb to cancer, but I have been caught wildly off guard by every part of it. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so untethered. When the person who brought you into this world leaves it, what remains? Who am I if not my mother’s daughter? Our relationship had its complexities, but her love for me (and mine for her) was simple, unwavering, true. And I know with absolute certainty I will never again be loved the way I was loved by my mom.
I am not mining this experience for lessons or silver linings or any imagined upside. Sometimes shitty things happen and there isn’t anything to be learned. Sometimes things are just shit, you know? And I refuse to override my grief in the interest of preemptively laying claim to any particular brand of wisdom. But I also can’t pretend watching my mother die, telling her it was okay to leave when all I wanted was for her to stay, hasn’t fundamentally altered me in some kind of profound way. Washing and dressing my mother’s body after watching cancer destroy and diminish it was both an impossible thing and the most loving and sacred act of my life. It has transformed me into a person who talks about death. Openly, unabashedly, unfiltered. It means I won’t cater to or manage anyone else’s discomfort about my loss. I can’t. I frankly don’t even have the capacity to try.
What happens to us after we die? I have no fucking clue. I don’t hold to any specific belief about an afterlife — I’m not sure I even think there is one. And maybe some people find this uncertainty intolerable, but I find it liberating. I take immense comfort in the possibilities that abound when I’m not tied to one purported truth about where my mom might be or what she might have become. In her memoir, Dead Mom’s Club, Kate Spencer writes about seeing a beetle in the grass at a wedding and believing wholeheartedly it was her dead mom. I read this before my mom died and it felt like a cute story but I didn’t fully get it. But after my mom died? The beetle-as-deceased-mother thing made so much sense. Because I see my mom in everything. And I believe she actually is.
Some days I worry my grief is becoming my entire personality. It’s not, I know, but it is now an integral part of who I am. And there’s no shame in that. In his conversation with Megan Devine on her podcast It’s Okay That You’re Not Okay, Sam Sanders talks about being “anointed with grief” after his mother’s death and explains that inherent in being anointed is the responsibility to share your experience such that you might serve other people in doing so. And so even though I have moments of wondering Am I even allowed to do this? when it comes to being so open about my mom’s death and the sometimes all-consuming nature of my grief, I more often feel like How can I not? Because while my grief is wholly mine, grieving is a universal experience. And if you haven’t lost someone whose existence is essential to your very identity, you most likely will. Or someone you love will lose someone they love, which might leave you feeling completely ill-equipped to show up for them in their grief. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can become more grief-literate, but we have to want to. And I think talking about death and loss and the upheaval that follows is an inescapable part of that process.
If you’ve read this far, thanks. My broken and tired little heart is grateful.