It’s been a month since my mom lost her fight with Multiple Myeloma, a type of blood cancer. Five weeks ago we were sharing a slice of my 23rd birthday cake and a week later I was picking out her coffin. While I received enormous support from family and friends, I wish someone had gone beyond sympathies and prayers to explain what the reality of death looked like – even if it meant acknowledging hard truths. Whether you’ve just lost a loved one or are preparing to say goodbye, there are four things to keep in mind when going through the grieving process.
1. Your friends may be at a loss too.
They will grieve with you and for you, but in their own way. Some will reach out to you offering the world in the hope that brings you comfort; others will appear to lose touch. For those who seem to distance themselves, this isn’t because they don’t love you, but because they are unsure how to deal with your loss. No one wants to face mortality, especially at a young age. Instead of being ambiguous and leaving your mourning up to interpretation, be clear about what you need from your friends, whether that’s a shoulder to ugly cry on, a night out, or space to think.
2. Your grief is unique. Give yourself a break
You might lose a loved one unexpectedly or have known the day was approaching for months. No matter your situation there is no proper way to mourn despite what psychology tells us about the 5 stages of grief. I spent the better part of last year apprehensively waiting for a phone call that would reveal what I feared most. I had squandered enough time researching Multiple Myeloma, what the treatments meant, and how symptoms manifested at various stages to know that there wasn’t much time left. When I got the call that my mom had two weeks to live I was initially stunned, but felt relief at the finality of it all.
The whole year prior I had been going through what’s called anticipatory grief. As a result, when the time came to actually grieve, I was relatively composed. I felt that something must be wrong with me for not feeling an overwhelming sense of despair at every second of the day. The truth though, is that everyone grieves differently and there is no right way to mourn the absence of a loved one. I joked and laughed my way through some of the harder parts and to outsiders that might have come across as callous, but that’s what made me feel better. You have to be a little selfish and allow yourself the space to do what works for you.
3. Decisions will be hard.
After receiving the call that my mom had two weeks left to live, I immediately jumped on a plane to stay with her for a week. During that week her condition deteriorated rapidly; I went from taking her on one last spin around the shopping mall to lifting her off the couch. I debated whether to remain with her for what would be her last week or to return to my life in Philadelphia. My heart told me that I didn’t want to witness her last feeble moments; I wanted to remember her at her best. I asked countless peers and family members because I didn’t want to make the wrong decision and regret my actions. No one would tell me what to do during a time that I desperately wanted guidance. I learned that the decision wasn’t theirs to make and ultimately, was one that I would have to live with. You can lessen the burden however, by asking people you feel comfortable with what they would do in your situation. Receiving an unbiased opinion from someone who isn’t emotionally invested in the outcome can help validate – or make you reconsider – whatever decision you arrived at.
4. You will feel inexplicably exhausted
Losing a loved one, especially a parent, is humbling. The outpouring of love from family, friends, and strangers will bring you to tears while the emotions you’re feeling will drop you to your knees. Even though I am largely at peace with my mom’s death since it was the end of a long fought battle, and I still find myself unusually tired. Mourning, however you go about it, is lecherous – it saps your spirit and leaves fatigue in its wake. Trouble sleeping and low energy levels are common responses to grief. Practice self-care and allow your body the opportunity to slow down. Friends and family will understand if you’re unable to fulfill social obligations. It’s also important to recognize that even when you’re getting a full night’s sleep, you still might feel lethargic. If that’s the case, I’ve found that exercise or other activities that are purposeful help quite a bit.
Even though this piece is about losing a mother, I’m not invested in the idea of “loss” because our loved ones never truly leave us. Instead, they walk beside us and live within us, their love manifesting in ways we could never imagine. I’m impatiently waiting for a sign, especially as we move towards holidays and birthdays that I anticipate will be difficult, but I know my mom will grant one in her own time. Until then, I’m going to practice self-care, ask for help when needed, and enjoy the journey with the people I love knowing that I no longer have to feel guilty for living my life while my mom’s slipped away.