Over the past three years, the holidays have become the hardest part of the year. The heavy weight I felt from my mother’s death the summer before my senior year of high school tainted every holiday with a bitter taste. I remember spending my first Halloween bawling because she was not at our front door passing out candy. Christmas was even worse, as her over-the-top decorations and lovingly thought out gifts were her claim to fame. That first Christmas I remember walking aimlessly through department stores picking out gifts alone, feeling hollow and empty as I filled my shopping cart. I did not sleep all of Christmas Eve, not because I was excited for the coming morning, but because I knew the only thing I truly wanted wouldn’t be sitting by the tree.
In contrast with Halloween and Christmas, the first Thanksgiving without my mother brought a different kind of pain. As my family gathered around the table to share what we were thankful for, I was struck by a deep resentful anger. What could I possibly be thankful for? My best friend and mentor had been cruelly taken from my life at the tragic age of 56. She would never see me go to prom, graduate from high school, or start college. My mother would never get to fulfill her dream of being the best grandma in the world because she would never get to meet her grandchildren. Her death not only destroyed life as I knew it, but it also opened a wound in my heart that I could not heal. So when it was my turn at the table to say what I was thankful for, I stood up and walked out of the room.
Two years later, I hopped on a late night flight from Boston and flew to San Francisco to surprise my family. The whole plane ride I was bouncing up and down with excitement, eager to see the looks on their faces. It would be my first Thanksgiving home since college, and I knew no one would suspect it. After a long six and a half hour flight, I showed up at my father’s front door and gleefully recorded his bewildered but overjoyed reaction. The next day, I (patiently) waited up until 3 AM to surprise my brother. I’ve never felt a hug as warm as when he wrapped his arms around my father and me and said, “I’m so happy the family’s all here.”
That night I spent a long time thinking about what life had been like without my mother. After her death, the first few months felt like a regression into childhood, where I had to learn how to eat, walk, and talk like a normal human being again. In the beginning my brother, father, and I were a broken compass, three cardinal points missing their North; we were directionless without my mother. I remember the visceral anger I felt towards her absence, as if she had intentionally left us. I struggled daily, smiling and nodding at people’s sympathetic looks and words of condolence, and it stung when some people eventually stopped caring. The experience had been a massive wave of ups and downs, filled with heartache and lots of adjustment to life as a “new normal.”
But as I lay in bed still feeling my brother’s embrace, I was reminded of just how far we’ve come since that first Thanksgiving. Though the grief never leaves you, you choose how you will it allow it to define the rest of your life. You find ways to cope with your feelings and become a new person through that process. The pain and numbness do subside, and it is possible to be open to love and the prospect of new and happy experiences. In the past three years, I’ve learned just how much my mother’s death has given me. These lessons have come at times in my life where I’ve truly needed my mother’s advice or guidance, and they have manifested themselves in ways I would have never expected. Though I could write a novel about the things my mother and her death have taught me, I have found these three to be the most important.
1) Grieving is a process and an individual experience
For anyone who has lost a loved one, whether it’s a family member, friend, colleague, or beloved pet, you know that there is no definitive timeline for handling your loss. In a society that pathologizes such complex experiences, we are constantly looking for the quickest solutions and remedies. However, grief will come in ups and downs for the rest of life; you will need to reevaluate who you are without the presence of your loved one. The deeper your attachment to that person, the deeper your loss feels. Do not frustrate yourself with trying to move on with your life as quickly as you can. There are days when I mourn the loss of my mother as if it happened yesterday. Though it takes time to adjust, allow yourself to experience fully all the emotions you feel while you grieve; pretending that they do not exist will only hurt you in the long run.
It is also important to remember how individual each experience is. The way I have handled my loss is much different than the way my brother and my father have handled theirs. One day I may be sobbing into my father’s lap while he sits in complete silence. Another day my brother will shut himself in his room to grieve while I wait outside his door to comfort him. Though at first I was resentful of my brother and my father not being able to grieve in the same way I did, I see now how important it is to be honest with each other about how we feel and acknowledge that we are at different stages in our processes. What has healed us and moved us forward is experiencing our own emotions while still supporting each other.
2) Do not be afraid to reflect on and cherish your memories
There was a point in the past three years where even the mention of my mother’s name felt like a knife to the chest. I suppressed thoughts of her smile, the sound of her laugh, the way she walked. I ignored her clothing hanging in her closet and the pictures of her sitting on the fireplace. The memories of her hung from my legs like lead weights, and for the longest time I felt like they would drown me. Sometimes it felt like erasing her and feeling nothing would be better than feeling the constant pangs of loss. After some healing though, I’ve learned that these reminders of my mother are my most valuable connection to who she was and who she continues to be in my life. With time they have become less painful and more comforting.
These memories have been essential to passing on the legacy of my mother and sharing her life with those who will never get the chance to meet her. Back in Boston, I’ll smile and talk with my friends about how my mother made the best potato gratin. From time to time I’ll wear her favorite green sweater or a piece of her jewelry. I can even fondly remember holding my mother’s hand as she watched TV in the hospital, smiling at each other as we savored the quiet nights we had together. Like Vice President Biden once said, “there will come a day, I promise you, when the thought of your loved one will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen.”
3) Unconditional love comes in many different forms
If my mother’s death has taught me one thing about relationships, it is how valuable the people who love you are. These are the friends, families, teachers, and colleagues who not only stayed by my side during the dark times but also guided me through them. It was a very vulnerable experience opening up to people about my grief, since losing a parent comes with tremendous intensity. I’ve found that grief makes some people uncomfortable because they can’t offer a tangible solution. It can be hard to sit and be with someone who is grieving, to be porous and know that there is nothing you can say to make it any easier.
However, I have drawn the most comfort from the gestures and actions of my friends and family, their unconditional love unwavering in the vast absence of my mother. I will always remember my high school English teacher, Ms. Carney, staying after school to hear stories about my mother, and we would cry and laugh together. One of the most profound moments was when my best friend Vicky, who rushed to the hospital moments before my mother died, arrived just in time to hold her hand until the end. I have made incredible friends in college, friends who, despite not existing while my mother was alive, have made every effort to preserve her memory through embracing the person I have become. These are friends who have stayed up until 2 AM helping me cope through my grief, roommates who have sat with me sobbing on the bathroom floor, and companions who have accompanied me through every moment of joy and fear I have felt since coming to college alone. To the neighborhood who has become my family and to the families of my mother and father, you have been my heroes and support system through every life milestone I have crossed, and you will be for every one to come.
Though my mother may not be physically present, these friends and family have become the living embodiments of my mother’s grace, kindness, and patience. They do not attempt to fix me or remove the pain, but sit unflinchingly through it while I allow myself to experience it. I have been enormously blessed with a network of people who have assured me that I will always have shoulders to cry on and hands to hold. Their presence has made a massive weight a lot easier to carry and has restored my strength and will to move forward.
So this Thanksgiving I will sit around the table with my family and think about of all the things I have to be thankful for. The past three years have been a windy path with no shortage of roadblocks. However, every day that I wake up, make new friends, work hard, and create new memories serves as a reminder that I have been successfully lifted up out of the suffocating sadness that threatened to drown me. The people that love me, the lessons I have learned, have helped shape and define the person I have become today.
So instead of longing for and grieving the 20 or 30 years I could have had with my mother, I will be thankful for all that she gave me in the 17 we had together.