When the phone rang at 4:30 in the morning, I knew immediately who it was and what she was going to tell me. It was sweet Betty, and she was calling to tell me Mom was gone.
My mom had cancer and dementia and had been in hospice care for the past month. She was still breathing but no longer living. I knew the call was coming. I was expecting it, so I was prepared. Or so I had told myself up until 4:29 a.m. But I was not prepared. I was not all right. I was wrecked.
I was not sure how I was going to survive the next few hours or the next few days. How was I going to tell my kids, how was I going to give her eulogy, how was I going to get through Christmas, and her birthday and my birthday and Mother’s Day and all those other firsts. I am still not sure how I did, but I survived them. All the firsts have passed, and I lived. Not always gracefully, but I am still standing. The weight of that grief hasn’t crippled me yet.
When I lost my mom, I expected my grief.
I didn’t know exactly what it would feel like, but I knew it was coming. My mom was my person. I knew her loss would at times feel unbearable to me. I knew it would be hard and sharp and deep and long. People told me it would come in waves and sometimes the waves would take me under. And they were right. It has been all of those things.
But it has been other things too. It has come from places I didn’t expect. The weight of that unexpected grief has almost taken me under.
It hit me for the first time when I watched my daughter open the grandparents’ tea invite. We didn’t talk about it. But I could see the grief in her eyes. She was picturing herself walking into the cafeteria, alone, without my mom’s big smile welcoming her. The picture haunted me. How sad for her. And I found myself taking on her grief. A grief I did not expect.
A few weeks later, I walked into her room and found her sitting in the dark on her bed crying. She looked at me and said, “I miss Grandma.” Me too sweet girl, me too.
And again, her grief became my grief.
Her older sister brought me a card that my mom gave her. It is signed, “Love you, Grandma.” She asked me very sweetly, “Can I get this tattooed on my wrist?” And there it was again the grief of someone else that became my own.
My oldest daughter went to a college basketball game, one of my mom’s favorite places to go. She sent me a text with a little cardinal and said it feels weird to be here without Grandma. And again, I felt this deep guttural grief. I didn’t miss my mom at that moment, but my daughter did. My heart broke for her grief.
My son, like his father, holds his emotions a little tighter. I see his grief when he tries to hold mine. He is quiet and still, but he notices my sadness and simply sits next to me. And in those moments, I am sad for me and for him.
Sometimes a simple and often unexpected reminder of what my children have lost leaves me broken.
When someone mentions their parents and their children in the same story, I have to remind myself to breathe. I am trying to hold in the grief no one really understands. In those moments, I miss my mom in ways I cannot even explain. But not for me, for my kids. I am heartbroken for what they lost and for what they will never have.
Interestingly, it’s not just my children’s grief. It’s anyone’s. Everyone loved my mom, so many people miss her. When they mention it to me, I hurt for them. I feel their sorrow and their grief. And their grief becomes my grief. And it starts to feel heavy.
My nephew got married in the fall. He was mom’s first grandchild, and she adored him. She would have loved every second of that wedding. She belonged there. Her picture was framed at his wedding. He talked about her in his wedding video. He missed her. It broke my heart.
And I took on his grief.
The grief that weighs the heaviest for me is my dad’s. They were married for 62 years. He is still sad. I suspect he will live the rest of his life missing her. Every time I leave his house, my heart hurts. I hate that he is alone. He hates that he is growing older without her.
I feel his grief. I take it home with me. I carry it too, along with mine and sometimes everyone else’s. I knew his grief would be the heaviest, but I didn’t expect it to become mine. I didn’t expect his grief to feel so heavy for me.
Grief is strange and unpredictable and sometimes unexpected, even when you expect it.
I try to remind myself that grief is the cost of love.
The grief is so deep because the love was so great. The grief I carry for myself and for everyone who loved my mom is a tribute to her. In some ways, it is her legacy.
So I will continue to carry it. And when it gets too heavy, I will remind myself to breathe and I will do my best to slowly stand back up under its weight. Because I know the weight is both grief and love.
And ultimately, love wins.