For so much of my life, I never understood why people used the phrase “passed on” when someone died. I thought it was an oblique turn of phrase. A weak way to express the truth of the matter. The person died. No reason to soften the truth, no need to cushion the blow. It wasn’t until my mother left this earthly plane a year ago that I started to understand the difference between the words “died” and “passed on.”
I haven’t measured the time that my mom has been gone in days or months, but rather I have marked her absence in memories and moments that slip unexpectedly into my mind both stealing and bringing me peace. I see the soft sway of a tree in spring, and I’m walking beside her as she excitedly points out the new buds. I smell warm baked pies, and I’m swiftly carried back to her kitchen on a cool fall day. And at Christmas, I could almost hear the faint sound of her voice harmonizing with Elvis as he sang “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Grief is a powerful paintbrush that can color even the sweetest memories in a sad hue.
I smile when I think of her laugh but then quickly descend into tears when I can’t remember how it sounded. I remember how tightly she used to hug me, but now the absence of those arms around me is anguish.
Grief is defined as a deep sorrow. I believe the bones of this sorrow is the missing. You miss the sound of their voice, the comfort of their hand gently placed on yours—you miss their presence in your life. But what if when the person dies their existence is not extinguished but rather transformed? What if they haven’t died but rather have passed on?
For a long time and even now, I struggle to say that my mother has died. Instead, I say she has “passed on”—words I’d always dismissed as inaccurate. After all, to die means to stop living, and this always seemed, to me, to be the undeniable truth. But what if by some extraordinary, miraculous, and divine means, one doesn’t stop living?
What if, instead, they do simply pass on?
Their love, their gifts, their stories, their life—passed on to those who had the privilege of knowing them and in doing so continue to live.
I have missed my mom every single day, and often most of the seconds in those days, yet there have been these wonderful and unexpected moments when I get to see her.
I see her when I look at my brother Jeff’s hands, which like my mother’s, are quick to pull someone into a tight hug and can turn a piece of plain and ordinary wood into something extraordinarily beautiful. He also has her ability to press on and move forward even during the most difficult circumstances.
I see her when I see my brother Doug smile. The one where the corners of his mouth lift ever so slightly, the same as hers. The kind of smile that makes you think they’re keeping a secret even when they’re not. He also has her ability to quietly listen without reproach or judgment.
I see her in my brother Steve who, like her, is a hard worker and someone who shows up for those he loves without question or hesitation.
And finally, I like to think I see her in me as well. I have her love of a good story well told, and I keep her stories close to my heart and share them with my children.
My mother once told me that her children were her greatest legacy.
I believe we each, in our own way, try our best to carry her name forward, to make her proud, and prove ourselves worthy of such a title.
We are each, every day, trying to provide a way for our mother to pass on—her traditions, her words of wisdom, her stories, her life. And in doing so, she doesn’t die—she passes on to us, our children, and those she loved and who loved the essence of who she was and continues to be.
She is the soaring hawk, she is the sun-streaked morning grass, she is the tallest tree, and the sweetest flower. She is the sound of my favorite song. And she, like all those who pass on, permeates all that holds the most meaningful moments and memories.
Rest in peace, my loving mother and dearest friend.
You did not die. You passed on.