It's never too late to grieve

Posted: Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Hospice and Home Care social worker Jamie McLean was 19 years old and in college when her mother was dying from breast cancer. Jamie made weekly trips to the hospital and was upset by the changes she saw in her mother's condition. "The cancer had spread to my mother's lymph nodes, liver and kidneys, yet none of us really understood what that meant. The idea that my mother would die was inconceivable and, as a family, we never discussed that possibility. During one of my visits I told my sister that I thought our mother looked worse. My sister, who saw our mother every day, disagreed with me. She insisted that our mother was doing well, that she had even been able to walk a short distance that day. In voicing my reality, I felt as though I'd betrayed our family's code of hope. I learned very quickly to keep my truth to myself."

Three days before their mother died, Jamie's sister asked one of the doctors when their mother would be well again. The doctor was probably shocked by the question since the person they were talking about was little more than a skeleton at this point, heavily sedated by morphine. She was told very bluntly that their mother would not be getting better. "It was a hard blow, but it was good to have it said."

When Jamie's mother died, the numbness descended. "I felt nothing. I did not cry. There was no relief, no sadness, no anger. Nothing. I sat and waited for someone to tell me what to do next. My sister and I left the hospital and walked along the busy Chicago streets. I remember being surprised that the world had not visibly changed. I wanted to yell, 'Hey! My mother just died! Everybody, please stop!' We passed many of the department stores we'd visited with our mother, reminders of happier times. We stopped in front of a favorite boutique where I'd been eyeing a pretty suede skirt for weeks. My sister encouraged me to buy it - 'Mother would want you to have it!' - and through my numbness I felt a celebratory seizing of the moment, buying that skirt made me feel alive. I was not even aware of the deep hole my mother's death had left inside me."

Like so many families, Jamie's had no common language for their pain. When we feel alone and unsupported, when the depth of our loss takes our very breath away, it may seem easier to numb out than to free-fall into our grief. Often our faith has been shaken. So we find ways to avoid our pain: eating, drinking, shopping, watching television, surfing the net. We begin to sleepwalk through our lives. Just because we choose not to grieve our losses does not mean they will ever go away. With each unacknowledged loss, we become increasingly more numb, more disconnected from our lives and our authentic selves. Delayed grief often manifests in anger, depression, anxiety and self-destruction.

"For twenty years I found myself in a cycle of depressing my responses and anxiously acting them out. I wondered why it was taking me so long to 'get over' my mother's death. The coping strategies I used - working, shopping, busyness - got me through some very rough times, but they were flimsy band-aids on a gaping wound. I finally began working with a skilled and compassionate counselor who had experience with grief and loss issues. She supported me as I went to the edge of the abyss, fell in, and climbed out again. She taught me helpful and effective ways to process my grief. She put me in touch with a woman who had also experienced a devastating loss. Hearing her story gave me hope that I, too, would survive this pain.

On the 20th anniversary of my mother's death I went to Gold Creek and created a ritual to say goodbye to my mother. I kissed 10 yellow roses and threw them into the water. I told my mother that I was letting go of the things from my past that did not support the quality of my life, then I shouted out the facets of her spirit that I prayed would never leave me. A month later I discovered I was pregnant with our second child. This new life seemed a clear affirmation of my mother's joyful spirit and the spacious light that can be found when one chooses to move through the darkness, whenever one is ready to make the journey."

• Mary Cook is the volunteer coordinator at Hospice and Home Care of Juneau, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS serves all people regardless of their faith.

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