From Grief To Gratitude: How I Came To Accept My Mother's Death

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I knew I shouldn’t have stared.

But something stirred in me while I watched a young mother and her child on an average Tuesday afternoon at the downtown food co-op I served.

The stress of her day exuded in her frazzled hair and frayed Keds sneakers, as she moved swiftly about the dining space.

In her struggle to carry everything and pour herself what seemed to be a well-deserved cup of our Sumatran blend coffee, she ushered a beautiful baby boy of about 2 years old into one of our communal high chairs.

It was only for a second, but he simply couldn’t bear the three feet of separation as she turned her back to collect her pesto salad at the deli counter.

At this moment, it dawned on me how much he looked like myself at that age, with his blonde head of hair and gold-speckled brown eyes.

This was the same age I’d lost my own mother to cancer.

I suddenly saw myself crying in his chair for the mother who left me (albeit against her will).

I found myself wrapped with a sad sort of clarity as the mixed sense of loss and longing that had lingered in the deepest cavities of my chest all my life came to the surface.

“Oh, no. It’s okay,” I used to say. “It’s not as though I knew her, so her death didn’t really affect me.”

This was the phrase I’d repeat to people who expressed their condolences after somehow learning, in conversation, how and when she had passed. As I watched the boy reach out for his mother in tears, I realized how absurd the position really was.

This realization gave me a strong pang of grief.

Yes, it truly was absurd of me to expect to be unaffected by the death of someone “I'd never really met,” when that someone had once shared a body with me.

It was absurd of me to discredit the pain I felt by her absence at every significant life milestone from the basis she had been gone for so long.

This is because grief has no respect for time.

The most terrible aspect of delayed grief, in particular, consists of its power to harness all of the mind’s analytic and insightful capacities against itself.

It leaves you wholly convinced of the dark, cruel lie that you are not worthy of healing.

Perhaps it's a coping mechanism or a means by which we attempt to discard more quickly the grief we suffer. But invalidating our grief from the get-go only adds to the pain we already suffer.

In order to grieve, we must affirm the significant value of what or who we have lost.

We must not deny it.

In my own case, I found this a nearly impossible task.

I had little to no memory of just who I had lost, but what I had lost became more and more clear as I grew up.

At every significant personal milestone, I found myself feeling a wave of loss and more attuned to my lack of a mother. I wanted so desperately to seek her advice, to exchange thoughts with her and to be certain I was someone who might instill her with pride.

I remember my undergraduate graduation ceremony so vividly.

The fulfillment my colleagues felt by the completion of our degrees evaded me. I found myself cynically stating how unimportant it all was and how little our academic achievements actually said about us as people.

“It’s all so superficial,” I stated, without considering how hurtful the words might be to others. I also murmured similar sentiments at the completion of my master’s degree.

But in truth, I said these things only because I was hurting.

I was filled with anger and envy at those whose mothers were still around and mistakenly held the idea that every one of them took their mothers for granted.

But as the storm calmed, in the midst of my grief, I made a discovery.

When I asked myself who had fulfilled motherly duties in my life, I comprised a list of people.

It began with my father, my sister, my godmother, my mother’s best friend and cousin.

These were the people who had acted like mothers to me. They attended important ceremonies, they counseled me and they showed me the unconditional love which is considered so characteristic of motherhood.

It was then that I realized the key to overcoming my feelings of loss was deep and authentic thankfulness.

If we cannot easily affirm (as was in my case) the value of what or who we have lost. We can affirm the value of what and who we still have.

In this process, we may begin to transform our grief into something much more powerful: gratitude.

Instead of remorse and anger at what we have lost, we may begin to celebrate the depth and meaning of our past experiences and relationships, and the richness of those in the present.

For something to inspire so much pain for us to go without, it must have, at one time, been something we cherished. If we work to appreciate this fact, we may temper feelings of distress with thanks.

We may also come to recognize the meaningful ways grief oddly endows us.

For in experiencing grief, we are privileged in our relationships with others. We are given a special way of relating to others in the face of adversity and loss.

In relating to them in this way, we get an opportunity to take some tiny fraction of the weight of loss off their shoulders, and ease -- however slightly -- the pain we all suffer.

This ability to do something good with one’s grief -- to be able to offer deeply-rooted understanding and support to those suffering similar circumstances to one’s own -- bears a markedly beneficial quality.

Then, at least some good can bloom through grieving, if it is good grieving we practice.

If we can transform our grief into gratitude. When we refuse to allow grief to harden us in anger or resentment, the battle is already partly won.

In moments, we may feel tempted to despair or self-pity. Let us remember the potential good of grieving, and allow it -- along with a complex kind of gratitude -- to restore a sense of worthiness in ourselves.

We have to remind ourselves, however gradually, that we are worthy of healing.

We are worthy of the good health, happiness and love that appears to be under attack throughout the process of grieving.

Grieving loss is an inevitable struggle we all must eventually face. But it's far easier if we go into it armed with the recognition that our grief can eventually lead us to do good.

We should not merely wish away a life touched by grief.

But in the spirit of John Raines: “Let us wish for one another instead a strange gift, 0ne that is often recognized as a gift only in retrospect. Let us wish for one another the gift of good grieving.”