February, Grief, and Motherless Motherhood
I have, for many years now, dreaded the arrival of February. You may ask why, as it is not only the shortest month of the year, but also the month where we celebrate love. But for me, the month of February has come to be associated with grief and loss, and each year I find myself sinking into a bit of a depression and wishing for it to hurry up and be over. So I thought I would share a bit of my experience with you, in case you too have experienced or are experiencing grief and want to feel a bit less alone.
It started for me on February 26, 2007 when I woke up one Monday morning (I was living in Cincinnati at the time) with my aunt and uncle (who lived an hour away in Louisville) standing at my door. They were there to tell me that my parents had been in a car accident the night before, and that my mother had been killed. I will never as long as I live forget that moment when I learned that my very best friend in the world was just simply gone. The not being able to believe that it was actually happening, but not being able to wake up from the nightmare that my life had suddenly become. If I'm being honest, I don't remember much of the entire year 2007. It was an incredibly dark year in which I tried very hard to simply stop living, because the idea of life without my mother in it was too terrible to even contemplate. I couldn't imagine growing up, getting married, or having babies without my mother there to walk beside me through it all. So I simply decided I wasn't going to do any of it. It took a stern but loving talk with my grandparents, reminding me that that was absolutely NOT what my mother would have wanted for me, for me to begin to poke my head out from under the cover that I had been hiding under and see the sun again. (I have thanked them many many times over the last decade for saving my life that year. I seriously think I would have died had they not stepped in.) I moved back home to St. Louis at the end of the year, my brother married the love of his life, and we all started to try to piece ourselves back together.
I have often said that my mother wasn't the only one to die that day. Our family as we had known it died, and the girl I was up until that day died as well. From that day forward, I was forced to get to know the new person living in my body. I couldn't look back on my childhood to determine what I should do, I couldn't rely on past decisions to influence present choices, because that child, that young woman, simply no longer existed. She was dead, and in her place was a VERY different woman.
Over the years, February continues to be a month of loss. On Valentine's Day 2010 we said goodbye to my "adopted" dad, John. He and his wife Joanie were my parents' best friends and they loved me like one of their own. Especially after my mom died, Joanie stepped in to help fill the void that was left in my life. Losing John (again, very suddenly) was devastating. February 6th, 2016 was our due date for Peanut, the baby we lost before Lorelai. And some other dear family friends have died in February in the last decade. It seems that each year adds another loved one to mourn and remember in February.
So, yeah, February sucks. But I didn't sit down to write this post in order to simply moan about how much I hate February (and believe me when I say, I HATE FEBRUARY). I thought I may try to share with you a bit about what I have learned from my 12 years of grief, growing into the woman I am - the wife, mother and doctor that I never could have imagined becoming.
The first year after my mom died was the hardest. Anyone who has ever lost someone they love knows that the "firsts" are always the worst. My mom died just a few months shy of her 50th birthday, so her birthday that year was so hard. As was Mother's Day, my birthday, and every major holiday. But it wasn't just "days" that were hard. It was the first time something happened and I reached for the phone to call her and realized I couldn't. The first time I went shopping without her, or watched Gilmore Girls without her on the other end of the phone watching it too. (Of course, Gilmore Girls also ended in 2007, so that was another thing that made the year so much worse.) The firsts are always hard, and the first year is full of most of the firsts, and so it is expectedly difficult.
But really, those first few years were really difficult. I cried A LOT. Like at least once daily, usually more. And I fought the inevitable changes that came from my mom being gone. For example, my dad got married in 2009, and the mature woman that I am now (lol) can look back and admit that I did not handle that well. (My poor step-mom. She's wonderful and did not deserve the anger that I aimed at her when she joined our family.) I kind of went off the rails for a while and dated some less-than-desirable men, went back to school and dropped out, drank too much and partied a bit more. Remember that I was trying to figure out who the stranger inhabiting my body was. And I was trying to numb the overwhelming pain I was in, while also finding other emotions (good or bad) to over shadow that pain, even for just a little bit. It was the most surreal experience imaginable.
Eventually, I settled down, the pain numbed and I would go days without crying. But that was hard too. Because every time I didn't reach for the phone to call my mom, I got sad and scared that I was forgetting her. Every day that I functioned like a normal human and didn't spend crying my eyes out and curled into a ball wishing for it all to end was one more sign that I was moving on and she was getting farther and farther away. Its funny, because they say "time heals" which is true, but what they don't tell you is how much the fact that it doesn't hurt as much anymore actually hurts. Because for a while it feels like the pain is the only thing you have connecting you to that person you've lost. As the pain lessened, I was faced again and again with the reality of the fact that my mother was not a part of my life anymore. Every life event that I made it through without crying was another step away from the girl who was Leslie's daughter, and a step toward being the motherless woman I am now.
As time passed, my grief did not rule my life any longer. I was able to live a somewhat normal existence, and got used to the dull ache in my chest that just never goes away. I began to find a new normal, one in which every happy moment will always be tinged with a bit of sadness, and when every sadness is measured against the grief of losing my mother. Once I reached this point, the moments of overwhelming grief became just that - moments. I had a lot of them the year I was planning my wedding. When I graduated from chiropractic school, becoming the first doctor in my family, I felt my mom's absence so keenly. But nothing could have prepared me for how I would feel when becoming a mother myself.
Lorelai and I share a birthday. And what that means is that I was pregnant during exactly the same time of year as my mother. Anticipating motherhood without my mother there to share her experiences with me was painful enough, but knowing that I was walking the exact same path, to the day, that she had walked 33 years before was excruciating. I often wonder if the reason I have struggled so much with motherhood is because I do not have her here to show me the way.
Being a mother is a beautiful thing. But for me, it is always, always, always just a little bit sad too. I see so much of my mother in my daughter. And I have had to grieve all over again for the grandmother that my mom never got to be. Becoming a mother has allowed me to finally understand just exactly how much my mother loved me, and I would give anything to be able to simply tell her "thank you". But becoming a mother also crossed a line. From the day that my mother died until the day that my daughter was born, I would often ask myself "would I give up this life to have her back?" and the answer was always yes. I know that the life I have is not the life I would have had had my mother not died. And as beautiful as my life has turned out, until I held my daughter in my arms for the first time, I would have traded it all to have my mom back. But from the moment Lorelai was born, that all changed. I had reached a point in my life where I said "no" when I asked myself the question. And that was another loss I had to grieve.
Because to me, that was the final step through a door that shut and locked behind me. The logical side of me knows that giving up my life to have my mom back was never a real choice, but the emotional side of me felt like it was important that I have the possibility of that outcome anyway. And giving up on that possibility was admitting that my mom is gone forever, admitting that the girl I was before is really and truly dead. I couldn't have anticipated how much of myself motherhood would ask me to give up.
I continue to grieve. I continue to hate February. I don't sink into a deep depression every year now, but I am a little more fragile. I try to be gentle with myself. I read novels that I love and watch Gilmore Girls. I let myself cry as much as I need to. I tell the people that I love that I love them, because at this time of year especially, I'm reminded that I have no guarantees of tomorrow. I let the women in my life who have stepped into the void mother me just a little bit more. And I talk about my mom to anyone who will listen. I snuggle my daughter, and I hope against hope that I will get to see her grow into a woman, and I try to not take a single moment with her for granted.
Once loss touches our lives, grief is our constant shadow forever. But I hope that my experience has made me more sensitive to the pain of others, and that I am able to better empathize with those in my life who lose someone they love. I hope that if you are grieving, whether it is a new or old grief, you will know that you are loved. And if you need someone to cry with you, or throw things with you, or just sit quietly and hold your hand, I'm your girl.
Here's to surviving February together.