Some thoughts about grief on my mom's birthday

My mother, Laura, would be 60 years old today. Exactly 7 months ago, on August 4, 2014, my husband Tim and I were in London. We’d just arrived to visit family there. My brother Charlie called me and told me the news: our mom had collapsed after a very fast and severe headache. Both Charlie, who was home from college, and our dad were there. The news wasn’t good. About an hour later it was confirmed that she had suffered a stroke from an aneurysm and that she wouldn’t make it. Tim and I flew back to New York and went straight to the hospital. Our family said our goodbyes to this indelibly important woman who now lay brain-dead and on life support. We embarked on a journey of grief together.

 My mom and first dad with my sister and me in Long Beach Island, NJ, 1984.

My mom and first dad with my sister and me in Long Beach Island, NJ, 1984.

I will always revisit the shock of that moment in London when my brother called. It was a warm day, and Tim and I had chosen to walk to the Thames to meet my aunts, uncle and grandmother at a restaurant. My feet were getting blisters from the flip-flops I had bought a few days earlier. As we neared the Thames, my pocket buzzed. It was Charlie with the news. My sense of reason refused to believe Charlie the first time we spoke. At first I thought he was going to say something had happened to our dog, Pumpkin, who was spending the week with my parents. I couldn’t believe it, and I had to call him back just to hear it all again. Disbelief changed to panic, which changed to anger, which changed to sadness, which changed to frustration, which changed to a combination of all feelings in one. And there I was, on the banks of the Thames, frantically trying to sort out what had just happened, trying to steady myself against this life-altering shock.

Just two days before this, I sat with my mom at my parents’ house. Tim and I were there, as were Charlie, and my sister Sophie and her husband Dan. We talked about what my mom wanted to do for her 60th birthday. To tell the truth, she wasn’t excited about it, and she didn’t want it to be a big deal. We also talked about my parents’ upcoming 25th wedding anniversary. It would have been July 28, 2015. These dates seemed so solid, so impenetrable. But they were so suddenly taken away.

 My mom walking with me at my wedding to Tim in 2010. My sister and dad are in the foreground.

My mom walking with me at my wedding to Tim in 2010. My sister and dad are in the foreground.

In the past seven months, I’ve experienced deep sorrow, deep healing, and also, thankfully, joy and pleasure. The first month and a half was mainly an ordeal of exhaustion. I was usually tired and irritable. Around the middle of September I regained some energy and became intensely focused on school (I started a doctoral program at Juilliard around that time). But my fuse was short, and I had a lot of difficulty finding compassion for anyone. In October, my irritability rolled away and I began to feel a consistent anger… not toward my mom or the circumstances, but toward people who wronged her during her life. Although much of if has calmed, some of that anger is still with me now. The holidays, particularly Thanksgiving, were intensely emotional for me. With a new year, a feeling of acceptance arrived; the part of me that was raging against my mom’s death became more docile.

Through all of this, I’ve learned that grief is an intensely individual journey. I’ve also learned that people are usually deeply uncomfortable with grief, whether they are going through it, or whether they are trying to console. I think that this is because there’s often nothing to be done about grief. In our society of doers, we are easily frustrated when there’s no answer and there’s no remedy. Only time rolls on, and time eases the pain.

So today, on my mom’s 60th birthday, I honor her memory, I continue to celebrate her life, and I thank her for all she gave to me.