It’s my mom’s birthday today – she would have been 54 years of age. Instead, she took her life just a few months shy of her 53rd birthday. I was planning to be home in the USA for her 53rd birthday. It would have been the first time I would have seen her in a couple of years, as I was stuck in the UK for a couple years whilst I waited for my British citizenship application to process. On the day that she died, I had booked my citizenship ceremony. Indeed, the last message I sent her was to let her know that I would be British soon, and with my new passport would be able to visit her. This was my final message to her – which she never saw.
When my dad told me that my mom had died, a few things happened simultaneously in my mind.
1st: My mind clicked stop.
Something happened inside of me which I can only describe as ‘clicking stop’. I think this must have been an effort to protect myself: my mind immediately declared my mother as ‘no more’. I have described it to others as follows: imagine that you have three storage spaces for memories – your past memories, your present ones, and your future (hopeful) memories which you will cultivate. On 4th April 2019 11:28pm (UK time) my mom had, in my mind, cohabited all three of these spaces. When my father told me what had happened, at 11:29pm, the present and future storage spaces immediately closed & locked to her presence (at least on this side of reality).
Even when I had dreams about my mother – which I have had many over the past 16 months, my brain was still protecting me. Her cameo appearances would inspire me to argue – either with her or with other people in my dream – noting that she wasn’t alive anymore.
I know everyone experiences grief differently (even if in nuanced ways) and it has struck me how peculiar this particular avenue of grief might be. I suppose I am somewhat grateful for it – I know it was catalysed, in part (at least), by shock… but it helped me profusely, along with a cohort of other coping mechanisms, in dealing with the grief piecemeal, rather than in one helping. Indeed, I would perceive that I am still so doing.
2nd: My mom paused.
And, on the flip side, my mother’s absence doesn’t seem real. Perhaps because I live overseas and only saw her in person once every year or two; or perhaps because of my form of grief: but, often, when I try to imagine her presence on a visceral level, I don’t feel like she’s gone . Nor do I feel like she’s here.
Instead, it feels like she is ‘paused’ at the moment. Perhaps the remote has been lost. Or, maybe, someone needs to clean the back of the CD. But, while on one hand I know she’s gone, it also feels like she’s just awaiting the right moment to walk back in the room. Or, as though I’m just not looking hard enough.
3rd: Fast-forwarding to change
Thirdly, my decisions were re-evaluated. I believe this is something common to all forms of grief – whether they are grieving over chronic illness, missed opportunities, or the death of a loved one. A life without my mom was accepted. A life unaffected by her was dismissed.
The shortness of life, as is typical when facing grief, came into the fore for me. I realised, as the famous Hamilton song lyrics convey:
“There are many things I haven’t done, just you wait, just you wait.”
When you face intractable loss, the things in your life, I think, take on new meaning. They either become even more valuable…or they lose their value altogether.
For me these manifested in an array of practical and philosophical endeavours:
- I had long wished I had the nerve to drive in the UK. When my mom died, I was determined this should become a reality. One month later I took and passed my road test, giving me a certain freedom I hadn’t realised how much I needed.
- The desire to work in academia had been a long-term desire of mine. Indeed, I had been doing my PhD for just under 2 years when she died. However, I felt comfortable (and even happy) in my present job, and didn’t want to take the risk that I would be unhappy. I had applied for a few jobs a couple years back, when I first began the PhD but hadn’t been particularly determined to procure them (which probably came out in the interview). Six months after she died, I applied for one job – my first application for something in higher education. I was interviewed, and offered the job a few days later. (I accepted).
There were also areas of my life in which things which I had formerly valued supremely were suddenly less-so. Some of these had to do with philosphy/ideology… I don’t want to say my mother’s death has liberalised me (because I never liked to identify as conservative – instead identifying as more moderate in politics and ideology) – but, as someone typically surrounded by conservative views, I became more willing to challenge them.
Perhaps this was because I perceived that some of these conservative views were contributors to my mother’s demise.
Moreover, (and relatedly) I think this has occurred because I have seen that ‘right ideology’ is no guarantee of ‘right thinking’ or ‘right living’ (so-to-speak). Furthermore, whilst mental health (and empathy regarding such issues) was important to me before… the insufficient manner in which they are attended (in some groups) has become more obvious to me ‘after her death’. Another round of mercy and empathy is always needful in this journey of being human.
So, in short, as I reminisce upon my mother, when she should be here:
- When she should be turning 54… I grieve her loss. I think about how she has been torn from my present and future ‘memories’.
- I think about how it often doesn’t feel like she is gone (rather, like she’s on pause).
- And I think about how she, in some sense, is still with me in how she’s affected me. Indeed, in this third point I mainly focused upon how her death has affected me. I could speak for many thousands of words more drawing out the unlocked storage bank of ‘past memories’ elucidating how her life has forever imprinted upon me – who I am and, undoubtedly, who I will become.