July 13th was the twenty-year anniversary of my mom’s death. Because of our tumultuous relationship, it was a very difficult loss for me. Twenty years later I still reflect on the memories before and after she died. The second part of this story will be about forgiveness. I had to find a way to forgive her because of the way she treated me while she was here. I had to also forgive myself on the way I treated her. But let’s first look at the story of loss.
Witnessing A Loss
I remember the day mom died so vividly. It was in the last moments before she passed. She began to move her shoulders up and down as she changed from lying down to an upright sitting position in her bed. It was like what you would imagine seeing if someone had wings and was about to fly.
I put my hands on her shoulders as I shouted for my brothers to help me. I remember locking eyes with mom as she stared back at me. She began gurgling up black bile as she gasped for air. Both our eyes were locked as I watched my mom die. Within a minute, she was gone. With my hands still placed on her shoulders, I gently set her down with her head resting on her pillow. I moved my hand over her eyes and closed her eyelids. I leaned forward and kissed her all over her face as I joyously shouted, “You did it! I am so proud of you.” These last moments are forever engraved in my memories.
It may appear strange for someone to use a word like joyous when describing a feeling moments after a loved one has died. But I had watched her fight for a life that was an outright battle for 18 months. When the doctors discovered mom’s cancer on January 26, 2001, the cancer had metastasized and had already spread to the vascular wall. The doctors let us know at once that it was terminal and there was nothing they could do but to try to extend her life. They were clear that she had options. She could either take pain pills and enjoy what life she had left or do chemo and try to extend it. One of her doctors told her that if it were his life, he would just take pain pills. That was a horrible day.
In the final weeks mom was in so much pain and although she tried, she could barely keep on going. Just a few days before she passed, I watched my uncle give her a spoonful of Jell-O between pills that she needed to swallow. I remember seeing a mound of pills before her. 15-20 pills sitting on that little table as she tried to choke them down. Shortly after, mom got out of bed to go to the bathroom, and I remember seeing her slowly walk as she held her urine bag in her hand. The urine bag was filled with blood. At that moment, I felt a deep down feeling of anguish hit me. I didn’t want her to go through what she was going through. I wanted her pain to end. I didn’t want her to try to fight for another day. She was no longer living and all she had to look forward to was experiencing more pain. It was extremely hard to sit by and watch this happen. I felt so helpless.
Moments after she passed I felt joyous because I was proud of her for finally letting go.
When I left her apartment, I got into my car and drove around aimlessly for several hours. I just drove. I remember feeling numb and alone in the world. I felt disconnected from reality, and everything around me was just a fuzzy dream. Other people were going about their lives like they didn’t have a problem or care in the world. I was stuck in a bad dream, and it was hard for me to move forward and yet I felt that was what I was supposed to do. Act normal and be okay when it wasn’t okay.
Losing Everything and Finding Myself
I will keep this part short because I went through a lot after mom died. It is detailed in my book, so I won’t rewrite it here. But after mom died, I was all over the place. The doctor said I had an emotional breakdown. I had begun using alcohol and crystal meth to cope during the last year of my mom’s life, and after she died I hit it harder. It seemed like it was the only thing that could make me feel better even though it took me to a very dark place. When thinking about that time, it felt like I was living in the underworld. I not only lost everything that meant anything to me, but it broke me down to a point where I just wanted to be erased from life. I didn’t have the will to live and didn’t have the strength to try. Thankfully, I did get out of this place as by proof of writing this blog and being a functioning human being again.
In the years that I lived in the underworld, I was stripped of everything so that I could be rebuilt. I didn’t know it at the time but that’s what happened. I would not recommend anyone rebuilding his or her life this way. Get counseling or find another way. There are better roads. The way I did it is one of the hardest roads to take, I doubt if many survive.
One thing I realize is if mom were alive, I doubt I would have reached rock bottom on the road I went down. She would have not allowed it. She was the one person that cared enough about me to recognize that I needed help. I honestly believe that. I sometimes wonder if God took her because he had work to do with me. God knew that if my mom were around, I wouldn’t be able to fully fail and then grow (I will expand more on that theory in next week’s post).
The loss of someone that we love has got to be one of the hardest things that we will ever go through in life. Death is so final. I thought about how I would never see or hear my loved one’s voice again. They are gone forever.
There is this strange conflicting sensation I get when thinking about mom. It is two-fold.
1. The Memories
With all the memories I have of mom, her essence is still with me. All the moments we had together are like individual video clips in my mind where I can pull out a moment and play it whenever I want. I can choose a memory and there she is. I can see her and hear her voice. I can feel the love and it feels like she is not far away.
2. The Hole
Although I have all those memories that I can tap into whenever I think about her, I also feel a hole, an emptiness. It’s an absence like a vacant seat in a classroom full of kids or the missing piece of a puzzle. It is obvious that something is missing, it is noticed and it is felt.
Is this feeling in my heart or in my mind? We always talk about our heart when reflecting on our love for one another. We put our hand on our heart and we even draw pictures of hearts to illustrate feelings of love. We may think our love is in our heart, but our memories are being housed in our mind. But I wonder if loss is felt in neither the heart nor the mind, but in our soul. Maybe that is why it is felt so deep. That is why there isn’t anyone that can remedy this feeling except the one we lost. The shape of the hole is uniquely designed for our loved one.
I believe that once we get back to where we came from, we will see our loved ones again. They will fill that empty space in our soul that remains for only them to fill.
Types of Loss
I shared the detailed account of the loss of my mother because I know we all share similar pain when we lose ones we love. Whether it is a family member, friend, or even a beloved pet, relationships are complex, intense and very personal, and the loss can be devastating.
Losing a Friend
Losing a close friend obviously hurts just like any other loss. But it can feel different. For me, I can only go off what I have experienced. I am fortunate to have only lost one friend that I was close to thus far. I knew my friend Jimmy since the 6th grade. I remember being in a state of shock when I saw through Facebook that he had died. I quickly called his number and his partner answered and he confirmed what I hoped was not true.
After getting over the shock of his unexpected death, I thought about his partner, his brother and all that loved him. My friend went so suddenly he didn’t even get to say goodbye to anyone or tell them what he may have wanted them to know. Those thoughts led me to other thoughts about my own life and mortality.
- He is my age – it could happen to me too.
- How long do I have left?
- What if I have unfinished business?
- How are my relationships right now?
- Am I right with the people in my life to suddenly leave them?
As each of us goes about our day-to-day life we are kept busy with work, family, and activities. It sometimes isn’t until someone close to us passes that we stop and reflect on how fragile life is. We take stock of our life and what’s important to us. I wish we could try to remember to do this more often, not just when tragedy strikes and wakes us up.
Losing a Pet
Losing a pet that has been family for many years is a unique kind of pain. Pets are not only family, they are a companion and a friend. Most people can relate to the memory of a family pet and how it felt when they had to let them go. My daughter Courtney’s dog she named Danger was far from being dangerous, and he was the sweetest Labrador you could ever meet. Courtney got him as a tiny little puppy and had him for almost 11 years. We were thankful that we had that much time with him and experienced such unconditional love. I remember the last few months of his life; Courtney was running him to the pet hospital and spending money on x-rays, labs, and medications, all in the hopes that the doctors could save him. In the end, there was nothing they could do. Danger had a very large tumor in his nasal passage that went all the way to his brain.
The decision was made to allow Danger to go peacefully with the doctor’s help as he was in a lot of pain and was bleeding from his nose. We were all there, surrounding Danger as my daughter held him tenderly. Besides the loss of mom, this was an extremely hard loss to witness. As I reflect on Danger and the love I had for him, all I can say is what I’ve always said about him. Best Dog Ever.
Which is Worse?
Whether we know death is coming or it happens unexpectedly we must deal with pain in the aftermath regardless. When my mom was fighting for her life for 18 months, I remember going into work and a coworker lost her mom unexpectedly. My mom was dying slowly; her mom’s life was ripped away from her.
As I watched my mom suffer and fight desperately to live another day, I was able to be there, love and support her. I was able to ask her questions on things I needed to know. She was able to go through her things and give each of us something she wanted us to have. There was preparation and the ability to say good-bye. However, it’s hard to comprehend the misery she endured.
It is a shock when someone dies unexpectedly. No notice, no warning or preparation – they are just gone. There is an entirely different set of feelings, a lot of questions and unfinished business. Not being able to express your feelings and say good-bye can cause additional pain for the ones left behind. It can be more difficult for someone to come to terms with the sudden loss.
Losing Someone Still Alive
At some point we have experienced someone who was once in our life and now they are not. Maybe it was a friend, coworker, or family member. Someone who we still think about but are now disconnected from them. Maybe the relationship with them was toxic and we had to make a choice to let them go. Maybe they moved away, and we just miss them. Or perhaps we had a disagreement with someone, and we made a mutual decision to cut ties. Although I believe everything can be repaired in life, there are instances where the damage is so great that it seems nearly impossible to change the outcome. This loss deserves to be recognized. The emptiness and absence can be as painful as a death.
Because none of us know how long we have in this life, we need to do what we can while we are here. Make every single day matter. I have made it a practice to let my children, family members and friends know every time I talk to them that I love and care about them. I tell them often how much I appreciate and value them. I let them know what I hope for them for their future. Expressing my feelings will not be the unfinished business that I leave behind when my time is up.
A loss is painful because we love. There is no way around it, but there is a way through it. Dealing with loss can be lonely. Bottling up the pain can be stifling. Share your feelings with your family and friends. Seek out a support group and try to talk about your loss with others. We have all experienced grief in one way or another. Communication, camaraderie and support can ultimately help with healing, closure and moving forward.
Griefshare.org is a national organization that offers many resources such as seminars and support groups to help you recover from your loss and look forward to rebuilding your life.
SAMHSA is the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services site offering resources and help to those in crisis.
Next week: Thoughts about forgiveness.