My mother would have turned 78 this week.
Her 73rd birthday was her last here on Earth. She was living with stage four ovarian cancer at the time and I was incredibly sick and couldn’t visit her. The chocolate cake I baked her sat uneaten on my kitchen counter. I didn’t get to celebrate her last birthday with her but I did hold her while she took her last breath a few months later. Cancer took her quickly, but it gave us just enough time to find peace with one another.
I’ve learned a lot about grief in the past several years. I knew about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. What I didn’t pay attention to was that those stages aren’t linear and that I would repeat the steps over and over in various order.
I GRIEVED my mom. I grieved in all caps.
I cried, I got mad, I wondered how I would EVER figure out how to live in a world without my mom. Even though she and I had a fairly tumultuous relationship at times, she was always my mom and I knew she was there for me if I needed her. Then she was gone. The woman that brought me into the world was gone. And there was no ignoring how profound of a loss that was in my life.
Somehow I knew I had to walk through that grief. I couldn’t work it away, or ignore it, or pretend it wasn’t there. I had to walk through every painful step. And so I did. Even though I so often wanted to stop the incredible ache in my heart, I kept walking. Day by day, step by step, one foot in front of the other. And then one day, I noticed that the steps weren’t quite as painful as they had once been. I noticed the ache in my heart was not so pronounced and I realized…I was healing. I did the work. I walked, I talked, I cried, I shared, I felt every little ounce of that grief. And then somewhere along the way, I began to heal.
As I healed, I began to appreciate grief. I was no longer afraid of it.
In a way, I made friends with it. I honored the path I walked which brought me to an extraordinary new world. And I became quite aware that the path never truly ends. It just evolves. There are areas of fire and hot coals, but there are also areas of beautiful green fields with blue skies and blooming flowers in colors I never knew existed. The canvas upon which I live my life today is remarkably different from the one I had for the first 40 years of my life.
Yet, grief is tricky. Just when I think I’ve got it all figured it out, a simple ordinary moment will occur and knock me back a few steps. I find myself aching again, tears rolling down my face, missing my mom. And so…I feel it. I step over the hot coals again, but now I know that I’m capable of walking through that fire. It doesn’t scare me anymore. It’s still hard, but I know what’s on the other side. And I know I’ll find my way there.
Grief never ends. I once thought that was how it worked: You grieved, you got over it, you moved on.
But that is not the case. How could it be? We never forget the ones we love. We carry grief in our hearts for everyone we lose along our life journey. And someday, many will carry their grief for us in their hearts. We can carry that grief and still live. My mom would have wanted me to live. Someday, I want the people I leave behind to live.
So, this week, as the anniversary of my mom’s birth appears on the calendar, likely triggering my friend grief, I will remember the life my mother lived. I will be thankful for the life she gave to me. I will honor all the feelings that arise.
And I will take another step forward on my path.
Kelli Barr-Lyles, MA, is on a mission to open up the conversation about death and grief. She realizes this mission is all uphill, but is under the impression that we are all going to die, so why ignore it? She runs her own counseling business specializing in aging, grief and death as well as pregnancy, birth and postpartum. Additionally, she practices geriatric care management and is currently in training towards certification in death midwifery. She is a secondary caregiver to her father who is living with Parkinson’s disease. Her immediate family, who has to listen to her death talk at length, includes her husband, her three teenage sons and three feline daughters (the cats are the best listeners, for the record).
Her website is currently being revamped so, in the meantime, you can find her on Facebook here.