For years, I’d assumed I would be completely incapable of functioning after my mom died. I had no idea what my life would or even could look like after that. I couldn’t imagine it, just like I couldn’t imagine, when I was a kid, what it would be like to drive a car or go to college or even just be a grown up; it felt like I would just have to cease to exist when she did.
And yet, here I am, two and a half years after my mom’s death on May 15, 2018. I don’t know if I’m thriving, or even “surthriving,” a term that makes me think of a preternaturally peppy Molly Shannon character on “Saturday Night Live.” But at least I’m no longer sleeping with the lights on while the Mel and Sue years of “The Great British Baking Show” drone on at the edges of my consciousness … most of the time, anyway.
I didn’t do anything in particular to survive her death except continue to stay alive. I certainly haven’t processed the pain, and I doubt I ever fully will; it’s all simmering just beneath my skin, ready to escape at the next Instagram story from The Dodo about interspecies friendship.
Immediately after her death, there were things that had to be done — writing an obituary, canceling her credit cards and hiring an estate attorney. And I did them; they filled some time. I had help — a lawyer, friends, family, the health aide who became a second daughter to her and a sister to me. Plus Mom had been very organized; she’d even prepared a list of all of her logins for me. Logistically, it was as easy as a death could be.
But at the end of the day, I was her only child. And she was my only mom. And she was gone. Just gone.
So I let her answering machine fill up with messages, because I couldn’t cope. No one sat shivah for her in Texas; I didn’t even know where to begin to organize that. I had a panic attack in the housewares section of Target.
In the months after that, I declined a lot of social invitations; I whiffed deadlines; I stayed up all night playing video games and listening to true crime podcasts by myself. In short, whatever remaining concerns I had about meeting most societal norms went out the window.
It wasn’t all terrible; there were small mercies that I’ll never forget. Even when I was at my worst, my loved ones did what they could to soothe the unbearable. My friends came and sat shivah with me in New York City when I arrived home, filling my apartment with carbohydrates and flowers. They flew to me when I needed them but couldn’t say. They took me into their homes when I showed up; or they took me hiking along the Pacific Ocean or to karaoke.
Still, my grief cruelly took away my ability to concentrate on books, movies or even any TV shows that required more than the bare minimum of intellectual processing. I had nothing left to invest emotionally or intellectually in anything I normally loved — or even anything I was once pleasantly distracted by. I struggled to pitch my editors. I flubbed an interview with a celebrity so disastrously I still think about it late at night.
Eventually, I allowed myself the luxury of going to therapy twice a week instead of just once.
The most important thing I learned about grief is that it isn’t linear, and it isn’t logical. You have to be very careful with yourself and with who you’re around, and you have to make sure they’re extra tender to you, too. Even the most big-hearted people will do or say the wrong thing; I still do it myself. Most of their missteps are forgivable, but you’ll decide which ones aren’t, and that’s important, too.
Special bonds were formed in the last two years between me and the friends who’ve also experienced the loss of their mothers; it’s a very particular, complicated sort of loss that can feel extra messy and ugly. And, let’s face it, not many people can tolerate hearing about the disgusting indignities of aging and death unless they get paid by the hour — nor should they. There is also a kind of relief that you feel after a death like that, and the relief feels shameful, but even the shame feels like a relief, sort of like popping a pimple.
I’m no longer scared when the phone rings (mostly). When a famous person dies, I no longer calculate how much older or younger they were than my mom, as if that somehow affected her odds of survival. Dead parents, it turns out, are great ice breakers on first dates and at cocktail parties. I’m thankfully off the hook for airport travel over the winter holidays. When certain dates roll around — like the anniversary of my parents’ respective deaths — I’m not sad so much as simply disassociated.
If this all sounds awfully familiar to you, it’s because we’re all grieving in some way. We’ve collectively experienced wave after wave of loss in the past nine months, and it scares me to think of how shattering it will be once the constant flow of news and tragedy relents just a little.
This sounds horrible but, without the death of my mom — and specifically the experience of grieving her death — I wouldn’t have emotionally or mentally survived the pandemic. While I’m still no expert at tolerating discomfort, I’m better at it than I used to be; there’s not much else to do when you’re laying sideways across your bed at 4 a.m. staring at your cat and feeling desperately, bitterly lonely, except to feel desperately, bitterly lonely.
Plus, now I don’t have to worry about her during the pandemic; she had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and an increasingly knotty conflagration of disorders that would have made her an over-the-top risk for Covid-19, and she lived in Texas. She worried about me all the time anyway, even when there wasn’t an airborne virus ravaging us, and I’d have felt guilty for worrying her, and she’d want me to move back to Dallas, and, well, we’ve all seen “Grey Gardens,” right?
In the before-times, when I was on a subway stopped between stations, I’d try to sense the millisecond it began to lurch back into motion, until I could no longer tell the difference between standing still and moving. Grief is like that, but with fury and fear and sadness and a terrifying blankness that nothing can soothe. You can’t tell when the subway will start moving again; you can’t magic it into motion. You can only wait and see what happens, and make sure you’re holding on when it starts moving again.
You won’t believe the kinds of things you can survive. I didn’t. I still don’t.
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