On January 29, 1958, my mother died quietly at home, in bed with my father. Her frightening ordeal with a brain tumor, surgery, and agonizing recovery finally gave way to her eternal peace. She was only thirty-three years old.
My mother’s name is Margaret. Margaret Arminta Lane Claughton. She left behind my daddy, eight-year-old brother, and me, four years old at the time. It took me nearly fifty years to say her name without my throat tightening with that feeling that I will absolutely choke on the millions of tears stored inside.
Growing up without a mother was something I never wanted to do. I felt ashamed that I was the only one in my class at school without a mother. I thought I was the only one in the world going through life so alone and lonely. How could a mother die and leave her children? The harsh reality of a motherless child is best lived in denial.
I didn’t know what to do with my feelings, and I certainly did not know the term grief. Whenever I had those lonely times, those sad times of missing Mama, I pushed grief down and ignored its wanting to be seen. I disregarded the yearning to be heard. I put all those feelings on pause and postponed any acknowledgment of how I felt, and mostly, no one ever asked how I was doing. We were all busy trying to survive, each one of us hurting in our own ways.
So, I abandoned myself.
I silenced the tears and the huge, overwhelming fears about what would become of me.
In first grade, a classmate and I asked to go to the water fountain, which was down the hall. I remember her perfection. Her ponytail was neatly brushed and was long, blonde, and swung in time with her walk. Her dresses were store-bought, and she had more than one pair of school shoes. I noticed things like that because although I was not unkempt, I looked motherless. My father tried to keep me clean, and my hair combed, but it was different. My grandma made all of my clothes and Daddy trimmed my bangs which were always too short and uneven. I felt motherless every day when I went to school and compared myself to others. I felt different inside and yet I knew that not even a store-bought dress could change that. Nothing could.
My classmate and I held hands as we walked to the water fountain. We whispered quietly to each other until it was my turn to get a drink. I bent over and turned on the water and as I did, she said, “You always talk about your dad. Don’t you have a mother?”
I will never forget the cold fear that ran through me as she asked the question. My blood stopped flowing through my veins. My breath caught, and I froze inside. Time stopped. Yet, some resolve, from deep within, made me tell my first of many lies about my situation. I stood up tall and looked her straight in the eyes, “Of course I do.” Then we walked back to class in silence.
I felt so ashamed.
Postponed grief will stay quiet for a little while. It will be a ‘good girl’ and not bother you until something triggers a feeling buried inside and opens a door that will take two large football players and a sumo wrestler to close. When my grief door is opened by a trigger outside of myself, feelings usually come out sideways.
Postponed grief likes to lash out at unsuspecting loved ones, or set in motion a flood of heaving, hot tears during an inappropriate time, like in the grocery check-out line or in front of people you barely know. This delayed sadness never dies. It lives inside waiting for a crack or crevice to squeeze through and then burst into the room. Not always dramatic, the postponed feelings sometimes like to make me feel immobilized like I can’t get out of bed. It’s hard to know the toll these feelings will take, and which path they will choose.
Graduations, my wedding, and the birth of my children were all huge milestones that brought to light the stark vacancy of my mother. But one date, in particular, caused my grief to explode. My thirty-third birthday. The day I turned thirty-three my world turned upside down. The realization that I was the same age as my mother when she passed made me actually feel my mortality. When would I die? How? I began my anxious descent into depression, a place I would visit all year long. A divorce, a fifteen-pound weight loss, and a job change were all products of my thirty-third year. I wore my fear and dread around my neck like a heavy, rusted ship anchor threatening to pull me under the surging current.
My thirty-third year finally passed and with it a small piece of my anxiety about dying and leaving my children. Relieved, I tucked my grief back into its place under my heart near my gut where it could upset me on occasion yet stay out of sight. “Not yet,” I told my grief. “It’s not time.”
Ten years came and went, and with them another divorce.
Another loss conjured up my feelings of abandonment and reminded me that I had no mother to call or visit. It reminded me that I was unlovable and unable to keep a man. I was a fish floundering on dry land, struggling to breathe. Nevertheless, time both stood still and flew, as unbelievably another loss, my father’s death.
“It’s time,” my grief said.
My father’s death was a fresh hit of complicated grief from years of a strained relationship, but it opened the door and with it came my childhood sadness wanting to be healed. At the time, I could not understand why the loss of my mother took precedence over my daddy’s death. She had been gone so long, yet it felt new as the postponed feelings poured out of my spirit. The death of my father somehow gave me the permission I needed to grieve my mother’s passing and the loss of a daughter along the way.
My mother, a still-born daughter, and my father’s passing all came at me with full force. No one was worse than the other, all vying for their place in line, ready to be seen, heard, and felt. Ready to be grappled with, not one at a time, but fluidly, flowing back and forth, like a toddler mixing watercolors. Messy yet beautiful.
A kind and gentle therapist helped me to sort things out and most importantly, helped me to speak my truth. Not in a fast, nonchalant regurgitation as I was used to, but in a methodical, heartfelt way acknowledging the intensity of each loss.
Grief does not have a timeline, nor does it follow a prescribed blueprint. I will never ‘get over it,’ I will continue to go through it. Most likely, the sting of loss will stay with me until my days are over and then follow me to the grave. Like a long, lost friend who visits once in a while, my grief leaves me with a fond goodbye and a tender sigh, promising to return. My pain is lessened with each visit, and I am growing to respect this sadness that ebbs and flows. It reminds me not only of my love for those who have gone before me but their love for me. And in its own way, that is enough.