Living With Mom's Death

Living With My Mother's Death
alone portrait man sitting on...
alone portrait man sitting on...


By Peter Gerstenzang

Everyone thought I was handling it well, staying strong. Everyone was wrong.

It was hardly an hour after my mother died that I started to act like she hadn’t. This rather strange behavior began when the people who arrived at her house (where Mom had died suddenly), seemed to mistake my shock for stoicism. If the neighbors, relatives and cops who showed up were expecting a distraught, sobbing son, they must’ve felt surprised. Instead they got a soldier. A tough, together guy. John Wayne in "The Searchers."

Waiting for the medical examiner to come, pouring drinks and making grim jokes, no one could’ve suspected that, inside, I was dying, too.

Eventually the medical examiner came. Then the Emergency Medical Service people did their terrible work and took my mother away. Later, as everyone started leaving, a friend set the tone for the future. “See how well he’s handling this?” Sam said. “He’s going to be fine.”

I know this statement was offered kindly; part prayer, part halftime pep talk. But it only made me feel worse. On the outside, I seemed together. But, deep down, I was angry and heartsick. I’d moved into the house to take care of my mom and during these past several years, we’d grown close. Now, suddenly alone, I wasn’t John Wayne. I felt more like a lost, frightened child searching for my mom. She, of course, was nowhere to be found.

(MORE: My Mother's Death Taught Me a Lesson I Wish I'd Learned Much Earlier)

For years now, movies, books and Dr. Drew have touted the "new male sensitivity." You know, the whole concept that men can discuss their feelings openly -- even about a mother dying. But then mine did. And although I felt like I’d just had open-heart surgery, I couldn’t seem to let my emotions show.

I missed growing up in the sensitive era. As a kid, if you cried at sleepaway camp or implied you missed your mommy, you were teased mercilessly. So, early on, I learned to "man up." Years later, I did see a guy lose it after his mother died. But, unlike episodes of "Hill Street Blues," no men threw their arms around him. People drew back. I saw one guy smirk. Men love attention for hitting homers or barbecuing brilliantly. But suggesting you're deeply sad over losing your mom? Iron John Movement be damned! It wasn’t going to happen.

Soon my sadness morphed into anger. I was furious over losing the woman who encouraged my interest in art, comforted me when girls broke my heart and made great chicken soup. Curious, I asked a therapist friend why I felt such rage.

“In counseling we constantly encourage men to show their feelings,” she said. “But in regular life, there’s still a stigma attached to those who do and an unspoken idea that they should be stoic. It’s more acceptable for men to get angry than cry.”

In the weeks following the funeral, angry was my operative adjective. I became a raging bull, textbook Kübler-Ross. I was abrupt and unpleasant to almost everybody. Short with friends. Sarcastic to telephone solicitors. I cut people off while driving. All due to a twisted sense of entitlement: "Hey, my mom just died! Get out of my way or that back bumper is coming off!"

Something had to give. And, eventually, it did.

(MORE: On Becoming an Orphan)

One afternoon, I was at the supermarket, sneering and navigating the shopping cart-filled aisle as if it were a demolition derby. Then I came to the produce section, where an elderly woman turned toward me, holding some parsley. I gasped. She looked remarkably like my mother. The same kind eyes, the warm, gentle face. My heart, which for weeks seemed only to seethe, suddenly changed its staccato rhythm. The woman said she’d left her glasses home and wondered if the parsley looked fresh. All I could do was nod. No, that wasn’t all. I began to cry. Like a recovered memory in a Proust novel, the thought of my mother making chicken soup washed over me, as if it was some sort of Jewish baptism. Before I began hugging this woman and sobbing, I hustled away to another aisle.

Still, as I stood near the frozen foods, crying like a lost, little boy, I felt better. Well, less angry. I know a supermarket is a strange place to have an epiphany. But right there, leaning against the Haagen-Daz, tears trickling down my face, I had one. I felt my whole being unclench. I thought, maybe tomorrow, I won’t sleep all day. I’ll stop slamming the doors and yelling at other drivers. Maybe, even try to be grateful that I had such a fine mother to mourn.

I did a few of those things the next day. And since then, several more sunrises have come and gone. I’ve been taking it from there ...

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