Does This Mean I Don't Have a Mommy Anymore?

As a writer, psychoanalyst and stewardess for Pan Am for twenty years, I've shared many personal feelings about my life in my blogs. My reason for doing this has never been so that you, the reader, will know about me. My goal has been to encourage you to think about your own life, in case what I have experienced and learned might be of some help to you.

Today is a profoundly sad day for me -- the day I've dreaded my whole life. My beloved mother died this morning, at the age of 96 years and 6 days, and she's now at rest. I know that she's been ready to die for some time, and for her, I'm relieved. For me, it's a different story.

I often ask my patients, when they accuse themselves of "feeling sorry" for themselves, that they change that shame-ridden phrase to one of "feeling sorrow" for themselves. Feeling sorrow is about allowing ourselves to grieve. I know how important grieving is when we lose a loved one, but as a child, my family and I didn't know how.

My father was almost 30 years older than my mother, and when I was just six months old, he suffered a massive heart attack that nearly killed him. The doctors, unable at the time (1951) to help heart patients, predicted that my father would die with his next heart attack. Our lives became permeated with anticipatory anxiety surrounding the fear of his death, and my brother, sister and I savored each moment with him.

When my father died when I was eight, our family life was completely shattered, and none of us, including my mother, had any idea how to mourn. We bottled up our feelings and rarely talked about him, concentrating instead on somehow surviving the loss of this man who was the idealized center of our world (See my blog, Counting My People.)

My mother confided to me recently that she remembered nothing at all about my father as he lay dying in the hospital, or his funeral, or about the following years as we all floundered to find our way as a family through this very difficult time. She was obviously in a traumatized state. Her father had died when she was only three, and she had no memories of him. She did, however, remember one exchange with me, her youngest child. After days of being very quiet, trying to take in the magnitude of what had just happened, I came to her and said, "Does this mean I don't have a Daddy anymore?"

So, as a psychoanalyst who writes about trauma, I recognize that the death of my mother transports me back into that old, familiar, traumatized state, and I feel, once again, eight years old and bereft. My Mommy has died. She, after all, is the person who knows me best, my biggest fan who is incredibly proud of any little thing that I accomplish. I know, of course, how lucky I am that I had her for so long, but for much of my life, I worried about losing her.

I was never able to develop the usual absolutisms of everyday life that human beings develop in order to flee from the uncertainties of life and to maintain a sense of continuity, predictability, and safety. These are unquestioned beliefs and assumptions that most people unconsciously live by. For example, when you say to a loved one, "I'll see you tomorrow," it is taken for granted that you and the other person are going to be around.

However, emotional trauma shatters these absolutisms, and children who experience early trauma experience a loss of innocence, and know that anything can happen at any time. For us, it is essential that there be a place where painful feelings can be verbalized, understood, and held -- a relational home. Without it, emotional pain can become a source of unbearable shame and self-loathing, and traumatized people can fall into the grip of an impossible requirement to "get over it."

There is no "getting over it," but with understanding, a person can learn to integrate the experience. When a child only has one parent left, that parent becomes extraordinarily important. My fear about losing my father immediately transferred over to fear of losing my mother. I remember sitting at my desk at school, hearing sirens outside. I would sit, paralyzed, waiting for the knock on my class door that would confirm my panic that my mother had died, too.

Moreover, every child just wants to be like every other child -- to have a family like everyone else. At the beginning of the school year, each student would have to stand up and tell everybody what their father did for a living. I would have to stand up and say, "My father is dead." All summer long I would dread that first day, feeling the shame that I felt about being different, and enduring the awkwardness that others would feel about not knowing what to say.

But if I had to have only one parent, I can't imagine having a better, more loving mother than mine. Of course, I'm not saying that she was perfect, but my mother took over the responsibility of raising three children and caring for her mother, and if anybody ever had the right to play the "martyr card," it would have been my mother. She never did. She always said that my brother, sister and I were the bright spots in her life. She always put our needs ahead of her own, and never, ever complained about it. Her life was all about helping others in any way that she could, and she was greatly loved and admired.

I have a lifetime of stored memories about my mother. One time, when I was a senior in high school, I had a very difficult English test coming up, with a lot of memorization. I studied and studied and was very worried. My mother had read an article that said that, if a student has to do a lot of memory work, if another person reads the assignment to the student while they are asleep, it will help the student to remember. So sure enough, on the night before the test, I woke up a little bit to see my mother with a flashlight, softly going over and over the material. I remember feeling very loved, as I went back to sleep.

And what I am most proud of as a daughter is that after I became a Pan Am stewardess, I was able to take my mother on many different trips all over the world. Last week, I found a snapshot of my mother, all stretched out in three seats for a snooze on a Pan Am 707 Clipper, with the biggest smile on her face that you could possibly imagine! In the photograph, she is her vibrant, energetic, loving self -- my mother whom I will miss every day for the rest of my life.

And I can't help but wonder what this will mean, now that I don't have a Mommy in my world anymore.