In 2005, when I was 18, my parents passed away due to a car accident. I’ve had almost 15 years to reflect on my memories and my relationship with both of them, especially my mother, with whom I was not particularly close at the time of her death.
Before I had children, my grief was primarily tied to feeling like I was wandering this earth as an adult orphan of sorts. Because there’s no real term for an adult who has lost their parents after adolescence, the best way I can describe it is a feeling of being incomplete. I wasn’t sure where my future was heading, and I wasn’t sure if I could ever really bridge the gap that was created in my life from their accidental deaths. I knew I wanted to finish college and that someday I wanted a family, but I had no idea how my life would unfold from that point on. My feelings of loss were centered around missing them for myself and for my own needs at that time. But my grief shifted five years ago, when I had my first child.
My mother had a large personality and was capable of demonstrating love, but bonding on a consistent level proved challenging for us. When my mother was happy, she was joyful. She would quite literally give you the shirt off her back. But when she was upset, we were all a target. It was like a switch flipped and there was no emotional middle ground. It saddens me to say it, but this drastic dichotomy made it challenging as a child and young adult to feel a secure connection with my mother. It didn’t help that our relationship was abruptly cut off when I was at the cusp of adulthood, a time when we would have perhaps finally gotten to connect as adults.
Whether it was due to my mom being Korean ― a culture that has traditionally had a strong focus on power imbalances between generations of family ― or perhaps due to her specific personality, there was always a distance between us that could not seem to be remedied. My father was Caucasian, and his influence from how he was brought up was certainly in our lives, but my mother’s influence was stronger. Ironically, even though she was from a culture that valued a patriarchal structure, my mother was the one who ruled our household. My sister and I were taught to respect our elders and were rarely encouraged to openly question authority, making the voicing of any disagreement somewhat of a struggle. I believe that cultural disconnect would have been difficult for anyone to bridge, particularly when you have an American-born teenage daughter who wanted nothing more than to leave the house to hang out with friends and be “free.”
My sister and I were taught to respect our elders and were rarely encouraged to openly question authority, making the voicing of any disagreement somewhat of a struggle.
We weren’t able to connect on a pop-culture level (my mother spoke decent English, but she wasn’t interested in “non-Christian” movies, music or television), and we often clashed when it came to notions of cultural appropriateness. To my teenage sensitivities, everything she did was embarrassing. This is the case for many American teenagers, but it felt even more acute because of that extra layer of being foreign. For example, expectations of privacy are almost nonexistent in a traditional Korean household, but privacy was a must-have when I was a teenager. Also, I would have friends over who weren’t used to certain smells (kimchi is a tasty Korean dish to some, but to the untrained nose of a new houseguest, it is likely somewhat disturbing), and I was always mortified when my mother was eating something warmed up at the table.
There was also the embarrassment of the slurping of soup, a sign of a delicious meal among Asian guests but embarrassing to a teenager with friends who didn’t know that was the norm. All of these things likely picked at our relationship as I got older. If only I could tell my teenage self: None of it matters! Who were you to criticize her enjoyment of a meal? These are things you would give anything to have back in your life, you selfish teenage moron.
My last conversation with my mother was on my first day of college. I was at the beach after finishing my class registration and we had a brief argument over paying my college tuition. She was agitated with me, and it wasn’t a pleasant conversation. It was the last time I heard her voice. I wish I had a loving voicemail instead of that last call in my head, but it’s all I have.
Before my children were born, much of my grief was structured around feeling bitter that my parents were no longer around for me. I was bitter because my mother and I weren’t closer. There could have been so much more there if she’d had the chance to know me as an adult. If only she and my father could see how my sister and I had not only survived but flourished. I was bitter at the loss of their vibrant lives and their anticipated grandparenthood, yet I had no idea what having children really meant.
I understood my parents’ deaths in terms of what I had lost, but I hadn’t really started to think of it as something others had lost too. Put simply, I knew what my parents meant to me, and I knew I was missing them and needed them, but I wasn’t at the point where I was able to recognize what their loss would mean to others, like my children. I had no real understanding of how this bitter sadness would change and form into something much larger until my children actually arrived.
I took on the sadness of another loss, one that neither of my children was old enough to realize ― the fact that they would never know who their mother’s parents were.
After I had my daughter and son, I began to mourn my parents’ deaths on behalf of my children and less for myself. My period of grieving for my parents would always be there, but now, I took on the sadness of another loss, one that neither of my children was old enough to realize ― the fact that they would never know who their mother’s parents were.
They would never know my mom’s infectious laugh and energetic personality, or their grandfather’s kind smile and gentle voice. I felt as though their efforts as parents would never pay off with family dinners, photos or holidays spent together. They wouldn’t get to see my daughter’s eyes light up with the same vigor my mother’s did. They would know none of it. And the deeper realization that my children have no idea what they’re actually missing led me to reflect on my loss, from a parent’s perspective, in a different light than I had before.
Having experienced almost five years of grief as a parent, I’ve come to several realizations after reflecting on the memory of our imperfect mother-daughter relationship. For one, I found it was easy to get stuck feeling upset about the state of our relationship at the time of her death. Our mother-daughter relationship established the foundation of what having a mother meant to me. And because it wasn’t where I wanted it to be at the end, I was distraught, feeling that she could have done better. I could have done better. But we weren’t given the time. I experienced this before having my children as well, but once they were in the picture, it took these feelings to a new level. I’ve spent a lot of time parsing unpleasant memories, feeling resentful toward my mother for acting in certain ways toward me and my sister when we were growing up.
I believe we would have had a wonderful relationship as we grew older together, but it can never be a reality.
Please don’t get me wrong: I love my mother dearly. I appreciate every sacrifice she made for me, including her unique experience of being a mother raising a child in a country that wasn’t her own. However, there was certainly a disconnect between the type of daughter she wanted me to be and the type of mother I really needed. But there is no real reason to keep dwelling on what could have been, because it will never be. For a long time, this was a hard point to process. It’s easy to sit here and churn those thoughts over and over, perhaps as a measure of mental self-preservation, but it isn’t productive. Now that she is gone, those imagined situations will never become real. They just won’t. There is no reason to waste precious time. I believe we would have had a wonderful relationship as we grew older together, but it can never be a reality.
For that reason, in order to carry on with life as best as I can, I have to remind myself that she did the best she could. Motherhood is stressful, and though it’s also very rewarding, it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I now understand that maternal stress could cause someone to act in a way they normally wouldn’t. So in time, I realized that maintaining a constant level of resentment toward my mother wouldn’t in any way make my life better. It won’t bring her back. It won’t help my blood pressure or honor her memory. Letting go of anger toward my mother has fueled me to be a better mom. It has fueled me to learn how to better adapt to situations that are difficult, and has served as a guide for how and how not to respond to things, essentially learning from what I feel were her parental missteps.
Letting go of resentment and anger also means that some questions will never be answered. Maybe they weren’t meant to be answered. There are a lot of questions I would have liked to ask my mother and father ― questions about life, happiness, their youth and parenting choices. Why did you act in this way? Why did you make the choice to do that? But I will never receive the answers, and I have made peace with that.
It is because I didn’t have the closest relationship with my mom that I now focus, very consciously, on my interactions with my children.
So in the end, I have learned to use reflection as a road map for how I am going to direct my life. It is because I didn’t have the closest relationship with my mom that I now focus, very consciously, on my interactions with my children. I’m using the grief and the lessons learned, as best I can, to navigate toward the kind of life I wish I’d gotten to experience with my mom. I’m attempting to make it the best life I can.
These personal truths have led me to do the only thing I can: use my time left on this earth wisely. I believe one’s ability to tolerate and interpret grief depends on how you choose to live your life. Knowing what I know now, having experienced a decade and a half of grief and reflection, I realize that in order to cultivate the best relationship I can with my children, I have to let go.
I have to accept this new form and stage of my grief and allow myself to move forward with it. By doing so, I can carry on with my life in a way that allows me to be the best mom I can, while holding the memory of my parents in my heart and soul. I hope that anyone going through the grieving process knows they are not alone. The process is a journey, and I pray that more people share their stories with each other, because together we can achieve resiliency one shared experience at a time.
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