My mother died from cancer. She just turned 61. My sisters and I were confronted with the impossible: How to grieve a parent and survive?
The five stages of grief come to mind: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. For us, there was no denial. My hand touched her cold face. My sister said: “This is only the body...” But this body gave birth to me. Its warmth meant comfort, acceptance and pure love no matter if I was three or 30 years old. There was anger, sure. She had always been healthy, stopped smoking decades ago, never drank and loved to work out. Why her? There was soul crushing depression. Really, how do you live without your mother? Acceptance? Never. Not even now, two years after she passed. Accepting a world without her still feels like betrayal.
So how do we grieve after our very roots, our very beginning were ripped from us and we find ourselves floating, unprotected and without the only love that was always certain?
1. Grieve with love
Anger is a common companion in the grieving process. We are angry at the disease (or the accident) that took our parent, angry at God for letting it happen, angry at the one who passed away for leaving us. Yet love never fails. So we focus on the good memories, on the wonderful times we spent together. We remember that this person gave us life. She also planted a very unique seed in our souls. We remember that we are a part of her physically, mentally and spiritually. Grieving with love hurts. Yet we don't want to give in to anger and rage. It would only hurt us more.
2. Grieve deeply
Pain that is not felt stays with us longer. Pain that is shoved aside will find other ways to be heard. Depression, substance abuse or (auto) aggression, just to name a few. So when the pain comes, embrace it, let it wash over you, let it consume you and knock you off your feet. Allow yourself to cry and to scream. Go mad with grief if you have to. When it spits you out in the end you won't be fine, but a tiny fraction of your heart will be healed.
3. Grieve in safety
Grief comes in waves that are completely uncontrollable and unpredictable. Especially in the first weeks and months. Make sure that you are safe when they come. If that is not possible at least make sure that you can reach safety fast. Safety comes in many forms: family, friends, a familiar environment, a cup of tea or a warm blanket. Safety means a lot of things to a lot of people. Safety around us allows us to be unsafe within us. When safety and security surround us it is okay to be unstable. It's even okay to be weak. Safety helps us to dig deep into the pain and allow it to swallow us.
4. Grieve your own innocence
It doesn't matter how old we are. When we lose a parent, we lose someone unique, someone who has literally always been with us. No matter how old we are, when we lose a parent, we lose the last bits of childhood and innocence in us. When we grieve a parent, we also grieve the child we used to be. It is not selfish, nor is it unnecessary. Maybe it is even part of growing up, even if some of us are grandparents when it happens. The death of a parent changes us. Change hurts, yes. But change is also the root for something new. Something that we can make beautiful and meaningful.
5. Grieve joyfully
This, for sure, seems to be impossible in the beginning. Grief and joy do not go together. Never. Yet after the first cruel waves of grief, something changes. Suddenly we remember our parent with a smile through all the tears. Suddenly, we find ourselves doing something or saying something that she used to do or say. We realize not only how much we were a part of her but also how much she is a part of us. And will be forever. It always hurts. Even after two years I cannot imagine a time without crying for her. But there is joy and hope.
Sometimes I'm so happy that I knew her. Sometimes I am so happy that I am from her. In those moments I am grateful and my tears become tears of joy.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grievedifferently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at email@example.com.