A few months ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to write an article with tips that I learned while caring for my mother, who was entering the hospice stage of her cancer journey. To my surprise, I received numerous emails and messages from people who could relate, who learned something, and who were appreciative of the openness and honesty.
My mom passed on September 4th of this year, and the grieving process has been a complete whirlwind, full of ups and downs, of good memories and bad memories, and I felt it was important to share a bit of what I've learned in just three months as a bereaved daughter. Of course, there's a lot ahead, but initial lessons have already been learned. (And, let's face it, there's no time like the holiday season for familial matters to really be emphasized.)
As I started to brainstorm, I found myself relying heavily on my sister for insight. What has she learned? What have we learned that's similar, what has been different? I credit my parents for not only giving me a sister, but also a best friend. Because we already do so much as a duo, I figured, why not write this as a team? And, so began this article of seven (because that is our mom's lucky number and birthdate) pieces of advice we've learned... so far.
1. Life changes. After a loved one passes, nothing is ever going to be the same. We heard time after time from people that "things will eventually get back to normal," and the truth is that they never will -- normality is not what comes from this. A therapist told us about the concept of a "new normal" when our mom was battling cancer, and we found that the idea can be used now too. It's a time of change and there's no point in trying to "get back to normal"; it's about finding what is normal now. After something this tumultuous, you view things differently, you react to things differently. It puts life into perspective. It's a new chapter -- one that our mom should absolutely have been present for, but since she's not physically here, it's important to embrace our "new normal" and attempt to adjust to a new chapter of life.
2. Surround yourself with others who can relate. When a loved one passes (particularly young), you gain access to an exclusive club that you never asked to join. When our mom was initially diagnosed, we joined a young adult caregiver support group in Manhattan that helped us tremendously. It was a relief to know that we weren't the only ones in the world going through something as traumatic and trying as this. When our mom passed, we joined a young adult bereavement group and, as expected, it brought us such comfort. We go once a week after work and surround ourselves with a group of 12 young adults who have recently lost a parent to an aggressive form of cancer. Surrounding yourself with others who can relate will help immensely. You surround yourself with others who truly get it, and it's nice to take a break from the hustle and bustle of New York City to reflect and talk to others in the "club."
3. Not all grieving is universal. Something that we learned early on is that people respond differently to the loss of a loved one. Some may want to openly discuss it, while others would prefer to deal with the loss internally. Some people may focus heavily on the last few weeks before the passing, while others may be able to immediately remember all the pre-sickness times. Some people may enjoy the distraction of traveling and being busy, while others may prefer to reflect individually and quietly. Some people may be incredibly emotional, while others may be able to mask emotions. This realization certainly comes with frustrations, but people cope as best as they can in their own specific way -- everyone has their own journey.
4. Keep their memory alive. We find it incredibly important to keep our mother's memory alive. We look at photos, we read her eulogy and we listen to her voicemails. We have a group text with our dad and we regularly swap stories and memories about her. We go out to dinner and toast her beautiful life over a glass of wine. We never want to forget and, in ensuring that we never will, we keep her life, memory and legacy alive at all times. Additionally, we try hard to remember the good times. Even though the most recent memories of our mom are of the difficult, tough, messy times, we try to focus on the little positive things.
5. Focus on yourself for a bit. While caring for a loved one, it's easy to "lose yourself" and focus most of your energy on the caregiving. We found it important to focus on ourselves a bit now. We go on walks, focus on our health and well-being, work out, schedule doctor's appointments for ourselves that may have been put off for a bit for obvious reasons. We read books, watch programs that we enjoy, we've joined clubs and have planned trips as a family. In addition, we found it important to spend time with people who we genuinely enjoy being around. Frankly, we learned that life's too short to spend time with people that don't encourage, motivate and genuinely make you happy.
6. Keep communicating. You may feel like a crazy person, but it helps. Whether it's when you're home alone cooking dinner or when you're in bed at night about to fall asleep, we have both found it really powerful to talk to our mom even though we know she isn't going to verbally respond to us right away. A young girl in our bereavement group mentioned that she finds it incredibly therapeutic to write letters to her father, who recently passed, that express how she's feeling. She reads them aloud to him at his gravesite. It makes her feel better and that's really all that matters. When it comes to the loss of a loved one, there's nothing crazy about keeping the communication lines open. It would be crazy not to! Maintain a connection; you never know when they may stop by for a visit.
7. Create a legacy. Whether it's an annual event or the decision to dedicate time to raise awareness for an illness or even something as simple as a family tradition honoring your loved one in a unique way, creating a legacy in honor of someone is one of the most beautiful gifts you can ever give to them. Our bereavement support group talked a lot about leaving a legacy behind and, frankly, we're still trying to figure out what we want ours to be for our mom. In the interim (and forever) we hope that we can be the "living legacies" of her beautiful life, keeping her spirit and memory alive through one another.