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When a Mother Dies Young

Long ago I adjusted to life without a mother. For most of the last 30 years, the majority of my friends' mothers were living and most still are. Being motherless set me apart, especially in my twenties and thirties. I occasionally have met individuals who also lost their mothers in early adulthood.
03/23/2016 11:59am ET | Updated March 24, 2017
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a coffin in a morgue with a...

My mother died 30 years ago this week, eight days after her 49th birthday, and she's been on my mind as the anniversary of her death approaches. Mom's cause of death was probably avoidable. Her will stated she didn't want an autopsy, but because she died at home and had not been under the care of a doctor, the law required she have one. Her autopsy revealed her primary cause of death as pneumonia.

Mom feared hospitals for reasons she never disclosed. She'd had a couple knee surgeries, and perhaps her hospitalizations after the operations traumatized her. About six months prior to her death, my brother and I discussed her frail health, which included diabetes, small airway disease, a bad back and knee, a bladder issue and other ailments too numerous to list. I told him she would rather die at home if living meant a hospitalization. I had no idea then how prophetic this statement would be.

In addition to her other medical conditions, Mom was so fat she had to recalibrate her doctor's scale to accurately weigh herself. Her morbid obesity required the family to purchase an extra large coffin, but even then the undertaker needed to remove the padding to fit her inside. During the last four years of Mom's life, she spent most of her time in bed, her housekeeper bringing her food during the day, and her husband providing meals on nights and weekends in a classic co-dependent pattern.

She had a history of depressive episodes as well as periods of high energy and extreme productivity when she barely slept. As a mental health provider, I'm convinced she suffered from untreated bipolar disorder. In the last years of her life, Mom had a friend with that illness, and she recognized the friend's symptoms in herself. She told me she thought she might be bipolar but died before seeking the mental health care that might have stabilized her. Had she survived, she might have been an excellent candidate for gastric bypass surgery, a procedure with the potential to significantly improve her quality of life. Instead, the day after her 49th birthday, she began to spike high fevers and, refusing to see a doctor or go to an emergency room, she died a week later.

Long ago I adjusted to life without a mother. For most of the last 30 years, the majority of my friends' mothers were living and most still are. Being motherless set me apart, especially in my twenties and thirties. I occasionally have met individuals who also lost their mothers in early adulthood. These people and I usually experienced a bond created by our loss, and the understanding we received from each other was soothing. I felt less alone.

Mom's wit, charm, and intellect have remained vibrant for me over the years, while the pain of her manic, irrational rages faded long ago. While she was alive, Mom's illnesses and fears curtailed most of her aspirations. As the anniversary of her death approaches, I've felt an aching sadness for her unfulfilled life.

Mom was often a great friend. Sometimes she fell out with friends, old and new, in high drama, but she remained close to many of them and enjoyed friendships going back to her adolescence. Her friends saw and valued the best in her--they've told me so. I take heart that at least three close friends and I remember with deep affection her finer qualities. These friends are now in their seventies or early eighties, and Mom remains vivid for them too. As I reflect on her sudden death and our decades without her, I'm comforted that she remains an important influence not only for me but also for these women. Through them I realize she has grown old with us after all.

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 grieve differently. 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 strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com.