Lost in the Water - Moving Forward After Losing Your Parent


I had known my mother was dead for five minutes before the nurses came in.

In hospice, there is a silence to the room. No chirping machines, no constant ping of a heart monitor. Just the ragged wheeze that slipped through my mother’s half drooped lips.

This was where people came to die... 

Why clog the air with hope.

While the rest of my family – grounded in reality – filled the space with discussions of burial plans and finances, I sat there and watched the gaps between her breaths grow longer.

By the end, the breaths had become so shallow it was hard to gauge the exact moment she left us.  No labored final sigh, no dramatic flat line.

No, my mother drifted from us like a pocket of dust blown in the wind

utterly silent.  

I was twenty-four-years old.

In the movies, this would be the time that everything slows down; The camera pans in close to the main actor’s face while a slow, haunting melody begins to play; Fixed in place, the others in the room fall into tears, some dramatically collapsing on her lifeless body in hysterics while the main character stares forward, motionless.

The world around me did not slow down. It sped up. I saw everything... everything she wouldn’t.

It started small...

The color of my hair I’d been planning to change…
The new glasses I had ordered…
The new apartment decor I had put up....

Then it all accelerated...

The career she’d never see me begin, face setbacks, and then thrive in…
The future husband she’d never meet…
The home we'd build together…
The first grandchild…
The countless family holidays…
The entire life that was still ahead of me…

She would miss it.

I didn’t sit motionless. The weight of that life carried me to the floor in a wash of tears and heartache.

You see, when I was young, my mother was a constant, indestructible force. 

So when we got the cancer diagnosis, it all felt impossible.

I was given four years to pretend to understand what my world would be like without her. 

Truth is, no one tells you how you’ll feel, regardless of your age, when a parent leaves you - you're lost in the water.

No one mentions falling into a dark vat of emotion that feels inescapable – a vat that you won’t emerge from the same as you were before.

I didn’t.

At 24, I had considered myself as “adult” as a twenty-something could be. I had just graduated from my MFA in Creative Writing; had a job in my field; My bills were paid; I had friends; I worked out; tried to save where I could, blew those savings on things I didn’t need, and was living on my own for the first time. I thought I was taking the world on each day and winning.

But the moment I returned to that apartment three days after her funeral, it was like the first time you're left at summer camp – a swirl of fear, nervousness, sadness, and a cocktail of emotions that you have not developed enough to handle so you chase after your parent’s car, begging for them to take you home.

It felt like every bit of knowledge I had gained about myself over the past two decades evaporated. I didn’t know how to continue my daily life or how to convince myself to be the same girl that walked into that hospice room. I no longer knew who I was.

It’s been almost two years since she died and I wish I could say that it’s been enough time to process what her death means – the real, shattering impact that it has had on my life.

What it has given me is a new respect for grief and resilience – the ability to keep moving forward after a loss.

The first thing that you should know is that grief, regardless of the circumstance, is complex – it’s progress isn’t linear.

It’s sporadic and intricate.

There will be days when you can trick your mind into thinking that it didn’t happen. Happy pockets of time early on when the world keeps turning the same way you remember it used to. 

There will be others where everything moves in waves. Angry, depressed, happy, catatonic, energetic, hopeful, and then numb – a rapid tide of emotions that ebbs and flows to no rhythm or pattern. 

There will be some where you’re engulfed by that numbness. It will be deeper than depression. There will be days where it feels like you're in a fish tank – a void of garbled sound and color.

But one of the hardest things you’ll have to navigate is that your friends (your support system) won’t be able to fully understand your grief unless it has happened to them.

Despite all of their support, all of the lended ears and hugs, all of the tissue grabbing when the wash of emotions has you crying in the grocery store because you saw your mother’s shampoo, they won’t get it.

There will be a point where you can see in their eyes that they are ready to have the “old you” back… ready for you to be “over it,” even if they just genuinely want you not to hurt anymore. This is a reaction that they can’t control. They will become exhausted by your pain. It’s not their grief. Not entirely.

Unfortunately, looking back, I don’t have any sage words of wisdom about “getting over” something like this.

For the most part, you’ll never be over it.

The cliché goes “It gets easier.”

Easier is not the right word.

It begins to feel lighter.

Yes, the tightness in your chest will creep in whenever something reminds you of them, but it will no longer crush you.

Your emotions will even out.

The numbness will subside.

You will endure.

6.12.62 – 6.19.15

I live each day as tribute to my mother.
I surround my self with things that remind me of the best parts of her. She remains my constant, indestructible force challenging me to succeed – to be the strong, independent, willful woman she raised me to be.
She is in everything I do.