Surprised by Grief

Sometimes tears pop out of my eyes for no reason.  At least, I don’t usually know why at the moment it happens. It is unexpected, and it hits in the most unlikely of places. I am familiar with how much my senses can trigger my tears. I remember when Hannah was traveling the world for a year, I burst into tears in Starbucks when I smelled a pumpkin spiced latte because it was her favorite drink. I thought I was handling her absence like a champ, until Niagara Falls started! I didn’t know I was so heartbroken but my tears did.

Grief tears are not always related to someone’s passing. There are many kinds of loss and probably just as many kinds of grief. Certain songs can bring pools to my eyes because they remind me of friends that used to be in my life but are not any longer, for various reasons. Or a type of nostalgic grief when I visit a place that was once special after many years away.

I am finding that this dementia journey with Mom has many unexpected moments like these. Mother’s Day, of course is fraught with tear triggers. Anyone who has lost their mom in mind or body can tell you how the tears well up into deep pools of sorrow. Loving our moms is built into us as deep as those pools. Being without them gives us a gratitude for all they meant to us.

This week, I was updating my medical records preparing for my upcoming surgery, nothing related to Mom or Mother’s Day at all. I came to a place where I had to delete Mom’s name as one of my emergency contacts. As I pushed the button to remove each letter of her name it felt like I was erasing her. I could hardly do it and when my eyes misted over it made it even more difficult. It’s not like I had ever used her information for an emergency, but just the idea that I CAN’T triggered my sorrow. I had to take some deep breaths to regain my composure before I could move along with my day.

I cannot tell you how many times I have needed Mom’s input for Hannah’s wedding. What dress should I get? What about jewelry? How would she do the tables at the reception? I just want her everyday opinions about simple decisions, which don’t seem simple when it is a big event. As a party/event planner extraordinaire, she would have given me all the affirmation I needed. It would have been three generations of women making cross continental calls and conversing about the wedding together. (Fortunately for me, I have a sister who gets it and has stepped in to help. We do that for each other a lot these days! Thank God for that!)

Sometimes, when I am looking for a contact in my phone, I come across Mom’s old phone number. It is still in there because I cannot bring myself to delete her. My phone is one place I don’t have to. One time, I accidently hit call, and I so wished she could answer and converse with me.

If you watch the show This Is Us, you know what a trigger it could be for someone dealing with a mom with dementia. After a flood of tears this week Bill asked me if I think I can watch these last few episodes. For some reason, the tears that come during this show are kind of cathartic. An outlet for my feelings, but someone else’s story. Familiar to mine, but not the exact same. Enough to trigger my grief, but not enough to put me over the edge.

I know it is healthy to let myself feel these surprise moments of sorrow. To hold them in would do damage to my soul. To allow them to run freely would drain me for the rest of the long journey ahead. I have to somehow manage to carry these moments with me. As part of me. Part of the past me, who has many sweet memories to pull from on hard days. Part of the present me, who doesn’t know where or when this story will end. Part of the present me, who has to live one Mother’s Day at a time, really one day at a time, because it is all Mom has. Part of the future me, who knows there will be more surprises coming. Part of the future me, who will look back on these days and help others walk their own stories. It is the hard moments that shape me. I have seen it 1,000 times. I never wish for hard, but it always finds me anyway.

Grief which rises up suddenly without warning is a part of the hard. It means my feelings need a release. It means I have loved deeply. It means I am connected to the pain of this circumstance even when I don’t know that I am. It travels with me. It rides on my shoulders. I might think I am coping well, then a sneak attack of emotion finds me and catches me off guard.

The emotional part of this journey is as big or bigger than the physical toll it takes. Living in a kind of limbo requires walking a line of grieving while Mom is still here and at the same time, rejoicing while Mom is still here. The juxtaposition of those two things is a balancing act. Focus on one more than the other and I will fragment into pieces.

These two feelings are on the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. To visit both in the same day…sometimes the same hour…is a pendulum swing which effects every part of my being. It is so important to acknowledge this fact. To understand it is a normal part of this walk I am on. To own the feelings and to let them expose themselves in surprising places and in surprising ways is actually a healthy way to cope. There is no shame in tears and recognizing that I am in a fragile state at the moment. I would be more concerned if I didn’t feel anything. Bottling up things only creates a numbness that will blow up at some point down the road.

This Mother’s Day is one more I get to celebrate in my Mom’s physical presence. I will rejoice in this fact and cherish the gibbering and laughter. I will love the childlikeness in her reactions and be overjoyed that I can give her a hug, even if she doesn’t know who I am. It is the simple moments which are the most important now. I will let the pendulum swing and embrace the back and forth as best as I know how.

There is no closure at this point. It is all the wide open unknown, with good days and bad ones. Days when her laughter and joy lift my heart, like our celebration of Mother’s Day in the garden. Other days when there are tears and I am surprised by grief. And sometimes, those are the same day. That is the reality of this journey and it is part of the path. Mom would be the first one to say, “It’s okay. Just live in the moment, whatever the moment brings. And let the rest go.” So, in an effort to do just that, I will walk the tight rope and try not to fall off!

5 thoughts on “Surprised by Grief

  1. Hi Michelle. A beautiful and thoughtful post. Brought tears to my eyes on this Mother’s Day. I am doing some grief work myself and could very much relate to your words. Thank you for sharing your precious heart. Haven’t forgotten about rescheduling our next date, but realize it can’t be this month due to your upcoming Seattle wedding. Maybe early-ish June will work. Love, Robin

  2. So grateful for every life that has touched mine; your mom’s, my Mother’s, and all moms everywhere. Also grateful for every chlld. – luv, mary
    Re: memories: when I forget you will remember for me and vice versa.

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