The First Holiday Season After Losing My Mother

The holidays coming up will be the last of firsts after losing my mother to malignant mixed Mullerian tumor (MMMT), or carsinosarcoma. I dread it already. Thanksgiving and Christmas were her favorites. She was an exceptional cook.

I managed to duck out of the Thanksgiving get together this year. I know I will be crying the ugly cry all day, and I don’t want to ruin it. I will be happy to stay home and lay in bed all day and cry.

She always went over the top for Christmas. I learned as an adult that she often took out a loan or pawned something so we kids could have a big Christmas. There weren’t a ton of expensive gifts, just a lot of little things. Things she chose with love.

When she died, I had to have every single thing she had for Christmas. I took it all out today. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s because I need to feel closer to her, to cry, or knowing I will unwrap each treasure she had packed away and remember.

She kept everything. Starting from my baby mobile, she lovingly took it apart and made ornaments out of the little wooden pieces. She had every school project from all of the kids and grandkids spanning the years. She kept them, even the ugly ones. She may have hung them in the back, but we knew she always had them on the tree, and we would all laugh. In a way her Christmas tree was the story of our family.

Now they are mine. The baton has been passed. I am now the mom who will treasure every single thing my kids bring home. I am the oldest. I will keep all the family traditions. I’m not ready. I wish I could cancel the day, but I have a child who believes in Santa. So, while I may cry many times through this holiday season, I have to somehow make it through.

If you know someone who has lost someone close this year, please be kind to them. They may say they are fine and have that plastic smile plastered on their face, but you never know… they may be holding themselves together as best they can. We can shatter in the blink of an eye.

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Stock photo by finwal


Mother and father with two sons on the shore at the beach

The Stepping Stones That Help Our Family Across a Dark Ocean of Grief

Six months ago, tragedy struck, and after a sudden 24-hour illness, my sons and I lost a great man, their father and my husband. Before today, I never really knew how many tears one person could produce and quite how long six months could feel. It can be a torturous eternity. I never knew how strong I could be or how much we were loved. I also never realized how unprepared any of us are to deal with death, especially the death of someone so young, vibrant and in the prime of their life.

When a death happens, many of us don’t know what to do, what to say or how to act. We’re awestruck at the swift and unimaginable pain we are feeling and witnessing. The realization that life is so undeniably fragile, that we are so mortal, and that the vast majority of the time, we are taking it all for granted is overwhelming, frightening and breathtaking.

We feel immobilized by all the questions running through our mind, our thoughts bouncing around in the flood of all those emotions. We aren’t quite sure how to grieve or how to help anyone else grieve. We often wonder… how we can be of service to the family? How we can let them know how sorry we are? How can we be sure they know how much their loved one meant to us?

Endless possibilities of ways to help and to express those sentiments fill our head, but none sound quite adequate enough or appropriate given the situation and the enormous loss they feel. We mull over our own ideas, we share the shocking news with others we know, we filter through their suggestions and then sit with ourselves feeling sad and in shock, wondering what we can do, how we can help.

Some of us settle on an idea or two, and we act. Some of us wait for a better idea. Some of us do nothing for fear that our gesture will not rise to the occasion and might fail to meet the greatness of the tragedy. There is the fear that it won’t meet the expectations of those most bereaved, nor those of their friends and family.

I’ve been there myself. I’ve seen a close friend lose a husband and watched others have to say goodbye to a parent or relative. People I loved were in pain, and I didn’t know what to do, but in the last six months, I have learned. I have been taught by some remarkably thoughtful, generous and courageous people. I include courageous because I think it takes great courage to approach the bereaved in those moments. The moments where nothing seemed quite right but they knew they had to do something, and they did.

Each of these people was wise enough to know what they were saying might not be the perfect words, but they said them anyway. They knew the dinner they brought over might not have been the most elaborate dish but that the love would shine through and provide comfort. They knew we desperately needed to get out of the house and shared their family hike with us, and in doing so, provided the fresh air and hope so desperately missing for us on that day.

In the last six months, our family has been touched by the most wonderful acts of kindness and love. Families, neighbors, teachers, basketball buddies, colleagues, classmates, acquaintances, and even strangers sent cards. They wrote and shared precious memories of my husband Jon, some I had never heard before. Some wrote poems or drew pictures. Anything in writing is truly a special gift because I will have that forever to share with the boys. Each word is a treasured tribute that will help the boys know and remember their dad.

Some special people helped plan a few key items for the service and provided their valuable talents to create beautiful tributes. So many people came to the funeral, many of whom loved him and some of whom had never met him but wanted to be there with us. They traveled far and made the time in the midst of a busy holiday season. People came to the house, sat with us, ate with us, hugged us, cried with us and laughed with us.

Christmas came eight days after we buried Jon. People brought gifts for the boys, candy for me and chew toys for the dogs. They took time from their own family celebrations to visit us on Christmas Day, even though it was incredibly uncomfortable and painful. If they were far away, they sent emails and texts and uplifting messages. We were remembered on an incredibly challenging day.

Families from the boys’ school brought dinners quietly to our doorstep. They included plates, napkins, serving utensils, handmade cards, and toys and joke books for the kids. They were the most thoughtful, nutritious and healing meals we’ve ever had.

Friends called and asked what we needed from the grocery store. They picked us up for last-minute play dates, adventurous field trips, invited us on their family hikes, to their family movie nights, to impromptu picnics and volleyball games, to their Taco Tuesday dinners, to play cards with their in-laws and to their cookie-making parties.

My husband’s friends stopped over on their way home from work to see if there were things we needed to be done around the house. Friends and family members hosted the annual parties we normally would have. Friends anticipated days that might be extra painful, such as Valentine’s Day. By hosting a fun sleepover, they made sure we weren’t alone. Others sent special deliveries of popcorn and candy with sweet notes. Neighbors still take our trash cans out to the curb on trash day, which is so helpful because I can never remember to do that. It was Jon’s thing.

The family doctor, clients, business competitors and vendors, friends of friends, and local businesses have sent donations to us and his favorite charity. We have received stars named in his honor, trees planted in his memory, and special engraved mementos. Collections from different groups were taken, and we received gift cards to help wherever we needed.

One day we were plucked from a blissful, happy place, and we awoke dazed and battered on an island far, far away from our old life. We felt isolated, empty, deserted, terrified and broken. We hid in the island’s caves for a bit and huddled in the bushes for a while, but eventually we walked toward the shore and dipped our toes in the water and waded out until we found a few stepping stones to begin our long journey to a new place.

Each incredible act of kindness, caring and consideration from others has served as a stepping stone across a deep, dark, terrifying ocean. We’re still out in choppy waters with a long way to go, and some days the seas are really rough and knock us off those stepping stones. The love we receive from our courageous community acts as our life jacket, and sometimes we even need a rescue raft to get to the next set of stones, but with a lot of help, we will keep going. Someday we will arrive back on the mainland and feel a little more whole and renewed.

I share this in the hope that when we are each called upon to help a loved one through what seems impossibly painful, we can all just act and not worry about finding the right day, saying the exact right thing, or creating that flawless meal or providing that perfect experience. The precision of the action is not what’s important. It’s about being there, not forgetting, being willing, making the time, and having the courage to be with your loved ones in those dark and awful moments. I hope we will always remember those who are grieving and keep making the time and effort to continue putting out those stepping stones for them.

Girl wearing a headband and pink dress with pink rainboots

Falling: A Mother's Grief for Her Child

The other night, I was open and vulnerable with someone. That’s so hard to do intimately now, well, always, but especially now, in a more honest, straightforward way. Later on, I heard a Joni Mitchell song, “Both Sides Now.” It made me think of my daughter, Bella. And just like that, another layer flew off like a hummingbird taking flight. That layer — because there are so many, so distinct — left me on the floor, a place I am so intimate with in these moments with her. It continuously amazes me, the difference between the intellectual and feeling body. I realize that for most of my life, I reside in the intellectual one. It’s much safer. This grief though, with this little girl, sheds that intellect, laughs at it with its raw innocence, gets to the heart of the matter.

This evening’s episode was how I was never going to hold my child again. You wonder, wow, two-plus years later, she is getting this? Keep in mind how much I am constantly processing on that intellectual level. I walk myself through the many things I “feel” and perhaps “touch” on those feelings. A little. Sometimes a lot. Sometimes, when I actually feel them in my body, it’s a flood. It is indeed the overwhelming wave that people speak of with grief. This one was a sneaker wave, with a vicious undertow that pulled me down and under.

The bond between a mother and child is incomprehensible. When this magical, mind-numbing process occurs, this being grows inside you — this being who will breathe and be their own person. That being rips out of you, looks in your eyes, and that bond is solidified. There are so many times when you hold your child. You do not even think about it, unless. Unless that child is no longer there. Unless the last time you held that child, she was cold, no longer in her body, cleaned and prepared by a stranger in the clothes and jewelry you picked out for her. You have memories. That’s what you have to work with now. So when the “knowing” comes and slams into your body that you will never hold that life again, the floor is there once again to hold you from going into the abyss you feel yourself sinking into. The floor pools the tears and snot pouring out of you. The walls barely contain the wails and screams no human should have to emit.

That bond is never broken, you see. That bond is weaved within the fabric of my cells. So to rip her physically away from me, you rip the fabric of my being. That fabric doesn’t break, per se, yet those cries are the pain that ensues from trying to break it away. Those cries are the result of the knowing, the remembering of every day you had with that life, your child, the first breath she took, and that last memory of her cold and lifeless body. The vast difference.

That remembering never stops. Not for a moment. Different memories play in the background at all times, ready to be pulled to the conscious at beckon call. Sometimes they come when you least expect it. The intellectual does its best to compartmentalize it all, create a buffer zone around it. Every once in a while, though, that “feeling” aspect comes in, that vault-door to it opens, even a bit, and the novacaine buffer wears off in an instant. And you are left there, falling.

sad girl is holding heart symbol by her finger

When Life Events Bring Back the Grief of Suicide Loss

I have spent the past year writing a book for those impacted by suicide. The book is titled, “The Gift of Second: Healing From the Impact of Suicide.” You can see a short video trailer for the book here. My hope is this book will be the best possible resource for a fellow survivor trying to navigate the waters of suicide loss. Below is a short excerpt from a chapter discussing grief:

Grief is neither linear nor does it adhere to a particular path. I created the image below to depict the manner in which I believe grief really affects us.

a chart depicting a realistic grieving path

The “Realistic Grieving Path” begins with a suicide, causing a surviving individual to begin the grief process. The feelings one experiences can be overwhelming, chaotic, erratic and all-encompassing. I liken this feeling to the destruction of an earthquake. Not only can it rock our worlds and bring devastation to our lives, but it can also create cracks in our foundations, causing us to doubt all that was. The picture depicts waves of grief similar to an earthquake’s seismic waves. One moment we can feel intense heartache and sadness, and the next moment we may be full of anger and rage. Always unpredictable and never convenient, walking through grief can be unbearable much of the time.

As survivors work through their grief, many of them eventually arrive at a phase titled “New Normal.” This phase is labeled as such because I believe we will never return to the person we were before the suicide. How could we? This phase becomes our new status quo, the phase in which we go about our days, no longer so consumed with grief. Life begins to carry on in this “new normal” stage until a “life event” occurs. A life event can be positive — such as a wedding, the birth of a baby, or a graduation — or negative, like the anniversary of the suicide, a serious illness, or a job loss. Regardless of the event, this scenario can act as a trigger and cause the survivor to walk through the grief path again as they process the death of their loved one once more in light of the new events.

As I prepared for my wedding, I thought very little of the absence of my mom for the ceremony. Nor did I think of her at all during the honeymoon. Upon returning from the honeymoon, however, while setting up house with my husband, something seemingly out of the blue occurred. Two days after returning, my husband and I sat down to make our first grocery list as a married couple. Every idea he had for meals seemed horrible, and I began to snap at him for each suggestion. Eventually, my wise husband asked, “What is the matter? Why are you so frustrated?” Without pause and without thinking, I began to sob. The only thing I could get out between deep crying breaths was, “My mom should have been at my wedding and she wasn’t.” To me, at the time, (and I am sure to my husband as well) this seemed so odd and unexpected. In reality, it is a perfect example of a “life event” as described above in the “Realistic Grieving Path.”

The wedding took place 17 years after my mom’s suicide, and leading up to the wedding, I had been relatively unaffected by her death as it pertained to wedding preparations. The major life event, though, rocked my world and caused me to walk through the process again as I mourned my mom missing my wedding.

The events do not need to be big; they can be small, such as running into an old friend you haven’t seen in years who reminds you of your loved one, or even simply hearing a song your loved one enjoyed. The idea is that events happen our entire lives, and many can trigger different parts within us to feel the loss of our loved one more fully. It is then that we must work through the death again. Walking through the grief path again by no means negates any grief work we have done before; instead, it brings to light different aspects that need more healing or attention. Grief is both cyclical and never-ending. We will never fully “get over” the suicide of a loved one, and I believe this model best depicts the reality of grief. When discussing his son’s suicide, Tony Dungy, former NFL coach of the Indianapolis Colts, wrote in his book, “Quiet Strength“:

“First, there is no typical grief cycle, and second, it’s not something I went through. I’m still grieving.”

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Gift of Second.

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Lisa and her dad, standing near a lawn and garden outdoors

Grief Changes Us

Death is devastating. It leaves behind a trail of broken hearts and shattered dreams. All losses are significant. I consider myself blessed to have had such a strong bond with my father. The months following my father’s death have left me feeling as if I’m walking around with my heart torn open. My grief has slowly changed me, sending me on my own pursuit of happiness.

I was handed front row seats to watch my father bravely battle cancer for seven long years. The last four years of his life were horrific. When hospice began coming around, I was in full-blown denial. I told everyone hospice was to get him “back on his feet.” My heart could not accept what my brain already knew. My father was dying. I tried to imagine my life without my dad, but I couldn’t. It was just too painful, too difficult. The days leading up to my father’s death were emotional, agonizing and mentally exhausting.

My father tried his best to prepare our family for life without him. I spoke to my dad daily, often multiple times, each conversation ending with, “I love you more.” I visited weekly, and at each visit we held hands, cried and laughed as he made me promise to stay strong and enjoy life to the fullest. During one of our final father-daughter conversations, my dad looked me in the eyes and told me, “You will always be my baby, live your life and be kind. I will always be with you.”

Life without my dad has been difficult. It has been emotional. It has been devastating. It has also been a series of valuable lessons, all of which have changed me.

Below are three valuable lessons from my grief journey:

1. I’ve gotten my priorities straight.

My entire perspective on life has changed, it has matured. All the little annoyances of everyday life, those little things that would have once qualified as “the worst day ever,” immediately become irrelevant. People who are unkind, selfish, lack empathy, none of it matters to me. They are all just minor distractions, detours in my grief journey. My chaotic life has slowed down. I discovered the frivolousness of being in a hurry all the time. I have made an effort to “stop and smell the roses.” I call my grandma more often, I spend more time with my mom on the phone, I end each conversation with, “I love you.”

2. I love deeper.

After my dad died, saying goodbye to someone, to anyone I cared about was painful. I would carefully watch them fade away into the horizon. For the first few months, I was terrified of losing my mother. I am learning instead of letting my fear send me into a downward spiral of darkness and overwhelming sadness, to let go of my fear and focus my love on my loved ones. I send my mom flowers just because, I send my boyfriend a random “I love you” text, I reach out to friends more frequently, because I know how sacred life is. I have chosen to live each day like it’s my last and to treat each day for the blessing that it is.

3. I’ve learned how to appreciate life.

I watched my father fight to live. He was thankful for every moment he was given with his family. Regardless of how much pain and suffering he endured, he was always kind and grateful. When my father became gravely ill, I deliberately chose to stop anything that would quiet my mind. Yoga, pilates and meditation were all bad for me, or so I thought. I didn’t want to think about what was happening to my world. I wanted noise in my life. I kept myself busy.

Now that my father is gone, my favorite thing to do is to stop and enjoy the silence. Each morning I breathe in the love. I have consciously let go of anything that is toxic and causes anxiety. I take time each morning to breathe in the love of my dad and remember the kind, loving soul he was.

Stop, be still, take all it in. Life is a precious gift.  

Perhaps our grief can have a positive impact on us. Together, as we grieve, we are evolving into extraordinary, empathetic creatures with true altruistic motivations. As we travel our grief journey, we are supporting each other while we strive to preserve our loved one’s legacy.

Grief lasts a lifetime, but our precious memories will live forever.

A version of this story originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

Hand drawn animated man feeling bored

Filling in the Gaps for a Grieving Child

Author’s note: Names and a few details have been changed to respect my children’s privacy.

I just clicked the “end” button on the phone and threw it clear across the room as hard as I could. I watched with immense satisfaction as it shattered into pieces and fell into a pile. It was a costly lapse of self-discipline and not a moment I’d typically revel in, but it felt so damn good to let out some of the pent up anger.

I gritted my teeth as I finished up a call from the local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. It was their fourth “3-month wait list follow-up” call. They were calling to let me know they are still looking for a match for my son. They wanted to make sure we were still in need of their services. Much to my dismay, I had to tell them yes.

It’s officially been a year since my youngest son begged me for someone, anyone, just for him, “to hang out with and make him feel special.” We’ve just gotten through the second anniversary of the startling loss of my husband. Of our three children, my youngest son has undoubtedly had the most difficult time coping without his father.

One day my son overheard as another widow suggested the Big Brothers program to me, and he asked if I would please call and get him a big brother. At first, I was skeptical about sending my young and vulnerable son away on outings with a complete stranger, but after looking into the program, I figured we would give it a try and be prepared to abandon the idea the moment it no longer felt right. 

What I didn’t realize at the time, before my son became so emotionally attached to this idea of having a magical big brother, was that there aren’t enough volunteers for this organization. The program requires that a certain amount of time be spent with the “Little” and at least a one-year commitment that the “Big” won’t move or become unavailable to the child. Understandably, not too many people fit the bill, but I never expected to be waiting for a match a year later.

In my wildest dreams, I never supposed I would need a Big Brother for my kids. Especially given that, even though I was young and naïve, I always knew I had chosen the best potential father for my children I ever imagined would cross my path. Even after the stunning death of my husband, I still didn’t think I would ever be in search of a complete and total stranger to fill this role in their lives. That’s because in the immediate aftermath, like most widows, I was reassured over and over with each tearful hug that they’d “be there for us, for anything we needed, any time of day, always here.” Well, as it turned out “always” only lasted a few weeks.

While looking around during my husband’s memorial services, surrounded by hundreds of genuinely loving people, I felt reassured at that moment that I might be able to do this, that my kids and I would have that support for a lifetime. Well, it all goes away, and I’m not quite sure why it goes away, but it’s a sad fact that has been confirmed by every widow with whom I’ve ever had the discussion. I don’t believe it’s intentional, and it’s certainly not malicious, but as we struggle through each painful day, naturally, people just go on with their lives. I’m sure everyone has their reasons, but no matter the reason, it feels awful.

I’m angry about it. Actually, I’m furious about it. Eventually, my daughter and oldest son might ask for someone, and when the times comes, I guess we will add their names to the waitlist. The thought infuriates me.

I can only imagine my husband watching over us, as I know he always is. I imagine it’s painful for him as he sees us struggle, watching as I try my best to fill in the gaps, and seeing his son beg for that special bond he was so honored to share with him. I shudder to think what his thoughts are as all those people he loved are able to enjoy their lives, going on about their business as if nothing ever happened. It’s mind-boggling that I have to call an organization to hunt for a stranger to fill these shoes when there are so many able and capable people who could be stepping up and stepping in. 

If you are reading this and you are aware of a child who is hurting, it doesn’t matter the reason they are hurting, please don’t be too busy, or afraid or too uncomfortable to step into that child’s life and make a difference. On behalf of my husband, I beg you. You never know the difference a few hours a month could make for a child. If you don’t have kids in your life who need your help, consider calling your local mentoring program and find a kid that needs you. Sadly, I happen to know; there are too many waiting.

Image via Thinkstock.

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