What happened when I was busy making other plans.

The First Goodbyes

Last week one of my old friends from college lost her mother to a particularly insidious form of cancer. We were roommates one year, so I knew her mom well–and always liked and admired her. She was funny, smart, and down-to-earth, and a terrific mother. She died too soon, at 67, leaving me feeling like the last few chapters of their story were unexpectedly deleted, felled by this terrible disease.

A loss this large has no words to make it better. From my own experience with the death of people close to me, I know that the sorrow comes in waves. It never fully retreats, although time morphs it into a different feeling–a sharp pain that comes now and again versus a tsunami. I still feel these pangs of longing for my grandparents, saviors of my childhood–even though my grandfather, for whom my daughter is named, died when I was seventeen (My grandmother passed away in 2003). I wish he could see me now, and meet this incredible child who, in many ways, reminds me of him: so sharp and funny, so full of life and love. He would be over the moon with her, this much I know.

But losing your mother. I can’t even fathom that. Now that my friends and I are in our forties, though, I’m noticing that the first round of goodbyes to our parents are starting to happen. While I feel great sorrow and empathy for my friend, invariably, your mind can’t help but put yourself in that person’s proverbial shoes. I feel ill-prepared for a loss this huge. I am not ready to take the baton and be the elder. The chasm of parental loss feels as vast and wide as the Grand Canyon to me.

So I cannot fully empathize. But if I were to say one thing that might be comforting, it is this: What I do know with some certainty is that we are stronger than we think we are. I learned that through E’s illness over the past year and a half. The human spirit is an amazing and resilient thing–we can take more than we ever thought we could. (If it hasn’t happened to you already, just wait until life throws a curve ball at you; you will see how strong you really are.) I know my friend is resilient, and she will get through this and continue to be a wonderful mom and role model to her children, a loving wife to her husband, and a support to her family and friends. I know that she will keep her mother alive in her fond memories of her, and in retelling the many wonderful times they shared together. I also know that being strong has very little to do with keeping your emotions together. If I could tell her one thing, it would be, “Let it out. Cry when you need to!” OK, maybe wait until the kids are off to school if you don’t want them to witness it. But when sorrow comes, be sure to let it in and acknowledge it. It will help you heal.

3 responses

  1. Christy

    Your advice rings true, as does your wave metaphor.

    Strange that I was thinking about this topic today on my way to work, albeit for different reasons.

    I was sitting on my porch swing with my Grandmother on Sunday (she’s 90, I’m 40) and she said, “I still think of you as a kid, it takes a few minutes for me to remember you’re a grown woman with a family of your own.”

    As I was mulling it over today I realized that I still think of myself as a kid when around my Mom and Grandmother. How the eventual, painful loss of them will somehow make me the inevitable grown up, a matron in the family. Oh, I DON’T like the sound of THAT!

    I also know that I too am ill prepared for that kind of loss. That I can’t imagine the world without these people in it. We have moved into that stage of our lives where our parent’s mortality is only too evident. I felt the way you did Karen, when Ira lost his battle with cancer earlier this year.

    My best to you and your friend’s family.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:15 pm

  2. Thanks, Christy. And yes, when this all happened it reminded me of Ira, too–only I heard about that several weeks after the fact, not when it happened.

    And re: not being ready, I know this is one of those circle of life things but for some reason the idea of us being the elders as something that could happen to any of us now that we’re in our forties is disturbing but real. I’m not ready–but I guess, you never are for that kind of loss. And then you find a way to deal with it.

    Maybe that’s the transition point . . . maybe then we’ll feel like adults! Sigh.

    Until then, I guess it’s enjoy the time you have with your parents and (God bless!) your grandma.


    May 10, 2011 at 8:41 pm

  3. Jennifer Gartenberg

    The moment my mother died I turned to my husband and said, “Now, I’m a grownup.” I was 42 years old.

    February 22, 2012 at 8:02 pm

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