My door opened, revealing the outline of my dad, his face hidden in shadow. “Get up, Ashley,” he murmured. “Your mother just passed. You're going to Dorothy's. Get up, while I wake your sister.”
He closed the door, and I stared at it, listening to his soft call to my sister, the sound of her door opening. Get up, he'd said, so I lifted off my comforter with heavy limbs and forced myself to sit up, staring at the door as if it could answer my questions.
Mom was dead?
She always got better.
My door opened again, and Dad told me to follow him. I stumbled into the hallway, next to my nine-year-old sister, the stress blisters on her lips accentuated by her sleep-puffy face. Dad rushed us down the dark hallway and through the living room. I craned my neck, looking for the bed Mom had been lying on when last I saw her. The bed was there, but I couldn't see Mom. I couldn't see the dark outline of her body. I couldn't even see the mass of blankets she'd needed to keep warm.
There were people there, standing by the windows, by the wall in the dining room. I could hear them breathing, soft murmurs, maybe of comfort. The only person I could actually see was Dad as he rushed us outside, into a friend's car, where we silently joined our seven-year-old brother
Dad had rushed my body through the living room, too quickly for my eyes to catch a glimpse of the woman that had been the center of my universe. Ever since that moment, I'd been searching for my mother – in the faces, voices, and stories of her surviving relatives; in a green river stone I found in Japan; in a glowing moonstone pendulum, dancing in my hands in the light of the full moon."
--From Not My Mother: A Memoir, 2012
Every year I relive that night, 19 years ago today, when life as I knew it changed forever.
Every year I grieve my loss, even while I'm celebrating my blessings.
Laughing one moment, sobbing the next, like part of me lives here in the present while another part is stuck in the past.
Every year, the grieving part of me resurfaces.
But this year it's different.
In past years I tried to stuff the grief, or distract myself from it. I felt guilty for grieving such an old loss. I felt angry with myself for still hurting after all this time.
Underneath my guilt and anger were the hidden beliefs that I didn't have the right to hurt over something so far away when my friends had suffered much more recent, even worse losses.
As if grief is quantifiable.
As if grief needs justification.
A friend recently told me that I was never homeless because I never had to sleep in my car like she had to once upon a time.
That's like the victim of a gang rape telling the victim of a date rape that she was never really raped.
"You don't have the right to hurt because I won the worst life contest you didn't know we were playing."
I witness similar conversations all the time, and no doubt I'm guilty of pulling the same dis-empowering, hurtful bullshit myself in the past:
Grieving person reaching out for comfort and understanding: "My grandma died."
Grieving person totally absorbed in own pain: "Oh yeah? Well, I've lost my father, my mother, and I was laid off two years ago and can't find a job!"
Grieving person who now also feels guilty, embarrassed and a bit angry: "Oh, sorry. Obviously all the sympathy in this conversation should go to you, you poor thing."
Grief isn't just about losing people. Grief happens whenever we suffer a loss, even the loss of hopes and dreams. As long as we feel like we've lost something precious, we're going to grieve. The last thing we need is to have shame, embarrassment, guilt, or self-recrimination heaped on top of it.
It's okay to grieve together about or individual losses. It's good to be gentle with our own and each other's wounds.
Coming to this realization is what has made the difference for me this year. When I really got to thinking about how we all have the right to grieve, I realized that I needed to allow myself to experience my grief when it comes up.
If I need to cry, I cry.
If I need to talk about it, I talk about it.
If I need a hug, I get a hug, or I hug myself.
And when the wave of pain has ebbed, I take care to nourish myself so I'm stronger and healthier before the next wave hits.