Living Columns & Blogs

Learning to live: Take as much time as needed after a profound loss

My life changed in August 2017 when my mother died. She was 93 and had a rich and adventure-filled life. I think of Mom often and frequently mention her to others, because she is very much still woven into the fabric of my life.

I had long feared my mother’s death, especially after my father’s sudden passing, for which I was unprepared. While he died unexpectedly, she was in hospice care for the last eight months of her life, so my family had a long time to get ready. She was still eating and interactive up to the last week of her life. Her actual passing into the next dimension was peaceful and beautiful. I was in a state of curiosity and wonder, and most especially awe, during her last days. These were the things I noticed: She who had been so loving and demonstrative throughout her life withdrew her hand from me when I reached out to comfort her. She who had been so outwardly focused and always concerned for others’ well-being was focused entirely on herself.

During the entire week before her death, Mom seemed between two worlds. She would stare at the ceiling with purpose, her head moving from side to side. It was after one of these episodes that she spoke her last words to me. She had been singing in Hungarian and laughing when I heard her long departed cousin’s name. When she “came back,” I asked if she had seen Dorka Bacsi (Uncle Dorcas). She turned to me and said, in perfect English and with great elan, “Yes, it’s a small world!”

I do believe that her beloved cousin, with whom she had shared a mischievous youth, was at the forefront of the “greeters” on the far side of the tunnel of light that I believe awaits us. Her loved ones were ready to receive her, and I know she moved toward them and to her God with great love and eagerness.

As amazing as I found her death to be, and not at all the experience I had feared, afterward, I found the loss of my second parent even more profoundly life-altering than the first. Perhaps one of the reasons it hit me so hard was that I wasn’t able to mourn my father’s death properly at the time, and now I was grieving them both. I also became aware that although the death of a parent is a universal life experience, the effects it has on the surviving children get very little attention in our culture.

After she died, I found myself in a state of withdrawal from the outside world. I didn’t want to socialize or engage in any lighthearted interactions. I didn’t even want to listen to music, and my reading choices became “quieter” than usual. (Jan Karon’s “Mitford” series saw me through). I was able to do my work and my daily duties, but beyond that, I just wanted peace and quiet. And although I felt that way most intensively the first few months, the feeling of wanting to be insulated from the world lasted a good year.

Early on in my process, I learned of the Jewish tradition around mourning a parent, in which the grieving process extends a full year. For the first month, there is no singing, socializing or partying allowed. For the rest of that year, the children of the deceased say a special daily prayer and refrain from attending concerts or other joyous occasions, such as weddings, moving into a new home or buying new clothes. I found it affirming and uplifting that such an ancient and revered culture treated a parent’s death just as I was internally directed to do.

It took me that full year to recover my spirits and reclaim my joy and interest in interacting with the outside world. Because I took that time apart, I can now think of my mother with great love and affection, remember the good times, her beautiful traits and her own zest for life.

If you have recently lost somebody, I encourage you not to push yourself or let anyone else rush you to “get over it.” Take as much time for quiet reflection as you can and wish. Avoid distractions, even though friends and family may invite you, thinking that’s the way to move forward. Instead, go at your own pace, honoring your loved one and yourself. Be gentle with yourself and accept how you feel. For example, I found it too painful to look at photos of my Mom for nearly the entire first year. I felt bad about that at first, then accepted my feelings and now find great comfort and happy memories when I do look at those pictures from the past.

The grief process can’t be hurried. Take your time. Your time.

Monica Montag has been a clinical nutritionist with a holistic perspective for over 30 years and has been privileged to be present for the deaths of both of her parents. This column is coordinated by www.ltlwys.org whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.
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