The other morning I looked at my BlackBerry and saw an e-mail from my mother. At last! I thought. I’ve missed her so much. Then I caught myself. The e-mail couldn’t be from my mother. My mother died a month ago.
The e-mail was from a publicist with the same first name: Barbara. The name was all that had showed up on the screen.
My mother died of metastatic colorectal cancer sometime before 3 p.m. on Christmas Day. I can’t say the exact time, because none of us thought to look at a clock for some time after she stopped breathing. She was in a hospital bed in the living room of my parents’ house (now my father’s house) in Connecticut with my father, my two younger brothers, and me. She had been unconscious for five days. She opened her eyes only when we moved her, which caused her extreme pain, and so we began to move her less and less, despite cautions from the hospice nurses about bedsores.
For several weeks before her death, my mother had been experiencing some confusion due to ammonia building up in her brain as her liver began to fail. And yet, irrationally, I am confident my mother knew what day it was when she died. I believe she knew we were around her. And I believe she chose to die when she did. Christmas was her favorite day of the year; she loved the morning ritual of walking the dogs, making coffee as we all waited impatiently for her to be ready, then slowly opening presents, drawing the gift-giving out for hours. This year, she couldn’t walk the dogs or make coffee, but her bed was in the room where our tree was, and as we opened presents that morning, she made a madrigal of quiet sounds, as if to indicate that she was with us.
Since my mother’s death, I have been in grief. I walk down the street; I answer my phone; I brush my hair; I manage, at times, to look like a normal person, but I don’t feel normal. I am not surprised to find that it is a lonely life: After all, the person who brought me into the world is gone. But it is more than that. I feel not just that I am but that the world around me is deeply unprepared to deal with grief. Nearly every day I get e-mails from people who write: “I hope you’re doing well.” It’s a kind sentiment, and yet sometimes it angers me. I am not OK. Nor do I find much relief in the well-meant refrain that at least my mother is “no longer suffering.” Mainly, I feel one thing: My mother is dead, and I want her back. I really want her back—sometimes so intensely that I don’t even want to heal. At least, not yet.
Nothing about the past losses I have experienced prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me in the least. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable. What makes it worse is that my mother was young: 55. The loss I feel stems partly from feeling robbed of 20 more years with her I’d always imagined having.
I say this knowing it sounds melodramatic. This is part of the complexity of grief: A piece of you recognizes it is an extreme state, an altered state, yet a large part of you is entirely subject to its demands. I am aware that I am one of the lucky ones. I am an adult. My mother had a good life. We had insurance that allowed us to treat her cancer and to keep her as comfortable as possible before she died. And in the past year, I got to know my mother as never before. I went with her to the hospital and bought her lunch while she had chemotherapy, searching for juices that wouldn’t sting the sores in her mouth. We went to a spiritual doctor who made her sing and passed crystals over her body. We shopped for new clothes together, standing frankly in our underwear in the changing room after years of being shyly polite with our bodies. I crawled into bed with her and stroked her hair when she cried in frustration that she couldn’t go to work. I grew to love my mother in ways I never had. Some of the new intimacy came from finding myself in a caretaking role where, before, I had been the one taken care of. But much of it came from being forced into openness by our sense that time was passing. Every time we had a cup of coffee together (when she was well enough to drink coffee), I thought, against my will: This could be the last time I have coffee with my mother.
Grief is common, as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude brusquely reminds him. We know it exists in our midst. But I am suddenly aware of how difficult it is for us to confront it. And to the degree that we do want to confront it, we do so in the form of self-help: We want to heal our grief. We want to achieve an emotional recovery. We want our grief to be teleological, and we’ve assigned it five tidy stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Yet as we’ve come to frame grief as a psychological process, we’ve also made it more private. Many Americans don’t mourn in public anymore—we don’t wear black, we don’t beat our chests and wail. We may—I have done it—weep and rail privately, in the middle of the night. But we don’t have the rituals of public mourning around which the individual experience of grief were once constellated.
And in the weeks since my mother died, I have felt acutely the lack of these rituals. I was not prepared for how hard I would find it to re-enter the slipstream of contemporary life, our world of constant connectivity and immediacy, so ill-suited to reflection. I envy my Jewish friends the ritual of saying kaddish—a ritual that seems perfectly conceived, with its built-in support group and its ceremonious designation of time each day devoted to remembering the lost person. So I began wondering: What does it mean to grieve in a culture that—for many of us, at least—has few ceremonies for observing it? What is it actually like to grieve? In a series of entries over the next few weeks, I’ll delve into these questions and also look at the literature of grieving, from memoirs to medical texts. I’ll be doing so from an intellectual perspective, but also from a personal one: I want to write about grief from the inside out. I will be writing about my grief, of course, and I don’t pretend that it is universal. But I hope these entries will reflect something about the paradox of loss, with its monumental sublimity and microscopic intimacy.
Meghan O’Rourke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.