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I woke up in tears, breathless, with my stomach feeling hollow and hurting from being tense with the shaking spasms of a broken son wallowing from the loss of the woman who gave him life. I cried out, “Momma!” She was gone. It hit like a chain to the throat, and I choked on my own despair. “Momma,” I said softer. There was no answer. She was gone.

She approached silently, softly, and held me. My love was there and she simply gave me her warmth. It was what was needed, to have someone next to me, close, to remind me that love was still there. Karen held me and I said to her, “I have changed again.” It is true, each time we lose someone, we change and become a different self. We are no longer the same as we were before death. I have experienced this before with those that have passed. After my father’s death I was relieved, and I changed by having less fear and anger ( those two emotions often coincide) and then I searched for forgiveness. Forgiving someone who caused me so much pain and suffering, so much trauma, helped me become stronger, with more wisdom between my shoulders. When David died, I understood true pain and it led me to have a sense of urgency of becoming more aware of myself. When Charlotte died, I turned my attention to helping others who also suffered from mental illness. It would become my purpose. Richard’s death was a tragedy and it made me learn how pride can take away from precious time with someone you cared about. My father-in-law’s death made me want to be a better man, more like him, a listener and observer. There were many deaths along the way, and each one taught me something different.

Dear mother, what will I learn from your death? How will I change? So far, it has ripped my soul from my heart and left me a broken man, crying on a whim, missing you beyond comprehension. I hear your voice often and it makes me smile and buckles my knees.

I have had my moments, where I escaped and went north among the trees. I went to the forest and felt at ease among the wooden cathedrals that towered above me. As I walked, I touched their bark and tried to feel their energy. In fact, I attempted to absorb it because I am depleted. I can barely lift a fork to my mouth and my belt has become more loose. Yet, I still took my knobby tires on dirt trails and traversed them until my legs were either hurting or numb. Truthfully, I was testing myself. The pains in my chest since my mother’s demise have been strong and sometimes severe. In fact, when I walked into her apartment two days after she died, my knees buckled and I had to move towards her chair to sit before I fell to the ground. The scent of her lingered in the air and it brought a crushing pain that soared from the center of my chest to my shoulders and then wrapped around to a burning sensation in my neck. I am finding that grieving takes the wind out of me a little at a time, like someone squeezing the air from a balloon, slowly, with a loud squeak. However, I am anticipating that I will simply pop soon and lay deflated on the floor looking up blankly at a ceiling that needs to be painted. Yes, I tested myself on those trails to see if my heart was breaking enough to burst and leave me lying on the forest floor with death knocking. It didn’t. As usual, my mind was making up a false dialogue causing anxiety and I felt better when I moved and exerted my body. The intensity of pedaling on rocky trails brought me calmness and at the same time all of my emotions to the surface. It’s why I sat there, in the middle of the woods, two doe staring back at me, and wept. I wept so hard that the deer must have felt it, and instead of running, they observed with curiosity a man in their home, grieving for a loss that does not seem repairable. I have changed.

I had to start back to work. I know it is something we must all do. The world did not stop when my mother died, only my world did. I did not want to be there. The night before my return to teach I had a nightmare. It was my mother and I in a field of grass and her dying body lay there, struggling for breath, and the daunting death rattle that many of us will one day have to face, was present. She lay there looking at me for help with pleading eyes and a strong grasp on my hand as I held her. I leaned down and said, “Mom, there’s nothing I can do for you. It is time to let go.” Her face was gray and in pain. Yet, she was dressed in a beautiful spring dress and in her colorful canvas shoes that are now sitting in my closet where I can see them each morning. I awoke startled and sobbed into my pillow. The dream was so clear that it seemed as if I relived her death over again. I called into work that day. I had to. Self-care is a must and I keep repeating it over and over. My team covered for me, but then I had a great deal of guilt piled on top of my grief. I mention this because the world is odd to me. I realize it must function even when so much death and grieving surrounds us, but being back in a classroom less than two weeks after my mother died was surreal. It was once again a product of a broken system, placing a number on how long bereavement should be in order to keep work functioning. However, I have come to shrugging a gentle shoulder to things I cannot control and then leaving it behind me.

Grieving does not leave us when we are trying to function. It sits heavy and we try to move through our days, often numb, pretending we care. I have to care. I have young people that are counting on me.

I cried in front of my students yesterday. I excused myself and they showed a great deal of empathy. When I returned, I decided to turn my grieving and emotions into a teachable moment. I spoke to them about the stigmas of crying, especially for men, and how we must allow our emotions to surface whenever they appear, and then feel confident that it is okay to not be okay. “We cannot have joy without suffering,” I told them and then spoke a little about the man I learned that from, Thich Nhat Hahn. I went on to tell them that this is why we should be kind to everyone we meet and be mindful that we never know what someone else is going through from moment to moment. “Kindness will take us far, and empathy and compassion are the key to finding happiness,” I said to nodding heads. My students listened intently to this lesson and then one young man shared about how his father passed away when he was younger and how much he missed him. He cried too. A young woman said she grieved for her mother who is still living but she cannot see for various reasons. “Is this strange?” she asked me. I told her that some of the most hurtful grieving is for those that we have lost that are still living. We must help our young people become more self-aware and know that you are truly a strong person by displaying your emotions instead of suppressing them. Grieving is an important part of life and we must help people understand it. The lesson ended with talking about resilience.

Resilience is the key to surviving life. We have to find ways to adapt to constant change and heartache. We must find ways to keep moving forward. We must also normalize talking about grief and mental health. So, how will I find a way to keep moving forward? How do I navigate the extreme pain, feeling like someone tore out a piece of my heart, grieving for a woman who had so much influence on my life? How do I find joy?

Losing her is different from other losses. It sits heavier, like a strong hand is constantly pushing into the middle of my chest. I have picked up the phone to either call her or text her dozens of times in the past two weeks. I had daily contact with her. It’s muscle memory to pick up the phone and call her. A video of memories popped up on my phone yesterday and reality struck and I melted. I walked into the room to write and her picture and some of her paintings sat in front of me and my knees buckled. There are moments when I am in sheer disbelief that she is gone. How do I move forward? How do I build resilience for her death? It is something that my mom and I talked about while she was living. How do we keep moving forward in the face of adversity? I cherished all of those conversations and as she often said, “Hon, I have learned so much from you and it has helped me make it through all this mess.” The mess, meaning depression, panic attacks, trauma, and cancer. I am grateful that I could help my mom navigate some of her pain.

I miss her voice the most, a southern drawl that lingered in the air and told a story with each sentence. I started listening to her old voicemails. I needed to hear her. Karen took one of those voicemails and sent it to a company that put it in a heart that has a button that can be pushed, and there she is, speaking to me. My mother is talking for twenty-one seconds. In those twenty-one seconds she tells me that she loves me twice. That is rare, to be loved that much by someone. It is why it is so painful and I have to ask, “How? How can I fix what is broken when it is me that is broken?”

I do believe that when we lose someone that we perpetually grieve. We certainly learn how to continue for those we love that are here with us, or we try, but the dead’s memory sticks with us and the dead collect our tears.

My mother did not raise a son who will curl up in a corner and wither away. That was not who she was or who I am. Instead, I believe it is important to embrace every emotion, every ounce of pain, and be grateful. Yes, I am grateful for this agony. I have sat among the trees on several occasions the past couple of weeks and I have flowed through hundreds of yoga poses, allowing my breath to guide me, and I determined that I am fortunate to be grieving so heavily. Why? Well, I was lucky enough to be loved so much by the woman who had me over fifty three years ago. I had fifty-three years of love that shaped me. My mother gave me, and all of her children and grandchildren, so much love, wisdom, and pieces of herself, that we should be in dire agony from her loss. It is okay to grieve so hard that we ache and feel intense pain. I am fortunate that I had someone in my life for such a long time, that loved me like that. It is rare to experience so much love that it causes pain. And, I loved her back with all of my heart, and to give so much love to someone is a gift. I have gratitude for my grieving.

She was never mine to keep. We are all impermanent and all of us owe a death. None of this makes it easier to lose her. However, I am a fortunate son to be raised by a mother, one who loved me so much that there was never a time that I was in her presence that I was not told, “Hon, I love you.” She loved her children so much that she sacrificed a part of herself, her own happiness, to show that love. My heart is broken and it should be. There is nothing wrong with falling to pieces from loss. I am grateful to grieve because it means that I was loved and I loved her back. Love is the greatest feeling in the world and to experience it makes us better humans. Still, my mother would want me to find my broken pieces and pick them up and put myself back together again.

I will find a full breath someday. I will be able to raise my arms without fatigue, and I will have a clear mind. For now, I will smile at my grieving knowing that I had someone who cared for me so deeply that I cry every time I push a button on a small heart shaped box that carries her voice.

If you grieve for someone, be grateful that you loved them enough and that they loved you, and that you feel such intense pain. I am not saying it is easy, and I am not saying that we should be happy that we have lost someone. When my mother lost a child, I thought we would lose her too, there are some losses that choke us until our throat closes, but we need to find a way. We need to find a way to breathe and understand why we truly hurt, and for me, I choose to realize that my mom gave me something special, an enormous amount of love, and I need to be grateful for that. I want to be grateful that she was with me for my time here on earth. I want to be grateful for my sister's Charlotte's influence on shaping who I am. I want to be grateful for every loss that I grieve for because they all hold a place in my heart for a reason. I honor each of their deaths by living my best life. I am lifted by grief.

I did tell my beautiful love, Karen, recently that I am unsure I could survive her loss. I requested that we grow old together and die holding one another’s hands while falling asleep. It’s my romantic self coming to the surface, but I know life is not always like that. I am grateful for her love beyond comprehension, which is why I am mindful of our life together now, in the present moment. What is in my control is making sure she feels loved too.

I have changed again. I am not sure what that means yet. Perhaps, it is continuing more intensely towards my purpose, to start bringing more awareness to my writing again, or maybe a change of professions, a change of scenery, or simply to become more still in mind and body.

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Heather Albright
Heather Albright
Sep 17, 2023

This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing this. I find comfort in your writing.

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