After finding out my mother died when I was 1 year old, I once had a well-meaning friend say, “well, at least you didn’t know her so you can’t miss her.” I don’t remember how I responded, but despite knowing she didn’t mean anything harmful by it, it felt like a giant slap in the face. You see, what she said was what I used to believe, and I paid good money in therapy to conclude I was allowed to miss her, the absence of her.
It’s messed up how we can’t just let things suck for other people. When you try to fix someone else’s pain, it only comes across like you’re saying it isn’t ok for it to hurt in the first place. Like it’s wrong to still feel sad about it, because after all: “it could’ve been worse!” Listen, I’ve done it too, it’s hard not to sometimes. Sitting in someone else’s pain can certainly be uncomfortable, but I promise you this: it’s the most loving and healing thing you can offer.
Not only was she minimizing my loss, but she also couldn’t have been more wrong. It is awful that I can’t miss HER. That I don’t have any memories of the woman she was. And even bigger for me, that I do not know what a mother’s love feels like. And that’s not a silver lining for me, not at all. I did have other folks to love me well, and I am eternally grateful for them, but it just isn’t the same thing.
I am most acutely aware of her absence now that I am a mother myself. I didn’t have the ability (or give myself permission) to grieve her as a child, but I grieve her now. I grieve not having her there during my pregnancies, labor, and most importantly to love on my boys. I grieve not having a mom to call who will offer me wisdom or help. I grieve missing out on a friendship with her in adulthood. And another layer of grief: I grieve for the child and teenager I was, so confused, lonely, awkward, desperate for love (cue music: “in all the wrong places”) and attention (not saying that her absense was the only cause of those things, of course).
I understand the holes in my soul better now. And, while I feel more whole than I ever have, I also acknowledge that there are some holes that can never be filled here on earth. I have learned to accept that (most days anyhow).
Grief happens in layers and it looks different for everyone. We don’t just grieve the people we lost, but we also need to grieve the people or relationships we never had. We are all allowed to go through our grief (sometimes looks like: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance) in whatever way we need to. Just don’t numb it. Allow it. Feelings mean you are still alive.
For now, I live mostly in acceptance, but I visit depression and it’s cousins. I don’t stay for too long, and to me, that’s the healthiest thing I can hope for. It’s not reasonable to expect that I won’t feel sad or jealous or sorry for myself sometimes. When that happens, I try to say something like, “Oh hello bad feelings. There you are. I know why you’re here, but you aren’t the boss of me.” In other words, I live with the understanding that my feelings are not my reality. They are real, but they aren’t always TRUE. For example, feeling lonely doesn’t mean I’m alone, feeling depressed doesn’t mean I AM depressed (as in, that is not my identity), and so on.
Then, while being very kind and patient with myself (ok, I mostly am not patient with myself AT ALL, but I want to be. I’m working on it) I put on my big girl panties. I redirect my focus to what’s in front of me. The things I DO have, instead of the things I don’t. The ridiculous abundance of warm shelter, clean water, of food, of clothing, of love. I cultivate a culture of appreciation and gratitude and forgiveness and love and all the beauty that makes meaning in all the messes. Then I forget, so I do it again. And again. Rinse and repeat.