Lessons Learned in Loss and Love

My stepmother and I had a complicated relationship. This was mostly due to her mental illnesses, the worst of which was her crippling anxiety. Because of that, we had a lot of discontent in our family. It’s hard in the moments to know how to handle things sometimes. Mental illness causes so many hurdles and problems for the people around us in addition to ourselves. I know this first hand since I, too, suffer from anxiety and OCD. Luckily I have recently found a medication that has helped immensely. My stepmom never got that lucky. It wasn’t for lack of trying, believe me. She tried every medication they suggested, tried every self-help book and article’s advice. Nothing helped. When her anxiety wasn’t at it’s worst, usually in the evenings, she would come up with fun things she wanted to do, ideas she wanted to try, and goals she hoped to accomplish. But come morning, the anxiety would come back, rendering her incapable.

A lot of that I didn’t know. When she was alive I only saw the frustration that she caused us. I was crippled by the abuse she inflicted on me, and my brother, in our childhood. In adulthood I didn’t know if she was trying hard enough to push past her anxiety. I didn’t understand why she was so controlling of every aspect of everything. I knew she had anxiety but I didn’t really understand how hers was different from mine. A year and a half ago, she died. She was young, only 61, and she had a sudden heart attack. It was a shock to everyone, and in the moments, and days, leading up to her death, I prayed that she would live. I hoped that maybe she would get a reset. I hoped that, while in a medically induced coma, her brain would rewire and she would wake up without that part of her. Maybe she would get another chance – we all would. But she never woke up.

The loss hit me harder than I could have ever imagined, and I realized I was grieving for many, many things. One of them being that we never had the relationship that we both wanted. Another being that she didn’t get to live the life that she had always wanted. And by talking more with my father, by going through her things, I got to know her in death, feel closer to her and more understanding of her, better than I could in life. I consider this a huge blessing and I have faith and hope that she knows it. I hope she has heard me and seen me and knows that I love her, and that I learned to understand her. Finally.

Her anxiety led to a lot of things, and one of them was the beginning signs of hoarding – which is a facet of mental illness. She would purchase things in hopes of one day using them, but never did. When she died my dad asked me to go through the things she had placed in my old bedroom. Bags of brand new items, just sitting there in their bags, with their original receipts, unused. Clothing, home decor items, sunglasses, even presents for my children. Things she bought for the future she hoped for – the one she never got. We donated a lot of the items, some we gave to family members and close friends, but some we kept. Some of them I kept, to have a connection to her I suppose. But also so that they would be used. Be cherished. She bought these things because she loved them but she saved them. She set them aside to use for a day that never came.

Just the other day I was telling my husband that I wanted to get new silverware. We have had ours for many, many years. We didn’t get any because he didn’t want to spend the money when the silverware we have works just fine, albeit a little bent and scratched. Yesterday my dad stopped by and dropped off a huge set of silverware – 80 pieces. It includes serving sets and desert forks, and it’s truly lovely. Brand-new and still in the box. She had bought it to use one day. A few Christmases ago I bought her a gorgeous silverware box to put her new silverware in. It was something she said she wanted and must have purchased the silverware around that time. When my dad dropped off the silverware he also dropped off that box – and once again I was thrown into that feeling of missing her. And of feeling so sad that she never got to do all of the things that she wanted to. To never use all of the beautiful things that she bought.

So I got our “nice” silverware set and brought it into the kitchen to use as our “new” everyday set. And her lovely set is out of it’s packaging and in the wooden box I bought for her years ago. It will be in our dining room and we will use it, each time in remembrance of her. In addition to learning more about her and coming to a better understanding of her, I have been able to forgive her. And with that, I have the relationship, and love for her, that we couldn’t get to while she was here. I continue to grieve and have cried while writing this – but I do so with less regret and more compassion. She always loved my writing and was so proud of me when I started this blog. I hope that wherever she is she will see this and know how I feel. And that I am cherishing her things like she never could. And every time I use that silverware, look at that box, wear her sunglasses, or let my eyes fall upon some of the decorative items my dad has dropped off over time, I’ll think of her. And I’ll remember not to wait for the right time to use something or to do something. I’ll do it now. I think that’s how she’d tell me to live. I love you Mom. And I miss you. So many of us do.

Mom’s silverware in her Reed & Barton box

Getting Through The Holiday Season After A Loss

You may have noticed that I haven’t written in awhile, and there’s a really good reason for that. At the beginning of November, my mother died. Technically she was my stepmother, my mom died when I was 5, but she’s been my mom since I was 8, and I’m 42 now. Our relationship was complicated, and the blow I suffered at her loss was surprising and profound.

She had a heart attack at the beginning of November. The day after Halloween, actually. Halloween was the last time I saw her. Her heart attack was major and the doctors did everything they could, including placing her in a medically induced coma in order to try to lessen brain damage. We were by her bedside for an entire week before we finally had to say goodbye. She never woke up.

There are a lot of things I could say about that, what it was like to go through that, but right now I wanted to try to give some advice on what helped me get through the holidays, in case anyone else out there is looking for help. Because right after we lost her we had to get through both of my sons birthday parties (they turned 4 and 6), Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Eve. For me, these were especially difficult, not only because of the typical reasons, but because of our relationship, the holidays were the best times I spent with her, and because of her crippling anxiety, they were some of the only times I spent with her.

My first piece of advice for you in getting through it is to lean on others. The day after her heart attack my dad insisted I still have my 4-year-old’s birthday party. I’ll be honest, I don’t really remember it. I was still in shock I think, but my dad said that she wouldn’t have wanted us to postpone, that our lives couldn’t go on hold. So we moved forward. New friends and old friends of ours were there. They brought the food, they put up the decorations, and they made sure that his birthday was super fun for him. I wasn’t capable at the time of organizing anything (very unlike me), so I let go and let others handle it for me. That was the best thing for me at the time, and it all worked out.

I have a therapist and I talk to her about once a month. I have anxiety and I find it helps to have those discussions to maintain good mental health for me. Getting into therapy is my next piece of advice. Even if you don’t know what good it could do, you need to understand that navigating grief can be tricky. It’s not just a set group of steps you complete. It has ups, downs and sideways’. It comes and then it goes and then it comes back again. If you don’t want regular therapy, you can look for a group that focuses on grief. Oftentimes they are little to no cost as well.

My husband gave me my third piece of advice for you. Normally I am crazy for Christmas. Typically the day after Halloween I’m ready to decorate, and it takes everything I have to wait until after Thanksgiving. But this time, there was nothing where that feeling usually was. No excitement, no happiness, and as my therapist stated, no joy. And she was right. The thing that was missing was my joy. I told my husband that I didn’t feel like myself. That I was trying everything I could think of (watching my favorite holiday movies, staying after church to help decorate the sanctuary, listening to Christmas music) but nothing was working. That feeling just wouldn’t click. My husband said, “Forget about the click. Just keep going through the motions.” And he was right. That was what I needed to do. Once again, the world couldn’t stop. I still needed to create Christmas for my children. And so I did.

My therapist’s advice? Don’t overdo it. She advised that I do as much or as little as I felt like. She told me not to put too much pressure on myself. That the joy was missing, and that it was normal. So don’t push yourself. I would say I put up a little over two thirds of what I normally would do for Christmas. This year I didn’t put up our Christmas village, the tree in our front room (we still had another tree up in the living room), nor did I decorate the staircase. When I felt like I didn’t want to do anymore, I stopped. Because not only was I missing my joy, but I was tired. Grieving is hard work and it’s exhausting. And I allowed myself to just have a break.

Another thing that helped me was switching things up. Every year after my kids open their presents, my parents and my brother would come over and we’d open more gifts. I couldn’t stand the thought of her not being there, so this year we had Christmas in our family room instead. And instead of everyone going to my Grandfather’s house (her dad), they all came to our house. Changing things up a little took the edge off of her not being there. It wasn’t the same situation where her loss would have been so profound. It was a different situation and that lessened the blow for us.

My final piece of advice it to just feel it. Don’t try to push it down or ignore it. If you need to cry, do it. If you don’t feel like doing something, don’t. But be very careful that you don’t shut down. Depression can be a quick follow up when we are grieving, and it can be very easy to let it pull you down. You don’t have to force anything, but you can’t let it bury you. The important thing is that you realize that life goes on and as it goes on the grief will subside. It will become less heavy. It will come less often. So in the meantime, don’t let it suffocate you. Keep getting up, facing your day, and getting through it. Don’t worry about the click. Just keep going through the motions. And eventually, you will come out the other side.