Yes, You Can Grieve the Living

Over the years my mother and I have fallen apart and come back together plenty, but this time was different. I could feel it.

I hear my mother’s voice all the time. Sometimes it crumples me with shame for something I hate about myself, that she reminded me of all too often. But usually it’s when I fuck up terribly, or scream at my kids, or spill a just-baked cake all over the floor, layering insult onto injury as I then have to dig out crumbs from the tiny cracks in the floorboards and wipe chocolate frosting off of cabinets – creating an even bigger mess as I go.
In those moments, I hear her laugh – with me, not at me – saying, “It’s okay. Shit happens. We clean it up, we move on, we try again, and we heal.”
She had a way of making light of everything, turning heavy things into helium balloons to be released into the sky. Mostly it was comforting and helpful, a good reminder that things could always be worse. Her sturdy nature made me resilient and strong, even though part of me felt like I was pretending, because inside I’m not strong. I feel everything too deeply. I worry. I cry. I fall to pieces over small stuff, inside, because I hide it.
Over the years my mother and I have fallen apart and come back together plenty, but this time was different. I could feel it. Like thick concrete pouring through my chest and settling into my bones; once dried, I was numb. Our unfriending was a sledgehammer to my core. Cracked and broken beyond repair, we couldn’t be made light of or fixed. The damage between us, more substantial than helium, could not be released into the distance to become tinier and tinier.
It’s like a death, but not really. No one died, and yet we are ghosts. It feels like loss, and it feels like mourning. I’ve had a lot of practice with the real thing, and this does not hurt less.
Sometimes more.
People say when someone dies there are moments when you forget. I have those too. Such small moments, like a fraction of a tenth of a second. I almost reach for the phone or call over my shoulder, then like dying all over again, I remember she’s gone. You can grieve for the living.
You mourn them. I mourned her.
The heavy, secret shame of losing someone who’s still alive weighs you down, numbs you, and slows time. Friends don’t check in to see how the grieving is going because no one is dead. But parts of you are.
Your husband tries to understand and love you enough to make up for it, but he can’t, and that makes him die a little inside too. Your kids are a reminder of mothering, and by default a reminder of being motherless, and that is a reminder of your grief, so sometimes you look at your beautiful children through vacant eyes. It’s protective. You keep them at arm’s length, so you don’t break in front of your babies, but also, so you don’t break them.
And all the while you can’t feel what you need to feel.
Because she’s still here, but she’s also gone.
You can’t say, “I’m so sad to lose my mom. I can’t breathe sometimes it hurts so much.”
You can’t say it because people say things like:
“Just call her.”
“Say sorry.”
“Forgive each other.”
Only it’s not that easy, and you can’t explain to anyone why it’s not because the reasons are so big they suck the air out of your lungs and make all the words in the world fall short. So you stay quiet and don’t talk about it. You don’t say how it feels to lose a mother who’s still alive.
Because no one understands.
In time, surprisingly the numbing works: the silence, the concrete around your heart, the vacant eyes, the pictures taken down from walls, the jewelry tucked into little pouches in the bottom of drawers, and the holiday traditions changed.
All evidence erased.
Eventually over time, and too many glasses of wine, and too many words on a page, you do move on. But you’ll never really be whole. Sometimes, out of nowhere, when I’m moved on and healed, I realize I’m not.
Not really.
Like when I hear her voice as I clean up coffee grounds that spilled all over the counter because I was rushing to an early morning conference for my younger son, who I worry about because I fear life might be harder for him than it should be. But I can’t talk to her about it, and she doesn’t even know him anyway, so I rush out the door leaving coffee grounds to drip and soak into my cabinets, because there’s no time to spare for chaos.
Then later, when the house is quiet, and the kids are at school, I realize, while kneeling on my kitchen floor, how big the mess actually is. Opening drawers, I find the coffee has leaked through napkins and lunch bags, over cabinets and onto baseboards, leaving the grounds to settle between cracks in the hardwood floor. As I wipe it all up, I find layers of insult beneath injury as stubborn brown stains remain on the once white cabinets. No matter how hard I scrub, it’s useless. They’re here to stay.
A reminder of the big mess that I left.
For less than a fraction of a tenth of a second, I hear her voice, and I imagine telling her all about the coffee, and the stains, and the worries in my head. Then as quick as it comes, it leaves. Instead, I steel myself and walk into the garage in search of a can of paint and a brush, to hide the stains, and make everything look new again.

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