My mother died when I was 37 weeks pregnant.
She took her own life.
Three weeks later, I gave birth to her last grandson, a baby boy with her blue eyes that she would never meet. It was a miracle, his birth, a gift that was the glue that held my family together through our tragedy. Yet still, I became obsessed with death.
My mother died and all at once it hit me: my own mortality and the mortality of everyone around me – my husband, my kids, my family and friends, and everyone I cared about, and even those I didn’t. I knew that death was inevitable before, but I didn’t think about it all the time like I did now.
I would sit in a restaurant, trying to have a date night with my husband, and fade out of the conversation and into an inner diatribe on how much longer the older couple at the table next to us could possibly have. How could they just sit there eating fried clams when they were going to die?
I was holding a newborn, the symbol of all that is fresh and new and pure, and still, I was death-ruminating. It was embarrassing, and paralyzing, and made for a lovely cocktail of dysfunction when mixed with the fresh sting of grief. If I thought too long about it, I could feel my heartbeat accelerate and my palms sweat, as if I could see time rushing by, the edges of the present blurry with the speed of it all. And at the end was this…well, END.
How did other people do it, I wondered frantically, wanting to stop people I only half-knew at neighborhood events or the grocery store or the school drop-off line and ask, What about you? What have you lost?
More importantly: How did you go on? Do you think about it every day? Do you wear it like a stone around your neck, heavy, pulling your gaze down so you never see the sun? Or do you shine out the hole that loss left in your heart, lighting the path for those of us who can’t yet look up?
And if the latter, will you teach me?
Then one night, after the other children were in bed and the house was quiet, I lay in bed and nursed the baby. And I felt her. It sounds crazy, but I knew my mother was there with us. When she was alive, our interactions were often stiff, cold, neither of us able to reach or even see each other around the mass of trauma that sat in between the two of us. But this was different. Her presence felt soft and warm and easy, like the best parts of both of us together.
When someone takes their own life, the aftermath is full of the worst kind of emotions. People say again and again how selfish suicide is, shaking their heads slowly, full of a terrible combination of anger and pity. When that someone is your mother, it’s hard not feel abandoned.
But this – her presence – was the opposite of abandonment. This was a gift. For the first time since she died, I felt peace, and I rested into it. Some of my fear melted away. It was a beginning.
Even in death, my relationship with my mother continues to evolve. I feel closer to her now than I did in the years before she died – a concept that sounds strange even to me. Stranger still, my relationship with God and spirit is also evolving, transitioning with the seasons of my life.
Someone said to me recently, show me an atheist, and I will show you someone who hasn’t lost anything yet. I don’t know if it’s that simple, but I know now that when my heart cracked in half and split open, there was suddenly room for faith to enter.
Now, on my best days, I try to look at loss as a gift. There’s my mother, of course, but there is so much more. There are little deaths every day, a series of periods of mourning that punctuate our lives. There’s the loss of my youth, my innocence, my children’s infancy, my swollen pregnant belly. There’s the loss of my old job, which I left freely, but then lost my mind missing for a while. There’s the sunset, every single day, punctuating the day, an end. And I lie in bed most nights and try to let each of these things go.
It’s not easy. It’s a process.
And then, miraculously: a morning, a new day. The empty darkness fills, swollen with birdsong and the footfalls of my babies, who have grown into kids who can run and laugh and climb into bed with me. There is a new job, a really good one, and there is growth. There are lines around my eyes from years of smiling, and a softness in my belly where I grew life.
There is my mother, inside all of that, and now there is faith.
A beginning indeed.