Dear Readers, Dear Friends, Dear Sisters of the Heart,
Yesterday afternoon I attended a Motherless Daughters Day luncheon in Costa Mesa, California, sponsored by Motherless Daughters of Orange County. Every May for 20 years this group has created a space for local women to honor mothers who are no longer living. The week before, I sat with 250 motherless women at the “Missing Our Mothers, Daughters Remember” luncheon in Atlanta sponsored by VITAS Healthcare. All told, there were dozens of luncheons for motherless daughters around the world this year, in New Jersey and Omaha, Nebraska, in Saskatchewan and British Columbia, Canada, and two in Victoria, Australia, for the first time. And an virtual Circle of Remembrance is occurring right now over at my Facebook page.
All this support! And yet still, Mother’s Day can be such a hard day for those of us who’ve lost their mothers, and a bittersweet one for those who are also mothers ourselves.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of grief, lately. Like many of you, I think about it especially when Mother’s Day comes around. My inbox fills with letters from women, some still teenagers, asking if the pain will ever go away. It will lessen, I tell them. You’ll never stop missing your mother, but I promise — the intensity of that pain will decrease over time.
How do I know this? Only because, like many of you, I’ve lived it. This year marks the 35th anniversary of my mother’s death. Thirty five years! That’s a startling number. It means I’ve now spent more than 2/3 of my life without her. And because I was 17 when she died, and my older daughter turned 18 this year, I’ve now been a mother for longer than I had one. I don’t know how to describe how that makes me feel. Amazed. Unsettled. Triumphant. Sad.
But I also wonder why I try so hard to describe it. I’m a word person, but sometimes words stop working, and that’s okay. Grief has its own innate intelligence, I’ve come to believe. Trying to explain it, to quantify it, to intellectualize it, seems to me, after all these years of big and small losses, to be missing an important point. The pain of grief has to be here for an important reason. It’s got to be adaptive, somehow. If not, wouldn’t it have been selected out of the human experience long ago?
For a brief period in my twenties, I lived in eastern Tennessee. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m no kind of outdoorswoman, not even close, so it was wholly uncharacteristic for me to fall in love with whitewater rafting. I lived in Knoxville, which wasn’t far from western North Carolina, home to the Ocoee and Nantahala rivers, which have some of the most beautiful whitewater America has to offer.
What I learned on those rivers—through pure trial and error–is that sometimes you’ll turn a bend and find yourself abruptly facing a mass of churning water you didn’t even know was ahead. Trying to fight those rapids is…well, not a good idea. Launching an offensive will only make you spin or capsize. Avoiding them will likely lead to worse. The only way to get through rapids safely is to work with them.
(The memory that comes to mind right now is a river guide shouting at the passengers in my raft, “Paddle! Paddle! Paddle or die!” and all of us screaming in terror as cold water splashed up and over the raft’s sides, paddling as if our lives depended on it.)
But here’s the thing about rapids: if you do work with them, and let their momentum be your guide, they’ll eventually spit you out on the other side into water so calm you can’t even believe water can be that calm. It’s eerie, how calm that water is, and even eerier because the water you’re in now is just as calm as the water you were paddling on before you hit the rapids. You’re the one who’s changed. Or, to be more exact, the way you see the water is different and new.
Grief is like this, I think. If we can let it have its way and work with it for a while, we’ll emerge transformed. But we need support and help from others, and a safe space to express our emotions. And the strength to paddle hard while saying, “Okay, grief. You can have part of me for a while, but you can’t have all of me forever.”
I know it doesn’t always feel this way, but grief can be a valuable short-term partner. Not one we’d ever choose to raft with, but we don’t always get that choice. The choices we get are whether and how to paddle in the midst of all that chaos, and who to put in our raft.
It takes teamwork to get a raft through churning rapids. (Unless you’re a kayaker and you get to do it all yourself.) When I looked around the room in Costa Mesa yesterday, and the room in Atlanta last weekend, I thought, my god, this is a hell of a big raft we have here. A big, yellow, inflatable raft in which it’s okay to miss our mothers, to cry together, to laugh when we share memories, to celebrate their lives, all of us paddling fiercely in one big chaotic, wild, glorious adventure downriver together. I am so honored to be in this raft with all of you, as we one by one discover what’s on the other side.
Sending you big love this Mother’s Day, and always.