A few weeks after my mom died I went to a grief group at our local hospital. My limbs were so heavy, my heart hurt so much, and I was so stricken by my mom’s sudden collapse. I know a lot of people who believe that when it is your time to die, it’s your time to die. But my mom’s death was so unexpected. I was shredded. Every morning that week I woke up wishing Thursday and the grief group would come sooner. I was looking forward to being in a group of people who wouldn’t question the heaviness and the pain I was feeling and who were, perhaps, feeling a similar pain themselves.
I was the youngest person in the room. Most of the people in the grief group were in their late 50s, 60s, or 70s. Most had lost a spouse, not a parent.
Most of them knew each other. The facilitators were chummy, joking and laughing. On the agenda was a worksheet! On New Year’s Resolutions! Then a discussion! About what to improve in your life!
There was so much smiling, and I was so sad. I instantly felt out of place. My grief was raw and immediate, no time had passed to temper it. My heart was an open wound. I was in so much pain and the people in the room wanted to talk about self-improvement. Unlike me, they remembered how to smile.
I cried silently, my face flat and blank, as other people shared their stories with a detachment I knew I would never feel.
“My husband died a year and a half ago,” shared one very pretty well-heeled woman with short white hair who looked to be about 65. “We did everything together. Now I have no one. And I can’t bear to leave the house.”
At the end of the hour, one of the facilitators asked if she could hug me. I didn’t want her to touch me but I didn’t know how to say no. I was hurting so much already and I did not want to hurt her feelings too. I felt violated and ashamed as this smiling insouciant stranger put her arms around me. The smell of her perfume made me gag. I had no one to blame but myself. I was a victim of my own silence.
Eleven months have passed since my mom died but I’m still incredulous. I still don’t believe that she’s dead.
How could my mom be dead? How could my mom, so full of life, so full of passion, so full of science and ideas and theories to change our understanding of human evolution and the importance of the microbial world, not be here anymore to gossip about scientists, crow over a new discovery, insist I come to the lab with her to look at pectinatella under the microscope, and scold me for spelling it wrong?
Parents are supposed to die first.
I am 43 years old.
It shouldn’t be this hard.
But every time my mouth is dry I think of my mother’s last days. She was paralyzed from the stroke, unable to close her mouth. I tried so hard to keep her mouth moist, one of her sisters bought a humidifier and kept it over the bed; I stayed by her side with a wet washcloth to dab her mouth; we used those horrible “lollipops” that hospice gives you; we massaged her with lavender oil so the room smelled sweet. But I know she was uncomfortable, and I feel so sad every time I think about it.
I’m so sorry, Mom. I did not want you to suffer the way you did. I know you know I did my best. But my best wasn’t good enough.
The brain bleed was massive. The doctors told us there was so much bleeding it probably would have killed a younger person instantly. But there’s so much we don’t know about the human brain and how it heals itself.
My mother talked to me for 20 years, making me promise again and again would never to let her be paralyzed, telling me she was categorical that she would want to die. She told me she had no interest in treating a disease like cancer, that she did not want to linger. She did not want, ever, to be incapacitated in a way that meant other people had to take care of her.
My head knows all of this but my heart is still so unsure.
What if I didn’t give her enough of a chance?
What if the doctors were wrong?
What if I killed my mother? What if it wasn’t really her time to die?