at what cost? And for how long? Rita, forty-three, who was sixteen when her mother died of cancer, says that deliberately avoiding her grief has given her a veneer of strength but hasn’t destroyed the emotions at her core.
My fear is that if I were to let myself feel the immense pain I know is there, I would just fall apart. I wouldn’t be able to function. Intellectually, I know that’s not true, but I’m not going to try it. I’ve been in all kinds of therapy, tons of therapy, and I always go with the intent of mourning my mother’s death properly. I know I have all this pain I need to get to and through, but I could never do it. I could never make myself that vulnerable to a stranger.
I hate to say that not being real and not feeling a deep, deep emotion is my strength. I mean, it sounds sort of strange. But on
some level, it’s made me a survivor. I’m very good at what I do. I went from being a secretary like my mother to having a graduate degree. I’m a good worker and I deal with hundreds and hundreds of people in my job, all different kinds. I feel like I’m able to do that because I have to be very strong. I have to keep it together because the other side of it is this little girl who lost her mother, and could just fall apart from that pain.
Rita says she wants to face her sorrow, but that’s only half of a mourner’s journey. The other half is feeling ready to embrace the pain. Before that seven-year watershed in Tennessee, was I ready to admit that my mother’s death had had a profound effect on me, or that I needed to go back and reevaluate its impact? Not a chance. I wasn’t about to dive into that, not even in a shark cage. I had to wait until the equivalent of a psychic explosion occurred, until the pain of not mourning my mother had gotten worse than grief could ever be.
Evelyn Williams, C.S.W., a therapist who led bereavement groups for college-aged students at Duke University for thirteen years, believes we know, internally, when the moment to mourn arrives. She saw students who had lost parents during childhood or adolescence find their way into her groups in college, prepared to discuss their losses for the first time. Once they had physically separated from their families and achieved the psychological and emotional stability they needed to mourn without fear of abandonment or collapse, they could face their grief head-on. Our psyches seem to protect us until we’re able to confront the pain, and then the internal alarm clock rings, telling us it’s time to wake up and go to work.
Experiencing that intense emotion is what helps us, ultimately, accept that our mothers are gone. Insulating ourselves may feel better in the short run, but it’s not a successful long-term coping skill. “The ability to cognitively understand and comprehend the loss of a mother only comes with numerous times of bumping up against reality—she’s not here, she’s not here, she’s not here—as we go through life and miss her and want to see her or hold her and she’s not with us,” explains Therese Rando, Ph.D., a bereavement specialist in Warwick, Rhode Island, who was seventeen when her father died and eighteen when she lost her mother. “Those are the times that
make you feel pain, and the person who avoids that hurt is never really going to get it. The pain, in essence, teaches you.”
Some daughters, like Rita, consciously choose to avoid this pain. Others cling to it to keep the loss—and their mothers—alive. “The hurt can be a connection to the loved one for a long time,” Dr. Rando says. “It may be the only thing you have that keeps you connected to the person who died. Sometimes pushing the pain away is a way of holding on, and sometimes holding it close is. I held on to my parents by staying immersed in my grief. It was the hardest thing for me to give up, but I had to do it and find other ways to stay connected.”
When we allow ourselves to mourn, we make way for a virtual
James Patterson Maxine Paetro