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Jackie Morgan MacDougall Headshot

How I Arrived 37 Years Late for My Own Mother's Funeral

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I walked up to the grave I had been to hundreds of times before. My mother's burial place was my go-to spot for as long as I can remember, whether I was celebrating my high school graduation, crying over a boy who had broken my heart or just needed to be alone and feel closer to my mom. On so many occasions, I would kneel down on the grass and spend a moment missing her, the woman who was taken from me when I was just 3 years old. The cemetery was the one place I would truly allow the feelings to wash over me, the place I would talk to my mom and work through anything I was experiencing in my life.

It's strange and I really don't know why, but my moments visiting the cemetery have always been so difficult to share with others. It's rare that I would go with anyone else -- so overwhelming, it even took years to finally bring my children to visit "Nana Janice." Maybe I was afraid to cry, afraid to feel too much in front of others. Maybe I was conflicted, feeling that my grief could be seen as being sort of disloyal to the mother who gave me a second chance.

But in July of 2011, that all changed. Even now, if I close my eyes, I find myself right back there in that moment... that significant, life-changing moment. Because for the first time in years, I walked up to that spot in the cemetery alongside a sea of family, friends and strangers -- all of whom were there to bury my beautiful niece, Kristen, tragically killed in a car crash at the age of 30.

I stood there in front of my mother's resting place, the one she would soon share. The grave, already dug, had been draped in a grass-colored covering. The casket rested upon iron bars, keeping it above ground until it was time to place it permanently. I couldn't help but fixate on the hole in the ground. Oh my God, my mother was down there. The woman who gave me life, the mom I love so much but have no memory of, she, at least her physical being, was somewhere near that hole in the ground. If I were an actress on some dark Showtime comedy, that would be the very moment I would crawl down there, calling out for her, only to be pulled out kicking and screaming. But I stood frozen next to my husband, crying, crying, crying, grieving both the loss of my sweet niece and for the mom I never really publicly mourned.

As the priest finished the service and requested that only immediate family remain, they began to place flowers on Kristen's coffin. It was then that one of my siblings placed a flower on the ground below, honoring my mother. That simple act was so significant, like a window had been open to all of us, allowing us to ban together through our grief and collectively honor the woman who had been taken from us 37 years earlier, the one who would watch over Kristen -- if not literally, then at least metaphorically.

I looked around to find a flower. I'm not sure where I heard it as a little girl, but I always connected my mom with white flowers. In my head and heart, I started to get a little frantic, I just had to find a white flower. Through my tears, the only white flowers I could see were carnations. I remember thinking to myself, This is my one shot, I'm certainly not going to remember this moment as giving my mother a cheap carnation. (Seriously, this is how I think?)

As I looked through the bouquets lined up around the casket, I heard Mary, my mother since I was 4 years old, say "Jackie, come on this side." I was confused and walked around to the other side of the coffin to see what she was referring to. As I did, I noticed the green faux grass covering didn't reach over the entire area. Under the casket and the iron handles below it was a four-inch opening that revealed a deep hole in the ground. Covered in white, it looked like it went on forever. My heart was beating faster, I was overcome by the moment. Here I was, 40 years old, standing next to a huge, gaping hole next to where my mother was buried. This was it. This was my chance to finally say goodbye to my mother. I had never attended her funeral and had lived almost four decades with an overwhelming feeling that my goodbye was left unfinished.

I held the white lily in my hand and bent down, closer to the opening. I suddenly had a vision of me tossing the flower in and missing the mark, the flower hitting the iron and flinging right back, smacking me in the face (my imagination really runs wild in times like this). But that's not what happened. With a flick of the wrist, I sent the flower through the hole and watched it slowly float into the white endless tunnel like a feather caught in the wind. Even as I did it, I knew I was experiencing one of the most important moments of my life.

I stood back up and slowly made my way over to the other side of the casket to my husband. As I walked, I could hear these involuntary sounds coming from my body, a wail you don't hear often in your life. Thirty-seven years were flying through my mind, my heart, my body -- it was all too much. Everything around me began to close in, the blue skies and hot sun felt like a black cloak suffocating me, I had never felt anything even close to this -- ever.

As I stumbled across the grass, I felt myself taken into someone's arms, making me feel so safe, so comforted. I didn't know who it was but knew it was someone who understood -- someone who had been there. The tears streamed, my body shook, but the arms felt so good. After a few minutes, I looked up to find my brother Ed holding me. I will never forget what he did and will always love him for taking care of me in those brief moments when I needed it most, maybe he needed it too.

Excerpted from the series The Tragedy that Changed My Life.