My mother died last week. My grandson was born just three weeks before. I don't think I need into go to anyone else's life this week to come up with a question that a lot of others can relate to.
As a therapist, I have had plenty of professional experience with grief and mourning, and almost every therapy involves variations of transition anyway. This time, though, I was the one riding life's rollercoaster - a birth then a death and then a screeching stop and the resumption of life.
Among my chief concerns was timing. Would we be able to enjoy the birth of a baby and would my family be able to gather in Colorado for the first family bris of a grandchild? My anxiety and conflict between birth and death was eased a bit not only by the Jewish tradition that life takes precedence over death, but by the psychological certainty that my place was by my daughter's side and not by a hospital bed.
In a way, even before her death, I had mourned my mother. This the sort of mourning I run across all the time in therapy. A transition from one stage of life to another will often produce a sort of mourning. Many of us, for instance, mourn our childhoods and sometimes the death of a parent, or even the presence of a parent, will bring that to the fore. For many people, a visit home triggers an unexpected sense of mourning. This can be a journey into childhood -the same bedroom furniture, landmarks that have barely changed, photos on the mantelpiece of an earlier time, a younger and fresher you. A parent's home can be a museum of your own youth.
I had gone through this sort of mourning for my mother already -mourning the life I once had with her. Now I had to mourn her death. No matter what our age or what kind of relationships we have had, the death of a parent has an immense power all its own. We mourn the feeling, no matter how illusionary, that there is someone on whom we could be completely dependent.
I knew all this, of course. I expected all this, of course. So, it would appear that aside from the sheer exhaustion of it all, I was pretty well prepared for my mother's death. Of course, I had always realized that I was entering a new period in my life, having a new experience, and that nothing but life itself could prepare me for it. I emphatically state that no matter how prepared you think you are, you actually are not. That is why in Jewish tradition we are embraced by family, friends and community for the seven days of Shiva. We are cosseted and comforted while we begin the final separation. We do not do this alone.
So, the question today is a simple one. What did I unexpectedly discover in the first week after my mother's death? What did I learn about the mourning period that I can incorporate into the therapy I provide others?
Be aware of yourself. Step back and observe yourself in the process of mourning. Use this opportunity to let others take care of you so that you can focus on your thoughts and feelings. I personally found it difficult to completely let go of being a caretaker. Grandchildren needed to be cared for. Food needed to be ordered and prepared. But a best friend hovered around me protectively. She and others provided me with the time to feel, see, and analyze any unusual new reaction.
I found myself with all kinds of new anxieties. Yes, I could identify feelings and anxieties associated with mourning and loss, but there was something else as well - something a bit different.
I am a bit embarrassed to confess that when my daughter and her family flew back to their home in Colorado, I cracked open my laptop and tracked their flight the entire way. That night, I could not go to sleep until I knew that their plane had safely landed. I can report to all other lunatic mothers that there are wonderful web sites that depict the plane as it jets across the country. I virtually sat with my daughter and her family on the plane as they traveled home. Or, actually, they were sleeping, playing games, eating, and watching movies while I was helping to fly the plane from my bedroom. So, shrink, heal thyself! What is this weird behavior all about?
I think that at my mother's death I somehow absorbed and assumed the matriarchal obligation to worry. My mother was always excessively worried about her grandchildren. She was consumed by fears, some of them reasonable, some of them not. She would make herself sick worrying over their safety and their happiness. No matter how reassuring anyone tried to be, she indomitably maintained her concerns. Did she think that her worrying somehow protected her loved-ones? Did she think anxiety could ward off the evil eye? She was always hyper-vigilant. Why? I don't know.
Whatever the reason, though, I was amazed and frightened by this first stage of, in effect, assuming my mother's unwelcome role. I always believed that others of her qualities would live on in me -but not this one! This is the one I don't need. This is the one I don't want. This is the one that is suddenly causing me a lot of concern. I need to put this matriarchal anxiety in its place. I need to get some sleep!
So, I repeat: Expect the unexpected. Keep an eye on yourself. Don't be afraid of anything that emerges. As in any kind of good therapy, it is the acknowledgment and understanding of behavior that leads to a better quality of life. Knowledge is power; self-knowledge is empowering. It can lead to growth.
A death, often a traumatic event, has occurred. No matter how prepared you might be for it, accept your own pace of mourning. In the meantime, take the opportunity to learn about yourself - and keep growing. As for myself, I am now hoping to experience new depths and develop new ways of handling everyday situations. I am looking forward to something new --a rearrangement of how I once constructed myself. Something important has happened. Something important has changed -both within me and within my family's dynamic. I know I require a reassessment in order to move forward from this period of chaos, pain, and joy.
Do you have any advice for me at this time or do you have any stories of your own? In the meantime, wish me luck!