01/07/2016 08:08 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2017

What Death Taught Me


Joan Didion said grief is never how you expect it will be. When I used to think of my mother dying, in the abstract, vague way people do, I imagined myself collapsing in a heap, burying myself in my bed for days. The world would be dark and I would bury myself in that darkness; I'd bury myself with her. I never saw how I would be weeks or months or years later. I was caught in that moment of agony. That is how I thought I would be: Immovable, incapable, ruined.

Instead, I moved just fine. All my limbs still worked, and I opened the curtains to sunny fall days. I went back to my graduate courses only days after her body was burned. I excelled in my classes.

What does it mean when death doesn't kill you?

I know one thing. My mother wasn't supposed to die. This is a mistake. I think this thought often: The universe made a mistake. Rationally, I know that tragedies occur everyday. I know cancer is a disease. Diseases don't have a soul, or a heart. They don't punish people. They just happen. And sometimes they kill you.

You live, and you die. There is nothing personal about it.

Camus said: "I suppose the pain of parting will be red and loud." He was wrong. Death is gradual and soft, crueler than any apocalypse. Red and loud implies immediacy, but death is tortuous. Death is long. Death is forever.

My mother was supposed to laugh at my wedding. She was supposed to make a toast. She was supposed to ride her horses. She was supposed to retire and garden on Sundays. She was supposed to grow old. She was supposed to help me take care of my children. She was supposed to know them; they were supposed to know her. I use this word a lot: supposed. Listen to someone who is grieving and you will hear this word over and over again. We plan our lives a certain way. We plan it all out, and then death happens. It wasn't supposed to ever happen. This is a mistake.

I used to think of myself as a brave person, but death strips us of all our egotism.

I am not brave. In the face of my mother dying, I was scared. I didn't have the courage to be with my mother while she died. When she was sick, I ran away. I was (am) young, vital, alive. I am twenty-four years old. Death is still far away from me, something that doesn't really happen, something I can't understand.

I wish I had lain down next to my mother and listened to her. I wish I had asked her what she was afraid of. I wish we had talked about death frankly and honestly. Instead, I brushed off her depressive moods, told her that everything would work out in the end. I was sickeningly chipper, disturbingly optimistic. I was in denial. She needed to cry, and nobody would listen.

Where is she now? I have a hard time imagining my mother, the CEO, stroking a harp in heaven. At a graduation or a wedding, relatives say to each other, "She's looking down on us," and that makes them all smile.

But nobody wants to think about his or her dead mother watching them all the time. When she was alive, I knew where she was. And now? Is she a voyeur, enjoying access to those private moments I so desperately hid from her while she was alive? Or is she respectful and benevolent, only deciding to look down for important moments -- graduations, weddings, the birth of her grandchildren? I don't know.

That is the biggest lesson of death: I don't know.

I don't know what happens after we die, or why we die at all. I don't know how it is that I am still happy and healthy and my mother is still dead. I don't know anything.

I had (have?) a mother, and she was flawed. We fought; we hurt each other. But we also loved each other; in that fierce, powerful way mothers and daughters love one another: A love so strong it blurs with hate. This is the way it goes. My mother gave me more than I could ever need. I thank her for my mind, for my out-of-control blonde hair, my love of books, my perfectionism and my life. One year is too long, but it will only get longer.

What I hope she knows, what I want to tell her, is that the vibration deep in my heart, that thundering inside me, it isn't crying in sadness, but in powerful, overwhelming gladness; you must know this -- I never knew how to say it --
Thank You.

This is what death teaches us: When all else is stripped away, when all our plans fall through, when the tragedy that could never happen to you happens, you will survive. You will breath in and out. You will laugh with your friends. You will fall in love, and work, and dream. You will live because your mother lived and cried and laughed and died.

The final truth is always, can only be,

This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at