My mother died 12 months ago today, so we’ve experienced a year of birthdays, holidays, and family gatherings without her. I knew the year anniversary was coming and naively anticipated that its passing would mysteriously make everything all better. I was wrong.
Just when I thought the emotional whirlwind was over, another memory of her smacked me in the heart and caused my eyes to spontaneously water. I’ve never been this emotional before, and I struggle between wanting to weep or pulling up my big girl pants and pretending to be tough. Sometimes it’s exhausting to be the strong one.
To prepare for inevitable meltdowns, here are some common occurrences that can cause an unpredictable sensitive reaction after a loved one dies.
The impulse to call. Mom was the consummate keeper of things: she wrote lists, filled ledgers, and clipped newspaper columns. Our refrigerator was plastered with Erma Bombeck’s witty stories. I recently was invited to be a speaker at the prestigious Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop in 2016. My immediate thought was to call my mom because she’d be so happy. Then I remembered.
A certain song. I was happily shopping for groceries when the song “Que Sera, Sera” by Doris Day played over the sound system. My mother used to sing the song when I was a wee toddler, and I remember the sounds of, “Whatever will be, will be.” I stood there in the soup aisle with tears streaming down my face.
Photographs. I’m still sorting her possessions, and found hundreds of photographs I’ve never seen. One fascinated me. It showed my parents as happy young lovers before they married and before hard work, illness, and heartache stole their laughter and weakened the light in their eyes. I wish I had known them.
Holiday memories. Mom was widowed at age 62, so she came to my house for 25 Christmas celebrations. When my children were young, we took her to a holiday movie on Christmas Day. We had to discontinue the tradition because she always talked out loud to the actors on the screen. “Don’t do that!” she would warn the characters. “Look at them dance!” she would exclaim. The kids would shrink down in their seats as other movie patrons glared at us.
Her example of strength and resiliency. She loved to tell stories of her childhood; how her sisters and she rode a horse to a one-room school, how she hand-milked cows before and after school, and how she worked in the fields throughout her childhood. My children tried not to complain after that, and they had a deep love and affection for the one they called Grandma Sweetie.
Favorite recipes. I continue to add mustard seeds in soups and any dish that requires boiling. Mom always added the seeds because of her belief in the Biblical parable of having the faith of a mustard seed. Through recipes, photographs, and stories, we keep her memory alive for the great-grandchildren.
Locations. I regularly drive past the assisted living facility where she lived before she died. I ache with remorse remembering how she clutched my hand each time I started to leave. I should have stayed longer.
Legacy. Mom didn’t have the money or opportunity to attend college, but she was a strong advocate for education. She established the Ambrose Family Scholarship at the University of Idaho, and this year six students from Wendell, Idaho received scholarships.
Emotional release through humor. A week after her death, I wrote a blog post titled “My Mother’s Body Got Lost.” The story described the true account of how the funeral home misplaced her for the weekend but then found her in a hearse traveling “near Bliss.” Bliss is a tiny town near her burial site. My response was, “Of course, she is!” The post was selected as a winning entry in the national BlogHer competition, and I was honored in New York as part of the “Voices of the Year” celebration. She continues to inspire my writing, and several of my blog posts about her were published on The Huffington Post.
Redemption. A few months ago, I was having a difficult time with the memory of how much my mother had suffered physically and emotionally. I sought professional help, and the gentle, wise counselor led me through a guided imagery exercise that restored my spirit. My mother came to me in a vision. She was young and happily playing with two little girls in a meadow. They were my sisters, my twin Arlene and another sister Carol. These babies never had the opportunity to breathe. The vivid scene of her radiant joy gives me peace.
The unexpected triggers continue to meander in and out of my life. After a year, the pain has eased, and I know she is in a better place. I hope someday to meet Arlene and Carol, and we’ll all play together in the meadow, scatter some mustard seeds, and sing, “Whatever will be, will be.”