by Dan Secor
This past January, my mother passed away, one month shy of her 90th birthday. Losing one’s parents is a significant event in every life, whether one’s relationship is strong or not. Like most people, my relationship with both my parents was complicated. From my work as a psychotherapist, grief is a subject that comes up with almost everyone, and each loss is personal and not clear cut. I’ve always told my clients that there are no rules on how you grieve, and no time limit on these feelings. Grief also spawns more emotions that we are not always comfortable with, including anger, resentment, sadness and in some cases, relief.
In the case of my mother, although we physically lost her in January, the truth is that she had left us months before. After my father passed away six years ago, my mother was at first on a long slow ride to cognitive decline. She was able to live for four years on her own, before we finally made the decision that she needed to move in with family. At first it was little things like not recognizing places, but it quickly evolved to a point where she didn’t recognize close members of the family, including her grandchild who was the light of her life.
I’ve now had several months to contemplate what she meant to me during her life, but during those months my brother and I have spent a good amount of time sifting through her house. During her “good” years, she was something of a pack rat, which is common with those who grew up during the great depression. She had many hobbies and interests, and virtually nothing was thrown away, “just in case”. The further problem we have faced is that there was no rhyme or reason for where she stored things. Important documents and treasured photographs were in boxes amongst strands of yarn and unsent greeting cards kept from her time working for Hallmark.
Needless to say, the process has been painstakingly slow. And with this process many memories (and trauma) were uncovered. As we get older, the self-aware among us contemplate how and why we developed into the person we have become. Going through the “treasures” of my childhood homes have unraveled memories of different stages of my life – my teenage years when I was striving for identity; young adulthood when I moved away to strike out on my own; the time I briefly moved back after divorcing my first wife; and memories of her grandchild who is now a senior in High School – a reminder of the passage of time playing out in front of my eyes, making one long for the days when my child’s life was simpler and full of wonder. We also found items from my mother’s use that explained her own trauma and how it affected how she raised my brother and me. Trauma is typically passed on in an insidious way.
So I had to stop and give myself my own advice: to grieve the way it feels right to me. I had to remind myself that all the memories I am uncovering are not good or bad, they just are. We can’t go back and fix them, we can just contemplate how they made us who we are, and remind ourselves that the work continues to improve. I haven’t really grieved for my mother because I think the grieving process played out in real time as she went through her cognitive challenges. The house cleaning process is tough, but every box we go through, every room that gets emptied is a healing process in itself.
My biggest takeaway from all this is that, although not every decision made for me, whether it was made by my parents or ultimately by me myself, were building blocks in how I shaped where I am today, and helped me become self-aware and appreciate the family that I have today.