“Your Mom tested positive today.”
Nine months into the pandemic, I got the phone call. Residents at the private senior facility where my Mom lived for the past two years were getting COVID-19 at an alarming rate. The resident nurse called and blurted out, “Your Mom tested positive today.” Her voice sounded so ho hum. Like a waitress asking if I want toast with my eggs. After months of waving through the window with signs that read, “I love you,” or “Happy Birthday,” or “Miss you,” suddenly the curtains were closed. The dreaded virus reached through her window.
At first, I didn’t panic. My Mom wasn’t on any medication and she’d always been a fighter. Her dementia was progressing, and certainly the social isolation of COVID-19 had made things much worse. But she was otherwise healthy. Later I would learn that others at the facility were succumbing quickly to the disease. Multiple residents were rushed by ambulance to nearby hospitals, including my Mom. When she wasn’t able to respond to simple questions from the inundated emergency staff, (they weren’t aware of her dementia or her dwindling ability to form words) they assumed the worst and gave her morphine. She went to sleep. And never woke up.
I haven’t been able to take a full breath since. It’s been five months. I still struggle to say, “I lost my Mom.” The word lost suggests she’ll eventually be found. Like a lost wallet, the remote control or car keys. (Writing “car keys” reminds me that I spent much of my childhood searching for my Mom’s car keys. Everything reminds me of my Mom.)
As much as I complained last year about standing outside the senior facility in snow, sleet, wind and rain waving to my Mom through the glass, I’d give anything today to see her face appear at the window.
When you lose a parent, it’s actually you who’s suddenly lost. The easiest tasks, like getting dressed or going grocery shopping (my Mom always called it “marketing”) become challenging.
I stop in the soup aisle and cry because I’m having trouble remembering all the ingredients for her chicken soup recipe… and it’s too late to ask.
And now, the day of all days is upon us: Mother’s Day. I’ve never been through one without her. The thought of it is unbearable. What’s a motherless daughter to do?
My Mom loved me so much. Who in the universe will ever love me like that? No one. No one will ever love you like your Mom. And when she’s no longer there to take your call, dry your tears, or cheer you on… life changes. At times that change is unbearable no matter how old you are.
At moments I’m fine. Truly. At peace with the universe. And then seconds later I’m in a ball on the floor. The tears endless. I want her back. I want to hug her. I want her to hug me. I didn’t want to say goodbye.
Everyone grieves in their own way in their own time. But I was thinking: statistically, most people die in early winter as she did; and I’m guessing for most the hardest blows of grief don’t hit until late winter or early spring… just in time for Mother’s Day. Maybe I’m not alone with these feelings of fog, confusion and dread?
When the grief hits, I tell myself to cry every tear. I know it has to come out. I tell myself grief is a good thing. It’s an indicator of just how much I loved my Mom. It’s why I spent so much time with her prior to COVID-19 and why I kept going to the window through the pandemic.
It isn’t easy taking care of a Mom with dementia but, believe it or not, I always felt so blessed. At least I could still feel her skin— until COVID-19 kept us apart. And then I could still hear her voice— until dementia robbed her of her words. And I could still make her smile through the window. I was so grateful every time I could hear her laugh. I was always aware that time was fleeting.
This isn’t my first loss. There have been grandparents and my Dad. But this is absolutely the hardest. And five months after her death, here’s what I’ve learned:
When you think grief is over, it’s just starting.
You can never predict when grief will hit. You’ll be laughing with a friend and talking about something you’re grateful for and BOOM. Memories come pouring in. I remind myself that my Mom taught me gratitude. She taught me to appreciate beauty and art, the stars and sunsets. And suddenly the tears won’t stop.
Or a friend says she can’t meet me today because she’s having lunch with her Mom. More tears. I’m not in the lunch-with-Mom club anymore. It’s now the Dead Mom’s Club. And I can’t bear to hear anyone complain about their Mom. Cherish every last second.
Get a lifejacket. Grief comes in waves. At first they’re tsunamis smashing into you over and over. Then weeks go by and out of nowhere you’re slammed by another wave of tears and emptiness. You’ll need the lifejacket again on birthdays and holidays. I’m bracing myself for Mother’s Day.
Nothing matters. Nothing. Not waking up or getting dressed or going “marketing.” And even when something really good happens, she’s not there to share it anymore. Everything seems less meaningful, slower, harder. And though people have always called me the energizer bunny, my fuel is gone. My body doesn’t feel right. I don’t care.
Mornings brings Mourning. It’s definitely the hardest when I first wake up. I open my eyes thinking all is good and then grief slaps me in the face. She’s gone forever, grief says. I get up and force myself to write five things I’m grateful for.
I forgot my next point. I didn’t just lose my Mom, I lost brain cells. I keep joking with people that I have “COVID brain” but I know it’s the mental fog that goes with grief. I can’t focus. I can’t remember words. I can’t remember what day it is or what I was supposed to do today. It took everything I have to sit at the computer and write these words. But I know that expressing my grief is one way to get through it.
No sleep for the weary. Sleep was one thing I was good at until now. Even if I fall asleep, I never get through the night. And if I do, I still wake up exhausted.
I’m not ok. People think you’ll recover after the funeral. In our case, there wasn’t a funeral because of COVID-19. Just a lonely graveside moment with my two sisters and my husband. The Rabbi spoke to us on an iPad. The world assumes you’ve gone back to normal. What’s normal?
I’m out of touch. People yell at me because my voicemail is full. Truth is, I refuse to get rid of my Mom’s messages. It’s a tiny piece of her that I can’t let go of. And I’m not sure I want to talk to you, anyway. Will you even understand?
People don’t get it. Unless you’ve been through this, you don’t get it. And you’re likely going to avoid talking about it. And if you do say something, it may be awkward. Most people don’t know what to say. I understand. I was like that until just a few months ago.
All of this to say, I loved my Mom. If I hadn’t, Mother’s Day wouldn’t be so hard. When they knew the end was near, they finally allowed me to climb in the window and be with her. COVID-19 had kept us apart for nine months. She was so frail. Dressed in full PPE, I would just listen to her breath and hold her hand day and night. I didn’t know if she could hear me, but I sang her all the lullabies she sang to me. I told her over and over again how much I loved her. I thanked her for all she gave to me and all she taught me. I told her I’m just not ready. I never will be.
This Mother’s Day, while many of you are going to Sunday brunch or planning a barbeque or posting on social media, I’ll likely be hiding under the covers…. in a sea of tears. I don’t know what else to do. I know many of you can relate.
Sure, I could donate to one of my Mom’s favorite charities in her memory, I could do one of my Mom’s favorite activities: a long walk or a good game of Scrabble. I could try my hand at her famous chicken soup recipe. But instead, I’ll probably listen to her voicemails. “Call me back baby,” she’d say. I’ll always be “baby.”
This week I created a memory box. I keep a spare set of her car keys in it.
Message from St. Joe’s
Losing a loved one brings a wave of emotions as Lila has so graciously shared through her story. Know that you are not alone. Whether you have lost a loved one to COVID-19, another injury or illness or natural causes, it is normal to feel grief and loss. It doesn’t matter if the loss was sudden or a long time coming. Grief and loss affects everyone differently, and yet, holidays, birthdays and major milestones all often impact those who are grieving.
If you are struggling with grief and loss or depression, help is available. St. Joe’s offers comprehensive Behavioral Health Services and there are many community resources. You do not need to suffer in silence or alone.