The growing sense of not-rightness increased subtly, over several weeks.
I grew restless at night and began sleeping badly. Random aches and pains. TMJ flares. I grew irritable and frustrated over matters that normally wouldn’t have troubled me.
First I blamed it on hormones. Then I blamed it on work stress.
I walked around daily with a tension in my body that I was deeply aware of but couldn’t shake. I kept wanting to purge it somehow. I exercised more. I started walking like a lunatic. I doubled down on Scripture, prayer reading. Did my breathing exercises.
Nothing helped. I wondered if this was what being under attack by demonic forces felt like.
And then the dreams started. They aren’t nightmares, exactly. They’re not frightening. But they are always sad, and they are always about my mom. I first began having them immediately after she passed away. She’s never the focus of them: I am always doing something, going somewhere, being at something, and she just happens to be present. She’s engaged with us, or helping with something, or in the background.
And she is always, always sick.
My mom was not sick, really sick, for most of her life. But when the cancer returned it made her really sick in a way I didn’t recognize. Frail. Exhausted. Weak. She had brain fog and lost muscle mass. It frustrated her endlessly to want to do things that her body wouldn’t allow.
And in my dreams, these strange ones, she is always sick like that. Sometimes with a walker that she never had in waking life. Sometimes in her nightgown on a couch. Sometimes just worn out. Clearly tired. Clearly frail. Clearly struggling.
When I first started having these dreams I was angry. I thought that if I was going to be dreaming about Mom, I ought to at least be dreaming of the Mom I knew: happy active loving Mom, not sick-at-the-very-end-Mom. And then at some point I realized this was a mercy from God, my mind’s way of working out a sorrow my waking self probably couldn’t handle.
Months passed, and the dreams left. And then they came back.
I woke up from one last week, at three in the morning, and stared at the ceiling. I rolled over on my stomach. I felt like I wanted to scream, but what came out was one of those grief-cries, one of those involves-your-whole-body-and-every-muscle cries, and I had to sneak out of bed to go blow my nose in the bathroom because I didn’t want to wake my husband up.
When I returned to bed, I felt more peaceful than I had in days, collapsed into the blankets, and fell asleep immediately.
It’s grief, I realized, bewildered. It’s like a grief relapse or something.
Maybe the grief never really left. It will be eight months, this month. Not altogether so removed from that sorrow. But people who have grieved tell me that this is common: that it’s really bad, and then it gets a little better, and suddenly it’s really bad again, and then it gets a little better…
And I have long been aware of it, that this happens. I’ve heard bereaved people talk about it. That everyone is present for the funeral and the months after, and then later—so much later—when you look up and your heart is breaking, everyone is gone. There are no casseroles, no hugs. It’s just you.
What I didn’t expect was that it would be so hard, that isolation.
There’s a three-month period after a death, I think, where the bereaved receive a sort of social reprieve from being normal. You can cry in public or tear up out of nowhere and people are sympathetic. You can say to friends and sometimes even your coworkers that you’re just not feeling it, that you can’t focus, and they’ll nod in understanding. You can have days where you don’t feel like putting on clothes or showering, or where you just want to eat everything or nothing for a day, and people visit you with doughnuts or tea and say “there, there.”
But I didn’t need those days three months after. For the three months after Mom passed away I was helping dad, and figuring out how to pay bills for him, and trying to catch up on a boatload of work I missed, and putting my house and my life back in order. And now it’s as though my life and brain have finally settled into this new reality, but the world has moved past the point of giving me time to adjust to it.
But, you know, it’s a reminder that love should be long and enduring. That our service should be.
This year, I wrote Mother’s Day cards. I can’t write them to my mom. She isn’t here. But I wrote them to two friends whose mothers have also passed away. One friend is going through her first year of it, like me. The other’s mother has been gone for seven years. But she still tears up when we talk about moms and now I know. I get it. This difficulty has taught me that the ministry to the bereaved does not stop. Maybe ever.
The other day I chatted with a friend of mine on the phone. She was telling me about her two rebellious sons and how they never remember a Mother’s Day gift but at least call. We joked about work and life and as she was saying goodbye she added, “If you need someone to call on Mother’s Day, call me.”
It is the little things that meant the most. And it is the little things, long after the fact, that mean even more than that.
The Christians I know are really good at showing up for crises. After a death they come with casseroles and hugs, to clean houses and watch kids. They drive cancer patients to chemotherapy and build ramps for wheelchairs and stock refrigerators with meals for harried mothers. They give and make and do.
But when the acute need vanishes, so often does the ministry. It’s not purposeful or malicious; the need just isn’t as evident. A broken heart doesn’t manifest as a shaved head or IV needle marks. Sleepless nights don’t leave the visible marks that funerals and crumpled cars do. The need becomes invisible, internal.
I think of my mom after her initial round of chemotherapy, when the cancer seemed to be gone—how she felt well and happy and was “recovered” to the rest of the world but struggled privately with the lingering effects of chemo: the neuropathy, the exhaustion, the cost this treatment demands of the body. I think of friends years out from divorce, who return home from attending a child’s “family day” events and weep. I think of my friend who lost her mom seven years ago and still chokes up talking about her.
And these aren’t the needs that anyone feels comfortable asking others to fill, maybe because none of us know what we should be asking. Culturally, we live in an age now where during a time of crisis people can set up a GoFundMe, but what is there for a person ten months out from a death who’s just…sad?
These aches and needs can’t be remedied with food or bandages, but with time and attention. Care. Small gestures. Calls, texts. Noticing. The gentle comfort of acknowledgement: I don’t know what to do, but I know what is happening to you. I don’t know how to fix it, but I do care. I can’t ease it, but I haven’t forgotten.
I haven’t forgotten.
There is a colleague of mine at work that I have gotten to know recently. He’s a fundamentally decent person. We know each other professionally only, really, and aren’t what I would call friends, and yet at the end of a lengthy work-related chat not long ago he paused. “By the way, how are you holding up?”
No one besides my husband has asked me that in a while. “Good days and bad days,” I said. “But I really appreciate you asking.”
“I get it.” He reached up to his desk and turned around a photo: an older woman with two kids. His kids, I think, gap-toothed and adorable, and they are holding a sign that says something about grandmas. “It’s not something that ever really goes away.”
No, it isn’t. But those of us united in our various ways in that community of grief understand. And we remember. He remembers. And I know now and I remember, and I hope that I can be a person who remembers when someone else wonders if everyone else has forgotten.
Remembering, that’s all it really is.
Meeting the needs under surface.
Doing the slow, incremental work of love.