My mother died this year. What can prepare us for the loss of this most unique, and often, most fraught relationship? Her loss has caused me to ponder our relationship, and to think about her life, and the paths that shaped each of us. If I was skipping along, smelling the roses, and sometimes veering off the path and getting lost, she was marching down the road swiftly, never missing a beat on the straight and narrow.
She lived a long and fulfilling life, centered on family, church & teaching. Her life was also one of great suffering, surviving childhood trauma and the loss of two children early in life. Mom was also a cancer survivor, and outlived my father by 15 years.
My mother was born into poverty in rural Pennsylvania, the daughter of Irish immigrants. Her own mother had crossed the Atlantic, alone, at age 16. She was sent for by family who had come earlier. I’ve tried to imagine the desperation that would drive a young girl to come to the US on her own, but it’s a challenge, since I have never wanted for anything. Mom saw to that.
Mom’s father was prone to anger & abuse, mostly toward her mother. She told me that her childhood was a lonely one, as she was an only child surrounded by adults. Mom said she confronted her father when she was 16, and told him he had to stop the abuse, and he did. She became fierce and protective.
She graduated high school at 16, college at 20, and went to work for Westinghouse as an engineer, toward the end of WW2. She was the only female on the staff, and she said her boss protected her from any harassment by her male colleagues, though she certainly could have defended herself. Westinghouse offered to pay for her Master’s degree in Engineering, but she declined, preferring to return home and teach high school mathematics.
My parents provided for us kids a life of structure & security. In fact, it was very rigid, with alarms going off at 5:30 am, dishes washed & dried before anyone left for school or work, and dinner at 5 pm every night. We dared not be late for dinner. I got straight A’s in school, and I think my brothers did, too. We would not have dared to bring home anything less.
As I grew into my preteen and teen age years, my relationship with Mom became one of conflict and disagreement. She was an unmovable force, unwilling to listen to or respect my budding thoughts and ideas. I became alienated and afraid, and after I left for college, I never lived at home again. I rebelled against everything she stood for, and that rebellion is still going on, in both conscious and unconscious ways and is a part of my ongoing work –to free myself of this reactivity and learn to just be myself.
I think my true grief began then, with the realization that I would never have an open and honest relationship with my mother. I have grieved this loss my entire life. It makes my loss of her even harder. There are no more chances to heal our relationship.
Mom & I did reach an accord, but the cost was high: We didn’t talk about deep things, making true intimacy impossible. We didn’t discuss religion or spirituality; politics was a minefield. She thought my child raising ideas were completely misguided, at best. All I could do was set limits, which she respected. So we had a relationship of love, at a distance. We could not accept each other’s truths.
My attitude toward my mother began to shift when I became a parent myself, as happens for many of us. I began to really appreciate the stability she & Dad had provided. I also knew I didn’t want my children to grow up with the guilt, fear, and shame imposed on me by their strict religious beliefs. It has been one of my life’s challenges to unlearn these barriers to my inner truth and Self knowing.
Grief is a stealth bomber; it comes and goes, arriving when an idea or image reminds me of her, then receding for a time. I have kept her thick glasses, and they fill me with a sense of poignant sorrow, seeming to represent our shared human struggle to see. When grief arises, it often seems like it will overwhelm me with its intensity. The tears come in huge sobs, and I feel as though I’m being ripped in two. Other times, it is a deep sadness, sorrow driven by what we never had, and now, never will.
Then, especially during meditation, I experience a sweet sense of peace and can feel the love of those who have passed before me, knowing they are “Out in that field beyond right doing and wrong doing” as Rumi calls it, where we can let go of needing to be right and instead, are one with the All That Is.
Faye Maguire, MA, LAC, is a People House private practitioner working with youth and adults, using a transpersonal approach to therapy. Counseling is her second career, after being a business owner for nearly 30 years. She enjoys working with people experiencing life transitions, grief and loss, depression, anxiety, trauma, addictions, relationship issues, and figuring out life’s direction, using a holistic approach. Please contact her at 720-331-2454 or at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.