For a long time after my mother died I had a hard time meeting new people without somehow finding a way of inserting this personal bit of information about myself.
It was as though her death had become part of my identity, and I felt as though no one could possibly understand anything about me unless they knew about it.
That’s the funny thing about losing someone you love, I’ve realized. The absence of their presence in your life reaches into such deep places that often you’re forced to reinvent yourself entirely.
In my case, I had to do it twice.
When I was fourteen years old both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer within months of each other. The ensuing years of hospitals, surgeries and chemo treatments were lonely and confusing ones for my little family, especially for me as their only child.
I was an eighteen year old college freshman when my mother died and as I write about in my memoir The Rules of Inheritance, I immediately found myself adrift in the world, following her departure.
My mother had been my best friend, my idol, my everything, and when she was gone I scarcely knew who I was. In that first year I felt made anew, into a kind of blank slate of a girl. I certainly wasn’t a normal college freshman with things like flannel sheets and mid-terms to worry about, but nonetheless I was still impossibly young.
The story began to eke out here and there; it was impossible for me to hold it in around others. I began to see myself, and introduce myself to the world, as the girl who had lost her mother.
“Well, my mother died in January,” I would say when someone asked why I had taken a leave of absence from college and returned to my hometown of Atlanta. They would nod at me with big eyes, and one of two things would occur. Either they would metaphorically (and sometimes literally) back away, or they would come closer.
That was my first lesson in the way that grief can change the relationships in your life. It seemed that with half of the people I knew, a great distance sprang up between us, the chasm of my mother’s death separating us in such a way that we were no longer able to hear each other over the space between.
I recall seeing a high school ex-boyfriend a few weeks after my mother died, and the shock and hurt I felt when he did not acknowledge her death.
On the other hand, I was equally shocked to find that other friendships or casual relationships bloomed under the weight of my loss, as those around me who had experienced something similar reached out to me in solace.
It was like I had entered a new world, one with so much more depth and meaning. I could hardly believe how open my eyes had become to the layers of living going on around me.
I’ll never forget sitting in the cemetery one day that cold spring after she was gone, and feeling for the first time, a sliver of gratitude for the ways in which her death had begun to open me up.
In the years that followed her death I found myself swept along a new path. I dove in and out of unhealthy romantic attachments, trying desperately to fill the void my mother had left behind.
But I also cultivated deeper and more meaningful relationships than I ever could have imagined. Over and over again I found myself pondering who I might be were she still alive, and over and over again, I found myself grateful for the compassionate and self-aware woman I was becoming.
My father died when I was twenty-five and I spent the year following his death in a deep depression. I felt very much alone in the world, deftly unloved and unattached. However, through a series of small but important changes, I began to emerge as whole again.
I took up yoga and meditation, began volunteer work and found a therapist. Eventually I went back to school to earn a masters degree in clinical psychology so that I could become a therapist myself.
I’ve been counseling others for five years now and I’m constantly struck by how all the changes that seemed so painful and scary in those first few years of grief, are all the very things that I rely upon to help people navigate their own paths.
Often people inquire if it isn’t incredibly difficult to work with people who have lost someone. “Isn’t that sad?” they always ask.
My answer is always the same. Rather than feel sad, I walk away from each session with a strange sense of privilege. It’s as though when I see someone who is grieving, I can’t help but see all the love their grief stems from.
It’s like looking at a negative image painting; the more someone mourns, the deeper their relationship with that person appears.
I never cease to feel awed by just how deeply we are able to love one another.