Last month as I was on my way to pick up Logan, I drove past a house with a really big Halloween scene. The front yard was filled with life-sized skeletons dressed up like cheerleaders and football players. I was horrified. I mentioned it to Logan as we were approaching it and he explained the history. Apparently, the citizens of this city were told many, many, many years ago that their high school would have its own football stadium. The commentary of the skeleton scene is that all the cheerleaders and football players who heard that promise are dead by now. That background story changed everything. Then we chuckled and talked about how funny and clever it was.
How can the same encounter go from horrifying to funny or from confusing to making sense? Knowing the context.
Get ready to read about The Church Ladies.
In the last post, I shared some of my journal entries from January and February, before and after my mom died.
Today we’ll dig into some of the details during The Season of Grieving about my mom’s death and some important things I learned.
The day my mom died, I yelled at her for 25 minutes—non-stop—as I drove to work. I’m talkin’ yelling, not just raising my voice. “You’re not my mother!” “You were a coward!” And more…. I yelled those things again and again and again. When I arrived across town and The Yell-fest was done, my throat felt hoarse. But I felt much better. I needed to do that. The pain of everything she didn’t give me was raw. My heart was raw. My throat was raw.
Truth vs. condolences
After I settled in at work, I told Father Ben, the priest I work for, that my mom had died that morning. His father-in-law had just died too. I asked him if his wife’s dad was good to her. Father Ben looked down. I told him, “It’s okay. You can tell me the truth. My mom wasn’t a good mom.” He looked up and said, “No. He wasn’t a good father.” I said, “I’m sorry.” I wasn’t sorry that he died. I was sorry that he wasn’t a good father.
That short conversation helped me to avoid barfing out that Somebody Died Favorite: “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Here’s an important News Flash: It isn’t always a loss. Sometimes it’s an incredible relief. Sometimes it’s a gift-wrapped blessing. Sometimes it represents the end of a life-long nightmare.
Sometimes the deceased was horribly abusive and violent. Sometimes the deceased was absent. Sometimes the deceased was evil. Sometimes the deceased was seriously mentally ill. Sometimes the deceased was terribly dangerous. Sometimes the deceased was A Big Zero—catastrophically neglectful.
The church ladies
When ladies from the church would come into the office the next couple weeks, it annoyed me when they were teary-eyed with me. I thought You don’t have the foggiest clue what kind of mom I had. Don’t get all mushy with me. Doesn’t anyone care about the truth? Doesn’t anyone ever ask for it? Don’t assume that we had this wonderful, close relationship. She was The Fog.
Don’t get me wrong. The Church Ladies meant well. I know that. But their “thoughtfulness” put me in a very awkward position. I could either play along with the teary-ness or be sincere and not play. I smiled, accepted their hugs and moved on. A couple of them looked at me like Don’t you miss your mom? Aren’t you upset? And I thought No. And if you knew the truth, you’d understand why. It isn’t that I’m in denial that my mom died or that I’m a heartless hag. I’m actually living in The Land of Truth—finally.
What we need
This is one of the key things I learned from my mom’s death. Asking what kind of relationship The One That’s Left Behind had with The One Who Died makes all the difference. And it doesn’t have to be some long conversation. I just asked Father Ben one question. “Was he good to her?”
People don’t want pat condolences. We need to feel understood.
My mom died on Friday. On Monday I went to lunch at Olive Garden with my pals from church, Meagan and Ann. Meagan asked me, “How are you feeling?” My response? “Relieved.” She understood. So did Ann. It feels good to be understood.
Later, when I was enjoying breakfast with Charlene, I told her, “My life makes sense now. The physical reality and the emotional reality finally match. I don’t have a mom. I never did.” See this post for more about caretakers vs. parents.
The impact of the truth
I didn’t cry at my mom’s funeral. I cried very few tears after she died. Just a few here and there—more about The Mom I Didn’t Have and the sadness of the whole thing—the messed-up family I grew up in.
Here’s another important thing I learned when my mom died.
We grieve based on our perception of the loss, whether that perception is true or not.
Let’s flesh that out. It surprised me. It was a huge revelation.
When my dad died in 1998, I had no idea that he’d been emotionally abusive to me—that he’d been a caretaker, not a parent. I didn’t know any of that yet. I didn’t even think about any of that, so I grieved his death like he’d been a good dad. Like we were close. Like it was a major loss. I grieved for two years off and on. Holidays felt empty and weird and stressful.
Fast forward 20 years. When my mom died, my grief matched the truth. My perception wasn’t based on denial or assumptions or lies. My perception and the truth matched. So my grief matched the truth.
You can’t lose something you never had.
Did I have any reactions at all to my mom dying? Sure I did. Once I got into a safe, private place—my big, red truck—I reacted with The Yell-fest the morning she died. That rocked.
This person who was supposed to love me and teach me and mean something to me was gone. I would never see her again in this life. She was a presence, but there was no connection. She’d always been in the shadows. She’d been there physically, but not emotionally. The whole thing—her death—was strange more than anything else. It was very, very strange.
Also, I felt a tightness in my chest and my head felt weird off and on for a couple weeks. Then I felt like myself, but with less baggage, less expectations, less “going through the motions,” less pretense, less thinking about what’s expected, less thinking about how I should react when I saw her face at my door….
When Mother’s Day came around, I felt a little sad—not about missing her, but about The Mom I Didn’t Have. But really, I was mostly relieved that Mother’s Day could be free of obligations from now on. Obligations that I didn’t want. Obligations that meant pretending….
Pretending that I felt something. Pretending that we had a relationship. Pretending that I wanted to do what I was doing. I did the nice things I was taught to do, but they were always hollow. They were just checklists. The Checklist of What Nice People Do. I hate checklists where people are concerned.
I threw away the checklists about this person who had no idea who I was. This person who never asked me what I thought or felt about anything or anyone.
Knowing all the answers
Two ladies from my mom’s church spoke at her funeral. One of them—I’ll call her Marian—taught my mom’s Sunday school class. She talked about how my mom knew all the answers but never raised her hand. Whenever Marian would call on her, Mom would give the right answer.
What a sad reality. I didn’t know that my mom knew anything about the Bible because she never talked about it. Never. The fact that she actually “knew all the answers” makes me very sad. What good are answers that aren’t spoken. What good are answers that aren’t shared with your children. What good are answers that don’t make you like your Savior—courageous, truthful, loving.
What good are answers that don’t change you.
A better place
Now she’s free. Now she’s in heaven. Now she’s real. Finally. No more fear. No more hiding. No more silence. Only love. Singing with joy. She’ll be very different when I see her again. She’ll be whole.
The song below is a song to my mom. It’s sad and really beautiful.
Coming next: I needed to acknowledge my role in my non-relationship with my mom. So I asked myself some tough questions and discovered important answers as I unpacked the family history in the posts ahead.
Healing through truth and music
Peaceful Readers, I’ve found great healing in my life through the beauty and truth of God’s word and through music. I hope the truths and songs that I share at the end of each post will bless you too.
Truth from The Word: 2 Timothy 2:7
Song for Healing: “Made for More” by Ginny Owens
You may be wondering about the line from the song about an army of angels fighting for you to win. If you’d like to read about an army of the Lord’s angels who fought for his chosen ones, check out this passage from 2 Kings, chapter 6.