Tag Archives: grieving mothers

A Mother, a Brother, and a Hard Holiday

I don’t know what it is about food your mother makes for you, especially when it’s something that anyone can make – pancakes, meat loaf, tuna salad – but it carries a certain taste of memory. 

–Mitch Albom

In 1972, my mother was diagnosed with end-stage breast cancer. She surprised everyone by going into radical remission for seven years.

When the cancer came back, we didn’t know for awhile, but I felt a sickness in my belly on the morning I watched my mom and dad drive off for a trip south. About three hours later I got a call… she had stumbled and fallen—the result of a growing numbness in her spine, which turned out to be the return of the cancer. At the time, I was a teenaged college student. None of us had much of an idea what to do, think, or expect—especially my younger brother, who had just become a teenager.

Cancer death sentence

This time the doctors predicted she would live six months. She got Prevention magazine (the only health magazine she probably could get back then), ate better food, and saw a hypnotherapist. Her goal was to live long enough for my younger brother to remember her.

Remarkably, she lived another three years.

Perhaps she helped save my life

She unknowingly taught me to explore options. Perhaps she helped save my life with her example.

All of us came to see her days before she passed. After a short visit I had to get back to Kansas if I wanted to keep my job. There was no hospice. After all us out-of-towners left, she crossed over, alone, in a hospital bed.

Getting The Call

I remember the terrible phone call, the endless drive back to Iowa, and the torturous days that followed, like it was yesterday. This was my first real exposure to death.

Of course, I have lost many more people during the intervening 34 years, including my firstborn son, whom I lost to heroin three years ago.

This spring I listened to some old copies of cassette recordings from my childhood Christmases. With a heavy heart, I realized I had forgotten the sound of my own mother’s voice. I knew by the spoken words it was her, yet the timbre of her voice had faded from my memories. Fortunately, with today’s technology, I have my son’s voice so I can listen to it when I want to.

The taste of memories

Also fortunately, memories of the taste of my mother’s cooking had not faded. My younger brother was able to visit me this Mother’s Day. His memories of her were far more hazy, yet he remembered certain dishes that gave a feeling of comfort and belonging.

Together we made corn fritters, hamburger pie, Barb-b-cups, cheesecake, springerle cookies, and peanut brittle—unfit food we normally never eat. It brought a feast of memories and even some laughter. My younger son enjoyed the eats.

And I was able to glide busily and deliciously past my third mother’s day without my firstborn son. I appreciate this gift.

Source:
https://soyummy.co/mothers-day-quotes-food-moms-best-cooks/

Remember the Rachels on Mother’s Day–grieving mothers

Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead.

Matthew 2:16-18, New Living Translation

Rachel was an early biblical character who died giving birth to her second son. She was buried by the road to Bethlehem. Bethlehem would later become the birth location for a king, according to Matthew’s gospel.

And Herod, the jealous and frightened ruler at the time, sent his soldiers to kill all the male infants and toddlers near Bethlehem to remove this new threat.

One cannot imagine the kind of imperishable grief such an act would produce on a vulnerable population.

Mothers who grieve

This story is part of the birth narrative of Jesus. When was the last time you heard a preacher talk about this trauma in connection with the nativity story?

It seems to me that mothers who grieve their children appear easily overlooked.

The world is full of Rachels who weep disconsolately for their deceased children. My friend Joan just lost her daughter to diabetes.

Opioid epidemic

With the current opioid epidemic, mothers who are cancer patients need to be wary. I was told in 2011 to “stay ahead of the pain,” and was sent home with a month’s supply of what I now realize were heroin pills.

Recently I talked with a cancer survivor who also had leftover opioids and a teenaged son at home. I urged her to get a digital lockbox or return the pills to a pharmacy.

Even if her son doesn’t find or use them, a friend of his might. Then the treacherous slide into heroin overdose begins.

If I ever doubt myself as a mother…

If I ever doubt myself as a mother fighting for her children, all I have to do is look at this Mother’s Day card my deceased son made for me about ten years ago. I’m seen as firm with my words and my sword… with a kind smile on my face, all centered in a heart glowing with love.

I’m hardly alone. Even my son’s memorial garden was just visited again by Rachel’s weeping.

A mother bird in the sweet gum tree had fought valiantly for her eggs, evidenced by the circle of feathers; but her efforts simply weren’t enough.

The nest fell to the grass and her babies were hungrily consumed.

Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is approaching. Ugh. For me, and for perhaps hundreds of thousands of mothers, this time on the calendar is a terrible reminder of broken hearts and empty arms.

Despite all we do, sometimes we still lose our children. Some mothers lose their only children—I know two such women who lost theirs to heroin. I have heard of one woman who lost all three of her children to heroin overdoses.

Stigma of death to drugs

Losing your children is bad enough. Add on the stigma of death to drugs and you have an unfathomable nightmare.

I am most fortunate that one of my brothers will be here and we will spend the day making and eating delicious meals our mother made when we were growing up—a time of innocence. My younger son will get to indulge with us. (He loves to tell me there’s no food in my house.) Foods I typically now avoid, yet that give comfort and solace to an empty heart. Corn fritters, hamburger pie, cheesecake, springerle.

I’ll still be weeping for my child, as I do nearly every day, yet with social support I also will have some consolation.

Easing your Grieving:

Mothers fight for their offspring, though not always successfully. Many of these mothers are single. It can be such a lonely time, especially with the isolation that can come from losing a child to drugs.

On Mother’s Day, please pray for or send positive intentions to the Rachels everywhere. Those who have suffered heavy losses need comfort and love—a kind word, a simple text, a card—something to let them know they are not entirely alone.

Message in a cardinal for grieving mothers

If a bird’s nest chance to be before thee in the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the dam sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the dam with the young;

Deuteronomy 22:6, JPS Tanakh 1917

The compassionate act for a hungry person of ancient times was to take only the eggs from a bird’s nest and leave the mother. This created benefits: humans had food and birds could again reproduce, making more human food.

Fortunately I can walk to a store open 24 hours every day and get a variety of foods to eat. I don’t need the eggs in the nest by my porch to satisfy my survival needs.

Cardinal nest by my door

The cardinal nesting by my side door probably is the one that tried to create a nest on my porch light. Hanging from this light fixture is the beautiful wind chime given to me by Kay so my son, whom I lost to a heroin overdose, could make it sing for me.

Perhaps the mother bird gave up when the door kept swinging open and shut, open and shut.

So she moved to the tree next to the porch. As close as she could get without the constant disturbance.

Nest eggs

Her nest cradles two eggs. I enjoy seeing her as I walk by.

How did those eggs get out of her little body?

How does she know to sit on her eggs? The sea turtle lays her eggs and abandons them, returning to the sea.

How does she know to leave the eggs alone? If she were human, I imagine she’d be neurotically inspecting the eggs, rolling them around, listening for any sounds.

Simply being

Nope. She sits calmly, quietly, still as stone. Watching. Waiting. Being.

She makes me wonder about my way of being as a mother. I was anxious, wanting everything to work out perfectly for my two offspring. Instead, one turned to drugs, and three years ago lost his life.

Blame and shame

Would I blame the bird if one of her eggs broke, or if a hatchling fell out of the nest, or if a creature ate one?

Today I found a broken robin’s egg on my driveway, not five feet from the tree where the cardinal nestles. This is life. These things happen. We do not control outcomes, especially with terrible illnesses like cancer and addiction.

Parental fallacy

James Hillman (American psychologist, 1926 –2011), in his book The Soul’s Code, calls the inordinate self-blame of grieving parents “the parental fallacy.” It is false to think we have enough control to manage every outcome. We can try and influence, yet ultimately, it is not up to us.

Maybe it’s a message

Perhaps this is why the cardinal tried to build a nest right above my son’s wind chime and the robin lost her baby.

Maybe it’s a message, like, “It’s not your fault, Mom. You did everything you could. Sometimes terrible things happen. And I am near you now, singing through the wind chime, watching you through the eyes of a bird nesting by your door.”

They are reminders to have compassion for myself, as I have compassion for these mother birds.

When Sorrow Walked With Me

I walked a mile with Sorrow, And ne’er a word said she; But, oh, the things I learned from her When Sorrow walked with me!

“When Sorrow Walked With Me”  by Robert Browning

 

The name “Brennan” means “sorrowful.” I knew that was the name I wanted for my firstborn son; it simply felt perfect. My ego led me to believe that with good parenting, I could prevent the sorrow.

I lived in a big fancy house. I sent my children to private school. I was a soccer mom for a decade. I drove a Honda Odyssey van. I was in therapy and doing 12-step work. And the ultimate irony: For several years I did publicity for a coalition that worked to prevent substance abuse among teenagers.

Yet my son died a heroin addict. I could not save his life.

How could my son get into drugs? He had so much going for him. He was a very loving, sensitive, and bright child.

When he was three years old, he went with his child care group on a field trip to a farm. He knew that, at that time, I liked candy corn. When he returned, he ran up to me and eagerly gave me two pieces of candy corn he had clutched in the palm of his hand during the entire 30-minute bus ride home.

When Brennan was about four years old, he would try to rescue the earthworms on driveways after the rain.

During a trip to Colorado, he found a dead mouse and wanted us to have a funeral for it and bury it, which we did.

As soon as Brennan was tall enough, he was riding in the front car on the Son of the Beast roller coaster at King’s Island. He was called “Missile foot” by his soccer buddies because of his powerful kick.

When Brennan attended The Schilling School for Gifted Children, he loved saving up points in Mrs. Peak’s class so he could buy things from her store to give to the rest of us. One time he bought a beautiful oval china box with a lid. He could hardly stand waiting to give it to me, yet dropped it before he could. He sobbed, heartbroken. I so cherish that repaired china box.

Later he enjoyed the challenge of writing sonnets. He also was very proud of his youtube video, created during high school, that has already reached more than a million views.

Even with this beautiful soul, I was extremely challenged by Brennan from the beginning. When he was 10 years old, he said to me, “Mom, you don’t know what it’s like to live inside my body.” I tried many times to find the right therapist for him, which didn’t happen until he was 17—which, for him, was too late. I watched over his education so he had the best environment for his temperament and abilities, and I worked hard at being the best possible parent for him. It wasn’t enough.

Everything collapsed after my diagnosis of end-stage cancer. I got too sick for too long to be a decent mother. Brennan was 14 and began experimenting with alcohol, then drugs. I don’t know how much of this was from living for years under the continual threat of losing me, or from curiosity and a desire to explore his mind, or from growing depression, anxiety, and difficulty with focus, or from dealing with divorce. It most likely was a combination of factors.

Two years ago he started using heroin. I didn’t realize this for a full year. Not my son! Then he spent the next year deciding to get better and going in and out of treatment programs.

After his third extended rehab program, he managed to stay clean for three months. But then the sober living house where he lived was closed. I encouraged him to move into another sober living house, but he chose not to go that route. Soon Brennan fell back into using.

Again I tried to get him into treatment, but it just didn’t work out.

On May 26, Brennan sent me a beautiful letter, which is the most precious gift of my life. Like the 17th century mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal after his Night of Fire, I wanted to sew this message into my clothing so it would always be right next to my heart.

Dear Mom,

I really appreciate all the things you have done for me in the past year. Sending me to Fairbanks, Recovery Works, and Singer Island was a tremendous help… However, I am still a weak person and still have succumbed to this disease… I used again after more than 3 months of being clean, during which time you supported me at Trent’s Lighthouse. I did my best while I was staying there, but my best was not enough. I ended up using again, and creating yet another cycle of use. I am thoroughly ashamed that my efforts were almost useless. I continued to use until this past Thursday. For this I am truly sorry.

I wish I could take it all back, but I cannot. I truly wish that with the next round of treatment, I will become what I should have in the years past. I am truly sorry for all the pain I have caused you and dad in times past. I will do my absolute best to make it up to both of you in the coming years, as hopefully I regain control of my life and my actions in the coming months.

I love you, and shall never forget all the things that you have done for me in the previous months. I truly respect and admire you for all the ways in which you have tried to help me in the past months, despite the fact that I have essentially thrown it all in your face….  And for that I am truly sorry. I love you mom, and I love everything that you have done for me in the past few months … thank you for believing in me. I am trying my hardest to beat this disease, no matter what it throws at me.

Love, Brennan

According to my Codependents Anonymous sponsor, the number one hallmark of addicts is denial of their roles in their problems. By blaming others, addicts don’t have to accept responsibility for themselves and the pain that this acknowledgement brings. There are people who have been in recovery for decades who still can’t take the kind of ownership that Brennan shows.

Yet in this letter, Brennan openly sees and admits to himself and another human being what’s going on inside himself and the effect he has had on others. He blames no one and nothing else. The veil of insanity has been ripped away from his eyes. He is fully aware of what he’s doing, fully feels the weight of his responsibility for it, and he hates it.

He admits he is being defeated by this terrible disease. He wants so desperately to stop. He also is fully aware of his absolute powerlessness over his addiction, which is the first of the 12 steps of Narcotics Anonymous, which reads:

“We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.”

This awareness makes the addict’s pain far worse. It’s a necessary step for recovery, but it is so difficult. The old habit has been to hide from the pain. Now he really sees, and there is no place to hide.

I know how difficult this inner work is, and not many people are truly willing to do it—especially at such a young age. But Brennan had the courage to take a hard look at his life. Even though he hated what he saw in himself, he was able to stay with the pain, acknowledge his mistakes honestly, share his feelings, express his sorrow, offer his heartfelt amends for his addictive behaviors and how they affected us, and express gratitude. This honesty took incredible strength, and is so uncommon in the addiction culture. He was truly working the NA steps and hoping for recovery. Unfortunately, looking directly into the agony that had become his life probably proved too much for him and he fell back into the black hole of his insidious heroin addiction.

Two years ago, Brennan wrote a sonnet about the agony of lost love. This is a portion of his sonnet:

It feels like air

Can’t get inside my lungs. The lack of breath

Makes my head spin.

A few years ago, I watched a video about death. In it, someone said life is like swimming in an ocean, and dying is like breaking through the surface of the water and coming up for air. I believe Brennan is now filling his ethereal lungs with the fragrant breath of heaven.

I always felt a deep soul connection with Brennan. I believe we have been together in many previous lives, and that I will be with him again. I also believe he has only dropped the pain–wracked emotional and physical bodies he carried in this lifetime, and that his powerful, courageous, loving spirit is still nearby.

Someone could look at Brennan’s life from the outside and see it as a total waste and that he lost his battle with addiction. But I was privileged to see him from the inside. He lived and loved fully and deeply. Near the end he also woke up. Not many people have the courage to reach that level of inner depth and awareness, especially when so young. For me, Brennan’s eternal, beloved soul gained something far more precious from his ordeal than he ever could have from a long, productive life, and it will always stay with him. He experienced, at least for a period of time, consciousness. Nothing else could have made me more grateful for his life.

What message did you want at your addict’s funeral?