Managing Milestones After A Loss
My older son is beginning his sophomore year in high school. He has big plans for this year, including a spot on the track team, participating in the annual musical, embarking on a fairly rigorous course load, getting his driving permit and his first "real" job next spring. He is finally taller than I am, he now wears the same size shoes as his father and he cracks me up at least once a day.
I can't tell you how many times I've thought to reach for the phone, to call my mother and share all of this with her, to hear her laugh as he shares some witticism and offer a pearl or two of wisdom. But my phone signal isn't strong enough to reach her; I can hear her voice only in my head and heart.
It was two years ago this month that my mother departed, and that I bore the deepest loss of my life to this point. In these past two years I have anticipated, with some dread, all of the milestones - her first birthday after her departure, only a month after; first holidays, including Thanksgiving, which was her favorite; various birthdays within our family, on which she was always the first to call around 6:00 am with a birthday song and good wishes; and subsequent celebrations which have occurred in her absence, during which the hole is still felt, even if we don't speak of it as much as we did during that first year.
But milestones don't only occur during regular intervals on the calendar. There are other, more subtle markers of the passage of time, meaningful only within our family, or within anyone's: anticipation of a trip, a change in career path or aspiration, achieving personal goals, reconnecting with an old friend after a long separation. All of these are occurrences I would freely share with her, and long to do so even now - I still wish for just one more hour, one more conversation, one more opportunity to connect.
Here's the thing: we are still connected. My bond with her is stronger than I had ever realized. When we love so deeply, when we are so engaged during life, the connection doesn't evaporate simply because our beloved is no longer walking among us. Part of the reason we grieve when someone we love departs is because we realize all of the things we'll miss, all of the events and celebrations and daily interactions that will no longer feel quite the same. We grieve because the attachment was deep, and because the separation leaves us with an emptiness, a hollow hole that will never be quite as full again, no matter what we pour into it.
Here's something else: we can choose what we pour into that hole. We can try to numb the pain with distractions - keeping ourselves manically busy, imbibing in various substances like food, alcohol, or drugs, going on autopilot to avoid processing our feelings.
The problem with that approach is that the feelings never go away; they just lie dormant and can surface unexpectedly, causing further confusion and dismay in their ambush.
Or we can give ourselves the time and space needed to address the loss - allowing sadness, nurturing our tender selves, reaching out to others and seeking support.
Any time that we can share a story or a memory with someone else, any time that we can reach out to someone who needs us, any time that we can give freely of ourselves, we are offering the best of who we are to the world and honoring the bond with our beloved. Milestones mark the passage of time, but they are only a part of our life. Our connections with others, those here and those who have gone before us, are what bring us alive.