I Taught My Teens Something School Never Could

I don’t remember where I first read it. It may have been in the child psychology class I took one semester, or in one of the dozens of parenting books I devoured in the early years of being a mother. But, somewhere early in my parenting journey, I decided it was extremely important for me to help my children name their feelings.

Even before my children could speak in words and sentences, I was naming their emotions for them.

I’d say things like:

“Oh, you’re frustrated right now. It is hard to wait for mommy to get your food ready.”

“You’re so happy right now. You’re laughing so hard.”

“You’re feeling a little scared because you haven’t met that dog before. You want to make sure he is friendly before you try to make friends.”

I did this without really giving it much thought after a while. It was the running monologue of a young mom’s life. I told them what I was doing, thinking and feeling, and I helped them find words to describe the same for themselves.

I Taught My Teens Something School Never Could
Courtesy of Leslie McCaddon Mendoza

When my oldest was diagnosed with cancer when he was just three years old, he was pointedly direct with the physicians and nurses about how he felt about what they were doing to him. “When you poke me, that hurts! I don’t like it. I feel upset.” “I’m frustrated because you won’t let me go to the playroom!” “This is my body and I decide what can be done to it and I’ve decided no more medicine.” As you can see, having the words didn’t necessarily mean they had the maturity to understand that having a negative emotion doesn’t mean we always get control avoiding it. Like it or not, that little boy had chemo. And he was very frustrated about it. Noted.

These days I have some pretty amazingly emotionally intelligent teenagers. And, to be honest, this doesn’t always work in my favor. They are extremely articulate about telling me exactly what they are thinking and feeling. It can be hard to hear. But, it does work in their favor because they are aware of their feelings. They can tell the difference between fatigue, apprehension, contentment, excitement, frustration, and probably another 99 distinct emotions.

What I was doing without realizing it was teaching them awareness. Emotional awareness. And as they get older, and we all get wiser, we’ve expanded that emotional awareness to include some thought-awareness as well.

My kids are learning, along with me, that those emotions they can name — although nothing to be afraid of or to avoid — are one hundred percent caused by their own thoughts. What they think about someone else’s behavior, their current tasks at hand, and any other circumstance in their life, determines what they will feel.

It would be easy to blame every difficulty in their life on the fact that their dad died by suicide when they were ten, eight, and six. In some cases, teachers and friends even offer up thoughts like, “You deserve a break, you’ve been through so much.” Or even, “People never really recover from something like you’ve been through.” These thoughts, when we take them on (me or the kids) create feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and even despair. Those emotions aren’t bad or wrong. But, they also aren’t very useful to us!

In our home, we are learning to not only name our feelings but to call out the thoughts we’re having that are creating those feelings. And, when we’re ready, we question those thoughts. We ask, are they helping us or hurting us?

I Taught My Teens Something School Never Could
Courtesy of Leslie McCaddon Mendoza

We can list a dozen thoughts that aren’t useful. But, we can also play around with thoughts that create useful feelings like determination, love, hope, and even joy. My kids have innate BS detectors. So, we don’t try any “positive thinking” around here. But, we do try to find thoughts that we believe are true to hold on to.

Thoughts like:

“We were lucky to have a man in our life who loved us so well, even if just for a little while.”

“Grief has taught us a lot about empathy and resiliency. We are more equipped than most to help others through difficult times.”

“It is okay to feel sad sometimes because it is just me feeling love for my Dad and missing him. But, sadness doesn’t define me. It is just one of many emotions I experience in any given day or year.”

“I have all the support available I could possibly need to work through difficult times with my grief.”

When I started teaching my children emotional intelligence 18 years ago, I had no idea what their little lives had in store for them. Like most mothers, I hoped their childhoods would be care-free and wonderful. Instead, their childhoods have presented challenges many adults have yet to face.

I won’t say I wouldn’t change a thing about my parenting choices through the years. But I would never change this. I taught my kids something schools never will. My children have been taught what it means to be emotional adults — to take full responsibility for their feelings and actions regardless of what life throws at them. They certainly aren’t perfect at it. Neither am I. But at the end of the day, they are empowered with the awareness of their feelings, the name for them, and the choice to examine (and even change) the thoughts attached to them.

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How Widowhood Prepared Me For A Pandemic

At first glance, the two things would seem completely unrelated. Living life as a young widow and living through a pandemic seem like two separate and distinct horrors. One is a deeply painful, personal loss, the other a global threat that’s capable of crushing our healthcare, financial, and social systems.

And yet, in the earliest days of the pandemic, I couldn’t help but feel a bizarre sense of déjà vu, a certain calm in the storm of finding the groceries and supplies I’d need to lock myself away with my two kids for two weeks. Because, although I’d never lived through a global pandemic before, I’ve lived through my world being upended. I’d lived through a nightmare. And as everyone scrambled—as I scrambled—I realized, I was a bit more prepared than some of my non-widowed friends. I could breathe a little easier, because so many elements were so strangely familiar. And I’d learned just a few lessons that helped make hard days just a heartbeat softer.

Living With Uncertainty About The Future

In the days after my husband died, I’d go to bed with no sense of how my next day would look, how my future would look. I’d fall asleep with that uncomfortable edge of uncertainty tucked into my thoughts. When the gravity of COVID-19 reality struck, when the pandemic launched everyone into a constant state of uncertainty and the headlines were flashing across phones every few seconds, announcing another closure, another economic low reached, another scary fact, we were all launched into uncertainty. We were all going to bed with no idea of what tomorrow would look like, trying to sleep with that sharp edge digging into our thoughts. As a young widow, I didn’t struggle to sleep. I’d learned that even though tomorrow is uncertain, tomorrow comes. The moon will set and the sun will rise, and tomorrow will arrive bringing whatever it brings, which you’ll face with the same strength and grit that you found to face the day that’s just passed.

Holding Two Completely Conflicting Thoughts

In the weeks after my husband died, I found myself wanting to take timid steps forward, desperate almost to take those timid steps forward, and at the same time, found myself gripping the tether to the past with all the strength in my body. I at once was ready to embrace the future and at the same time happy to remain mired in the past. As states begin to open, there’s a sense of relief that things are opening, that something like normal is returning, but with that comes the unmistakable terror of what if—as in, what if that haircut is the reason I catch COVID-19, or worse, what if that not-exactly socially distanced playdate is the reason my child develops the rare inflammatory syndrome affecting children. The act of holding two conflicting thoughts is mentally exhausting in a way I’d never experienced until widowhood. It seems as if it should be impossible to be at once both happy and sad. But it’s not. It’s possible to breathe into the tension of two feelings that shouldn’t be able to co-exist at once. I’ve learned trying to ignore one of the feelings, to focus exclusively on the other, is a plan destined for failure. Feelings generally don’t like to be ignored. Young widowhood has taught me to find space for both thoughts, to recognize there’s a strength of awareness in holding two contradictory thoughts at once.

Loss Of Normal

Among the very many things I lost when I lost my husband—my best friend, my sense of security, my belief in happily ever afters, to name a few—I also lost my normal. Every single aspect of my life—from the food I ate and the shows I watched and the way I washed my face at night—had changed. There was no such thing as normal anymore. There was just this. This stark new world that stripped away everything I thought I knew and left me raw and vulnerable to change. The pandemic stole all of our normals. Almost overnight, schools closed and offices shut down and the simple act of going to the grocery store became what felt like a life-or-death mission. Suddenly, our best friends were pulled away from us, our sense of security was scraped away, and the belief that happily ever after is possible became impossibly hard to believe. We all lost normal, and losing normal is simply hard. It feels too big, too intangible to quite wrap our minds around. Widowhood gave me the ability to give a name to the loss—the grief of losing normal—and the power to say simply: this is hard. Because what I learned is if we can reduce the intangible into language, then sometimes the hard thing doesn’t feel so overwhelming. Sometimes that’s enough.

Finding A Path Forward In The Face of Uncertainty

Life as a young widow is fraught with challenges— feeling helpless in the face of your child’s grief, watching the calendar days slip away as you slide further away from the life you once knew—but the biggest challenge is found in the moment you realize you need to begin finding your footing in a new normal because it’s no longer enough to miss normal. There’s no guidebook for figuring out how to take those first tentative steps in a new normal. The sun looks different, and the way you see the world is forever changed. Similarly, as states re-open and lockdowns lift, we’re emerging from hiding in ways we can only decide for ourselves, and for most of us, we’re probably cobbling together a game plan that looks different based on the day—maybe even based on the minute.

What I learned is that it’s okay to stumble as you’re finding your new footing. It’s okay to even retreat back to safety for a while. It’s okay to feel lost and overwhelmed and completely unprepared for the path stretching out in front of you. Because the path will be there, however and whenever you’re ready to walk it.

I don’t wish young widowhood on anyone. And I hope with all the hopes in my heart that none of us ever have to live through a pandemic again. But I hope I never forget to remember that sometimes what feels like the thing that will break you, is actually the thing that might save you next time.

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Becoming Sisters: The Bonds Of A Missed Experience of Motherhood

Trigger warning: child loss

It had been over an hour and a half since my brother had texted me to tell me that his wife, Amy, was headed in for an emergency c-section. I tried not to worry. I tried not to text Ben again. Maybe the baby had to go to the NICU. A million different scenarios ran through my head. None of which included the baby dying. Babies didn’t die during childbirth in 2020.

****
It was impossible not to love Amy. She was like a Disney character: she wore her emotions on the outside and her primary emotion was love. When Amy and Ben got engaged, I was jealous. The “Alanas,” as my mom liked to refer to Amy’s girl gang, made it clear that no one was supposed to wear white to Amy’s bachelorette because it was Amy’s weekend. But I showed up in Las Vegas dressed head to toe in a white jumpsuit. The Alanas all gave me judgy stares. But Amy just embraced me, screaming in her drunken exuberance, “My sister is here! Everyone, my sister is here!” Never having contemplated the possibility of referring to each other as sisters before (or being a hugger myself), I didn’t really understand how I, as the future sister-in-law, had been elevated to such a high status, but I adored Amy, so I went with it.

When Amy announced her pregnancy, I was already pregnant with my second. Amy had only let it slip once that it irked her that I was going to have two children before she had her first. Upon noticing that I wasn’t drinking at a family event, she said, “You’re not fucking pregnant again, are you?”

However, this is where our stories diverge. At 33 weeks pregnant, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Amy continued to have a normal and healthy pregnancy while I gave birth to a healthy baby girl followed by a double mastectomy, chemo and radiation.

Throughout Amy’s pregnancy, there had been a distance between us. Her unfiltered joy chafed against my depression. After all, I had been deprived of many of the greatest joys of motherhood: nursing your baby peacefully to sleep on your lap; strolling away the days of maternity leave with a sleeping newborn; and the opportunity to get completely lost inside this beautiful being. My memories of the early months of my daughter’s life stood in sharp contrast: watching videos from the chemo room of my nanny bottle feeding my daughter; the fanny pack that hid the drains from my surgery so I could walk discreetly with my daughter; and, most significantly, the feeling that I was always missing out.

****

As Josh and I sat shell shocked on the plane on the way to the hospital to see Amy and Ben, I muttered, “I should have been there more for her throughout her pregnancy.”

“You were fighting cancer,” he said.

We rode the 12 floors up to a miscellaneous floor in the hospital (since Amy had to be moved off the labor and delivery floor), as I continued replaying the events of the previous day.

I kept checking my phone into the wee hours of the night, waiting for that first picture of a little newborn to pop up: eyelids shiny and closed, face a little smushed, all swaddled up in one of those ubiquitous flannel blankets with the stripes. If we were lucky, we might even get to find out a name.

Finally, the screen lit up with a text from Ben. The first thing I noticed was that there was no picture attached. It read, “Amy is healthy. But the baby has no brain function. She wasn’t breathing, but they got her to breathe.”

Hours passed and I lay there wide awake. I texted my brother again, “Any updates?”

“The doctors are still working on the baby. I didn’t even get to see her.” My heart sunk. I felt like I was going to throw up.

“Hang in there. This is shitty. I love you,” I replied, careful not to say it would be okay when I didn’t know if it would be.

“I’m pretty scared,” he said. My little brother had never admitted to being scared before.

****

The scene when we entered Amy’s room was otherworldly. Amy was proudly holding her baby, staring into her daughter’s beautiful face, and for a second I almost forgot that the baby wasn’t alive. Amy was as pale as a sheet, her long hair matted and dishevelled, her protruding belly the only part of her tiny shape visible beneath her large open hospital gown.

“Hey Jen, hi Josh. Thanks, guys, for coming. Means so much. Do you want to see her?”

It was obvious by the slow, monotone candor of her speech that she was on a cocktail of painkillers to numb all different kinds of pain.

Curious, I tentatively approached the baby. When I saw her face, I nearly gasped. She looked just like my daughter, Lyla, except that her hat was covering the abrasions on her head, and her eyelids were a ghastly bruised color due to the brain hemorrhaging.

As Amy placed the baby back in the bassinet, she began to weep. It was the weeping of a person who had been crying for so long that she did not even notice anymore. A nurse came in to roll away the bassinet and Amy kissed the baby longingly on the forehead. “Goodbye forever,” she murmured, as the nurse once again covered the baby’s face with a blanket.

****

The next day, an oddball gang of fairy godmothers assembled at Amy’s and Ben’s house to disassemble any landmines that would trigger Amy.

“Did you check the living room?!” one of us would scream, as we swarmed towards it. “There is a baby swing in the living room!”

But there was no avoiding the landmines in the nursery. Amy had meticulously folded all of Lyla’s hand-me-down outfits, organizing them into drawers lined with ivory paper marked 0-3, 3-6 and 6-12. The piece de resistance was a custom halogen sign with the name “Sloane” emblazoned on it in neon pink letters. We had to snap the sign in half in order to remove it from the wall.

****

One day, out of the blue, Amy texted me, “Hey Jen! I’ve been so wrapped up in my own stuff that I haven’t really checked in. I’m sorry. How are you feeling about the end of treatment? It must be so nice to finally be able to focus on the kids.”

I had long ago resigned myself to the fact that I would never have a sister, but at that moment, I realized that I did. I guess that’s the thing about sisters. The relationship may be fraught at times, but no one is ever there for you like your sister.

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I Want My Friends To Complain To Me

Widowhood is strange. Young widowhood is even stranger. What was is no longer and what couldn’t possibly ever be is now simply routine. Everything about the life you once knew changes—from the food you choose to eat to the way the sun looks at dawn. Even your friendships change.

Some disappear—and that is an unfortunate, but almost inevitable, secondary loss that occurs in the days and weeks after that first horrible loss. Some strengthen—some friends help you carry the things that are too heavy to carry and those friends become family, bonded by something that feels more powerful than blood and bone. And some, maybe most, become just a little too polite; certain topics become taboo.

One phrase I hear almost too often two years into my young widowhood is “I shouldn’t complain to you,” from friends who start to vent about their marriages, about something their husbands did or didn’t do, about something their husbands should or shouldn’t have done. The vent is always cut short, with an apology, a furtive glance in my direction.

I understand the careful apology, appreciate it even. I know it’s coming from a place of kindness. Presumably because maybe it seems like complaining about something that I lost in a tragic way is at best insensitive, obnoxious, at worst. Or, maybe the subconscious thinking behind the abrupt stop comes from the fear that complaining about your marriage will remind me that mine ended with loss.

But, the truth is—I want you to complain to me. For selfish reasons and unselfish reasons, alike.

First, talking about your marriage will not remind me that marriage is over. My loss is not something I forget. It’s there in every breath and every moment, and that’s not something that I’m sad about. I miss my husband and my marriage and my pre-widow life, but my loss has made me who I am today—and I’m at peace with this version of myself. (For what it’s worth, I think my husband would have liked this version of me, too.)

Second, listening to a friend vent about her husband makes me feel normal. In a life that often feels and is different from the lives of my friends, anything that lets me for a moment just be a friend—not a widowed friend—feels like a gift. Once upon a time before I became a widow, I’d commiserate with friends about our husbands who threw their socks near the hamper instead of inside it, or pondered with a friend how best to get out of a funny marriage rut. I don’t want that to end just because I can’t add new material. I don’t suddenly think anyone else’s marriage is perfect, simply because mine is a memory, and I don’t begrudge anyone an imperfect marriage because my husband died. As hard as it is to accept on some days, I know life goes on, and it makes me feel normal to be included in the conversations I used to be included in without a second thought.

And third, maybe most importantly, friendships are two-way relationships, even post loss, even in young widowhood. Since my husband’s diagnosis four years ago, since his death two years ago, I’ve been showered in support and kindness, more than I’ll ever be able to pay back. But I want to try.

Obviously I’m not wishing marriage problems or husbands who won’t help around the house on any of my friends just so I can pay off a “good friend” debt. But I remember a thing or two about marriage. I know even great marriages are imperfect and husbands who are something more than soul mates can get on your last nerve. And I want to be there for those friends who need a place to vent their frustration, who need a sounding board for their concerns. That’s what friendship is—a give and take. I want to give as much as I’ve taken these last years. Listening is the least I can do for all these friends who have given so much.

With all that being said, it’s also important to be honest. Because the truth is that, sometimes yes, there will be a moment during that vent session when my mind will go to that place, when I’ll think of all that I would give up just to be able to complain about dirty socks left by the hamper and how grateful I’d be to just see those dirty socks again. I wouldn’t be human if that thought didn’t cross my mind. But I wouldn’t be a good friend if I always made it about me, if I didn’t push that thought away in order to let my friends have their lives, their hardships, their space. I wouldn’t be the person I want to be post-loss if I didn’t realize it’s not always about me—sometimes my role is only to listen and help carry the things, even the minor frustrations, that are too heavy for a friend to carry alone.

Young widowhood didn’t give me a monopoly on sadness or grief or hard days. Life goes on, marriages go on, as imperfectly as my marriage had. And in this life post loss, few things are as important to me as being the kind of person who sees heartache and chooses to help, who sees loss and chooses to stay, who sees a friend and wants to listen.

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This Is What Can Happen In 4,356 Days

4,356 days.

That’s roughly how many days it’s been since I was sitting in the emergency room at the hospital with my mom, listening to them talk about how they were going to admit her. Her cancer had spread to the point where her treatment wasn’t working anymore. When her oncologist decided to take her off of chemotherapy to treat the lymphedema in her arm, she developed an infection in her port that spread into her heart.

The doctors spoke in hushed tones after they admitted her; they kept telling us that there was a chance she would get better, that the infection wasn’t that serious and that she’d be able to come back home sooner than we knew it. But she knew, and we knew too, that just wasn’t the case. Her eyes told another story. She was tired, and defeated. After losing my dad to lung cancer almost exactly two years before, she didn’t have the fight left in her.

I sat in the room with her and held her hand while she talked to me. She wasn’t angry, she was just sad. Sad that she would miss out on seeing my brother and I grow up. Sad that she wasn’t going to be around to see her grandkids. “Grandkids?,” I thought to myself as the tears welled up in my eyes. “I’m nowhere near having kids. What is she talking about? I don’t want to think about kids. I want my mom. I’m not ready for her to leave me…”

She passed away the next evening. I left the hospital the night before she died, exhausted and in desperate need of some sleep. She was upset I was leaving; she wanted me to stay. I remember she yelled at me and told me I was selfish. I told her I would see her the next morning and we could talk some more then. By the time I got back to the hospital the next day, she was no longer responsive. We couldn’t talk anymore. Within 12 hours, she was gone.

4,356 days.

This Is What Can Happen In 4,356 Days: Mother and Daughter
Courtesy of Lara Reimer

4,356 days before my mom left this earth, I was 10 years old. It was 1994. Fourth grade was ending. President Bill Clinton delivered his first State of the Union speech. OJ Simpson’s DNA had just linked him to the murder scene of his ex-wife and her friend. Kurt Cobain was found dead. We lived on the top floor of a two-flat in Niles. We ran around the neighborhood all day during the summer from the time the sun came up until the time it went down. We drank from the sprinkler. We got our news from the newspaper and had to page my dad if we needed him to call home.

4,356 days.

That’s how long it’s been since the last time I heard my mother’s voice or felt the softness of her touch. My kids are fighting again and it’s overwhelming. When are they ever going to stop being assholes? When will my older son stop talking to me non-stop? He never stops talking. He’s always trying to tell me something or ask me a question or get my attention. When will his brother stop screaming? Isn’t he going to learn how to talk soon? It’ll be so much easier once he learns how to use his words instead of his screeches. My oldest, R., starts kindergarten at the end of August. He’s turning into a young man; less baby-faced and looking more and more like his dad every day. Almost daily, he climbs into my lap and gives me a hug. “Don’t worry, Mommy,” he tells me. “I will always hug you, even when I’m an adult and I’m bigger than you. And when I get home from school, you won’t be lonely anymore because we can talk then.”

This Is What Can Happen In 4,356 Days: Mother and Daughter
Courtesy of Lara Reimer

4,783 days.

That’s how many days I have left until my oldest turns 18 and gets to venture out into the world as a legal adult. What will life be like then? Are he and his brother still going to be fighting every day? (Spoiler alert: most likely.) While there are some days right now with everything going on in the world that I’m thankful that the moments are fleeting, this is one of the reasons I wish time would just slow down. Keep them little just a bit longer…

…I’m not ready for them to leave me.

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My Mama Is Gone

Summer winds were beginning to blow as spring was fading fast. The flowers were in full bloom, thirsty for daily attention. The pool sparkled, clear blue as the cornflower sky. The backyard, pristine, ready for summer fun. But instead we faced an unexpected battle; one we weren’t prepared to wage. We quickly mustered our strength and ammunition, but our enemy was swift and formidable. We had been outsmarted, outplayed. Our hope and desperation fell short. Vibrancy to frailty in the blink of an eye, as the unfathomable had occurred. It was unbelievably difficult to comprehend.

The days kept their normal stride. Life all around us did not stop, even in the midst of my world coming to a screeching halt. Despite all our efforts, my mama died. She died the first Saturday in August. August, the month of my birth, on the day I gave birth, just 14 years ago. It was cruel. The last gut punch in what was the fight of our lives. That kind of fight leaves scars, war wounds, a wrinkled heart, a tormented mind, an amnesia of sorts. Waking each day only to remind myself that my mama is gone. My night sky forever changed, my guiding light dimmed, my safety net frayed.

The memories wash over me. Some like 10-foot waves, tsunamis, knocking me down. I am drowning. Others rolling gently, constantly. They comfort me, rock me to sleep. I want to remember because I cannot bear to forget.

My Mama Is Gone: Mother and Daughter
Courtesy of Allyson Stanton

I can picture myself as a little girl in my bedroom with the little pink flowers on the wall. My mama is lying beside me as I often got scared in the middle of the night. She awakened easily and we had a routine. I feel warm and cozy; the pink lady lamp is aglow with light. The seven dwarfs are on a shelf overhead, her pink elephant piggy bank in the room next door; I can see it.

I can smell the lemon Pledge on a warm summer Saturday. My mama is dusting the mahogany tables. A gentle breeze blows hot air through the open window. It is familiar. A sweet smell of my childhood.

I can taste the cherry Cokes, the frozen yogurt, warm brownies, and grandma’s cornbread dressing. She made that dressing long after my grandma was gone because she knew it was one of my favorites. I don’t know if it will ever taste the same.

I flip through the slideshow in my mind of family trips in the Caravan, makeovers at Lake Lure, Disney World meets Duke basketball, McDonald’s stomachaches, “whose idea was it to come here?” and that trip to the ER when I got kicked by a horse. Each trip was a Griswold adventure, yet perfect in every way.

Our annual beach trips I hold dear. I can see the pelican flying overhead and feel the warm sun on my face. My face changes, growing from child to adult, but my mama’s face seems to stay the same. I am laughing in the infamous home video as she is unable to climb the dock. Her hair is long and wavy. She is laughing too. Years later, I can feel the sea spray at the water’s edge. She is holding my children’s hands, no longer just mine, but theirs as well.

Courtesy of Allyson Stanton

The difficult times are there too, in the shadows of my mind. The text messages and phone calls fervently hoping for improvement are chronicled on my phone. I was desperate to help, her “beautiful advocate.” Ironically, Beautiful was the last musical we would see just a month before. She was perfect, healthy, “beautiful.” How was I to know?

People tell me I look like her, sound like her. I find sadness in this revelation. Maybe because I want so badly to see her, hear her for myself. I long for her to call my name. I long to see her face. I want most to hug her and feel that warm motherly embrace. One more day would not be enough. I look in the mirror; I do not see her. I do not hear her voice in my own.

But I do see her hands. The mental picture of my mother’s hands is a vivid one. I remember holding her hand on the day she died. It is a painful yet beautiful memory as those hands that raised me took on a bluish hue. What was left of her life on earth leaving through her fingertips. I could still hold her hand, but she could no longer hold mine. Those hands cared for me, loved me, and protected me.

Sometimes I look down at my own and they feel like hers. I rub my children’s heads when they have headaches and I remember her doing the same for me. I can feel her motherly love run through my hands, and in some ways I can still feel that tangible connection.

It was a beautiful life. One filled with joy and laughter, friendship, and love. I can’t imagine how she must have felt. The shock, the realization that all good things must come to an end. The Duke basketball games she’ll never see, the grandchildren she’ll never watch grow, the shopping trips we’ll never take. It is too much sadness to take on; the life not lived.

My Mama Is Gone: Mother and Daughter
Courtesy of Allyson Stanton

I find comfort in her clothes, her smell. Many items we chose together. I call her name but she doesn’t answer. Birthdays pass without her song. It’s all uncharted territory, living life without your mom and the promise of unconditional love. Losing the one who loves you most, you feel like less. Less of what makes you, you. Less sure, less secure, less loved.

In the midst of all the uncertainty, I search for my mother’s guidance. I get in the car with the plan to call her and it hits me like a ton of bricks: she is not there. Lukas made the baseball team, she doesn’t know. Wren is doing Girls on the Run, she doesn’t know. I had my wisdom teeth out and she didn’t call. We are in a national crisis and I can’t call her.

She would be worried about me. It is a very lonely feeling, missing the one person who cares about your well-being over all others. It can bury you if you let it. Some days it feels like it just might.

Yet I am myself a mother. I am a wife, a sister, and I am still a daughter. I must continue on, march forward and live my life. I carry my mother’s love with me to give me strength. I am my mother’s daughter.

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This Is What It Feels Like When Trauma Resurfaces

Trigger warning: child loss

When I was little, I wanted for something that could never be. That thing being, a summer birthday. Yeah, it was irrational, impossible, and never going to happen, but an Indiana girl with a January birthday could dream. Little did I know then, however, that it wasn’t a summer birthday that could somehow make my life feel more complete. Instead, it was growing up and becoming a mom to a summer baby. 

Our daughter was born at the beginning of summer in 2016, and this June, we should be celebrating her fourth birthday. I say “should be” because I’m not sure if babies who died here on earth as an infant ever truly age where they’re at now. But from where I’m sitting, we are weeks away from her special day. 

Like any bereaved mother, I want my daughter to be remembered for who she was while she was still with us. I don’t want her entire existence to become fixated on that one horrible day. I want to think of her and remember who she was for those four months and two days we were lucky enough to have her. And though I will always grieve, I don’t want that to stop me from truly living. At the same time, I feel like a hypocrite when I realize that these desires of my heart and my as-of-now thoughts don’t always match up. Because to me, it’s as if the trauma from her loss has bound itself to the everyday, ordinary things.  

It could be a smell, a calendar day, a nonspecific location, a nightmare, or even just a song that plays on the radio. Honestly, I don’t always know what might trip me up or what tomorrow’s emotions will bring. Because that’s the thing about those of us who are living after trauma — every single day holds so much uncertainty. 

Oftentimes, we want to put our own feelings on hold. We long to “just be done with it,” because living it over and over again doesn’t feel like it’s doing anybody any good. It’s tedious, relentless, and at times, it feels so far beyond the reach of our control. 

Just when we think that we’ve finally got a handle on the flashbacks or that dull ache in our throat, it seems there is always another obstacle lurking around the corner, one with the ability to breathe life into traumatic memories that once laid dormant. 

To understand it more clearly, picture a huge piece of valuable glass shattering all over a ceramic floor. If you witnessed the crash, you’d initially find yourself in shock and overwhelmed by the great big mess. You might stand back to assess the damage, all of those teeny-tiny pieces of glass laying where they fell, before asking yourself plainly, “Did that really just happen?”

It’s instinctive that you would already know to protect yourself from the glass by putting shoes on. Even after gathering up as much of the wreckage as possible, you would still stand on guard and walk on your tip-toes. But even being hyper-aware of your situation and surroundings wouldn’t be much help. Sooner or later, there would come a day that the shards of glass still managed to impale your foot.

It could be months or years later, you could have cleaned your house a million times and completely gone back to resuming your normal way of living, but those pieces would never leave you — they would have been there this whole time. Yet, the cuts they leave would be fresh and still hurt. 

That’s what trauma does — it sticks with a person. Through no fault of those who have been subjected to its hold, it hides from us for our own good. It nestles itself in, dissociates us from the reality of our current situation, and breaks off into a million teeny-tiny pieces until it’s stepped on and brought back up. 

In the immediate days following trauma, there is a great lump sum of our emotions (the many shards of glass on the floor) which are plainly visible at first. But just as big pieces of glass can scatter, so do our emotions stemming from trauma. In the same way that we wear shoes to protect ourselves in the event that a vase falls to bits all over the floor, our body instinctively works to protect us by repressing past memories, feelings, and thoughts that are associated with our trauma. 

We don’t want to be reminded of horrible events because of something as simple as the smell of freshly mowed summer grass or a song on the radio, but we don’t get to choose what does or does not bring up a traumatic episode. 

For those of us who have lived through trauma and are still reliving it today, it’s not that we have an inability to look towards the future. We don’t carry a victim mentality, and we don’t need or want to be on the receiving end of an outsider’s pity. 

We have simply stepped on old, broken glass. 

 

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Why Losing A Mom Is Even Harder When You’re A Mom Too

It’s 3 a.m. Well, it’s actually 9:39 p.m., but I’m in bed, it’s dark, and my kids have been asleep for more than 45 minutes, so it’s 3 a.m. TMST (toddler mom standard time).

Instead of claiming the sleep that is one of the rarest commodities for the mom of a toddler and a newborn, I’m going through old photos trying to find every single picture that has ever been taken of my four-year-old and my mom, her Grandbunny. We lost my mom this past January. To say it was a big blow to our family would be an insultingly drastic understatement.

I gave birth to our youngest son this past November, and while we were in the hospital, my parents took care of our older daughter (then a rambunctious three-year-old) with no problems. Everything seemed normal. Thanksgiving came and went, and our biggest worry was whose house was going to smell like turkey for days. We visited my parents’ house for Christmas, and we could tell Mom looked different, but she shrugged it off, saying she was having a health problem and had lost some weight. In mid-January, she went into the hospital. A week later, she was gone.

Grief is always painful. Grieving a parent is excruciating. However, in the three months and three days that have passed since then, I’ve been on a daily discovery trip to realize how much it sucks to lose a mom when you’re also a mom yourself.

My daughter worshipped her Grandbunny. They spent time together more days than not, especially toward the end of what was a pretty rough pregnancy with our youngest son. So my first realization was that, when you should be struggling to deal with your own immediate grief at losing a parent, a mom doesn’t have the luxury (if it could ever be called that) of focusing on her own grief. We inherit the unbearable, inhumane job of breaking the hearts of the tiny people we care about more than anything else in the world, whose emotional states even more fragile than ours. You have to sit down with your kids and watch as their tiny worlds collapse around them and know you’re powerless to fix it.

And that’s just day one.

You then all start the grieving process, but you still aren’t absolved of being the glue that holds the family together. Your kids act out more because they just lost a major part of their lives, and you have to be patient, understanding, and forgiving, even though you just want to curl up in a ball and sob. And it gets even worse, because every time your kids act out, your first impulse is to reach for the phone and ask your mom for advice on how to handle it. I’m only three months out, but this reflex isn’t going away.

So you learn to cope quietly. To draw out whatever inner strength you can find under the couch cushions of your soul, and you try to strike the right balance between keeping your kids distracted with the best smiles you can fake and shepherding them through the grief process with stories, photos, and videos of them with the grandmother they’ll never get to see again.

Why Losing A Mom Is Even Harder When You're A Mom Too
Courtesy of Liz Bayardelle

Toddler parents have it even worse because we don’t just have to break the bad news once. No, we have to re-explain the most painful event in our lives every day, to break it down into simple and easy-to-understand language, and to repeatedly answer questions so brutal only a small child could get away with asking them.

But, as always, time passes. You think it will get easier with time, but it doesn’t quite work that way. As they are wont to do, your kids start to grow and then you discover a new type of pain because every first is one more thing your mom isn’t going to see. You have to resist the urge to text her every time you take a cute picture of her grandchildren (because she was the only one in your life who didn’t mind when you texted her basically the same picture of the baby napping every single afternoon). Every adorable moment now becomes bittersweet because you know how much she would have loved it.

You get used to living your moments with the devil on your shoulder silently whispering that things will never be the same without her here to enjoy these precious moments with you. Some moments you are actually happy, and all the others you get better at faking it. Everyone else begins to move on, and you not only get to grieve, but you learn to do it without the initial outpouring of support that accompanies the loss of a relative. You realize that the grief isn’t going to go away, it’s going to become a part of you, and you will just get better at carrying it around.

And then, just as you slowly adjust to the emotional trauma (as if such a thing is actually possible), you begin to realize just how much you relied on her for help on a day to day basis. I never realized that I used my mom as Google until I couldn’t anymore. Any time I wanted a recipe, couldn’t get a stain out of something, or needed to know how to calculate some figure for my taxes, I didn’t look it up. I called my mom. The only time my husband and I had “date nights” were when my parents came over to babysit for us. Now with two kids under five, there’s no way we’d saddle my recently-widowed father with that level of chaos, so I guess we’ll be dating at home until our five-month-old son starts preschool. It’s only three years, right?

If the initial emotional damage, the trauma of having to tell your kids, the process of parenting through grief, the dampening of what should be incredibly happy moments that follow, and the loss of a major source of practical help don’t get you, what surely will is the hollow realization that your kids, especially if they are on the younger side, might not even remember this person who had such a major influence on both your life and theirs.

So here I sit, blatantly ignoring my better angels’ attempts at getting me to go to sleep, culling through old family photos to make a “Grandbunny and Me” photo book for my daughter. She’s only four, so I know that there’s only a small chance she’ll retain any of the memories of the Grandbunny she spent four days a week with every day of her early childhood. However, I know that the more she is reminded of the memories she does have, the higher the chance she’ll retain them into adulthood, so here I sit.

While sorting through photos I had the most jarring realization of all. Despite the fact that my daughter spent more time with my mom than with anyone else aside from me and my husband, there are shockingly few pictures of the two of them together. There are hundreds of pictures of her with the gifts my mom got her and the occasional few pictures I was able to take of the two of them, but the overwhelming majority are photos of my daughter that were taken by my mom.

A majority of our most cherished family photos had my mom on the other side of the camera. It wasn’t because she was camera shy, but because she was doing what moms do best: being the invisible glue that held everything together. She was the person who remembered every little holiday and mailed my daughter cards because she remembered that kids still think getting mail is fun. She was the person who made trips to the grocery store and the gas station into an adventure. She was the one making sure every family get together was fully photographed and happily documented.

After making this discovery, I realized that the same is mostly true of our family photos. I’m usually behind the camera, so an overwhelming majority of the photos are just of my husband and kids. I’m sure it’s like this in many families even though no one ever really notices. And there’s a very good reason for this. To use my glue metaphor, the mom isn’t usually in family pictures because the only time glue is ever really noticed is when it fails to do its job.

As the glue of a family, a mom’s work is usually silent, unnoticed, and often without any external validation whatsoever. There are days when this can feel horribly unfair. There are days when all I want in the world is for someone to thank me for unloading the dang dishwasher (again).

However, sitting here and looking at all these photos that have my mom invisibly behind the camera, I realize that this is the biggest compliment in the world. If I can do half as good of a job as she did of holding the family together so well we didn’t notice it was even happening, I’ll know I’ve done my job as a mom. And after living through the last three months and three days, I know how much my kids will appreciate it too.

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My Dream Came True, And I’m Too Afraid To Celebrate

For six years, I’ve dreamed of signing with a literary agent, dreamed of taking that first real step toward publication. I’ve written five books—or is it six?—and I’ve been rejected hundreds of times by hundreds of literary agents. Rejection is all I knew. It wasn’t pleasant; it was, in fact, wildly discouraging. But it was my usual, my familiar. Until recently.

Recently, I got my yes.

Recently, I got the email I’d been dreaming about, the one I had imagined landing in my inbox with a puff of sparkle and glitter and light. The email I thought I’d receive and then shout about from the rooftops.

Instead, I received the email, shut my laptop, and proceeded to make my kids’ lunch, as if the one thing I had been dreaming about for years hadn’t just happened. Only later, when I did send out a few texts to close family and friends to tell them, and their enthusiastic excitement was palpable even over messaging, and I spent my words tamping down their excitement rather than squealing incoherently, did I realize my reaction was bizarre.

I’m not sure why my reaction was so muted. Maybe it’s because we’re living in the Great Pause right now and everything is muted—joy and celebration included.

Maybe because the moments you dream about for years never live up to the reality. The email unfortunately did not arrive with a puff of sparkle and glitter and light—to be fair, I haven’t seen an email do that yet.

Or maybe, and I suspect probably, my quiet response was tempered by my past, by my grief and young widowhood and by a harsh truth I was forced to learn two years ago: things that are too good can be ripped away too easily. A beautiful, happy, fulfilling, perfectly-imperfect marriage can be ripped away even when you fight like hell to save it. And when good things are ripped away, especially when they are ripped away while you’re still clinging to them with all your strength, the space left behind hurts.

I landed in my late husband’s orbit by accident. A few twists of fate had us standing across from each other on a dance floor one night not long after I’d graduated college. It wasn’t supposed to turn into anything—you don’t meet forever people in bars, certainly not in nightclubs wearing red-sequined tube tops. But I did. And we didn’t have a whirlwind romance, but we had a good life—the kind of life I never dared dream for myself growing up in a home with a father who disappeared as if love wasn’t reason enough to visit and a mother who was consumed by the effort to keep her three children clothed and housed and fed.

The life I lived with my husband was the real-life fairy tale I never expected to live. Of course we bickered and argued. Sometimes he was too stubborn for his own good, often I was worse. Sometimes we drove each other bonkers and sometimes we had nothing to say to each other. But mostly we laughed and talked and lived a life that was full of life. Mostly I felt as if I’d climbed my own personal mountain of dreams, surpassing even what I had believed was the summit. I was so high I could almost touch the stars. Maybe I did.

And then that life that was full of life was ripped away. And I fell. Down that mountain, down past where I should have stopped climbing and played it safe, down to a place where I couldn’t even see those stars I’d touched.

The truth I learned two years ago is: when you scale your wildest dreams, when you’re too close to the top, there’s so much more distance to fall; you land harder; the bruises last longer, maybe even forever.

The truth I learned two years ago is there’s a safety in staying at the bottom of your personal mountain of dreams. You can’t fall and you can’t lose and you can’t get hurt.

Since that fall, I’ve clawed my way up from that very rock bottom. Sometimes I can see glimmers of starlight from where I am. But I’ve stayed well below even that height where I’d be playing it safe. Because everything feels so fragile, so impossibly delicate and breakable now.

I could almost believe that maybe it’s easier not to climb at all.

And yet…

Every time I think of that email, of that yes, I’m filled with a joy and hope for a future that’s burning so bright I almost can’t breathe without hyperventilating. Despite my fear, I’m already scaling that mountain of dreams.

And I can’t help but to think of the other lesson I learned two years ago, the one that isn’t as loud as my first lesson, but remains just as persistent and insistent.

Sometimes you don’t get a second chance to do the thing that scares you most. Sometimes it’s okay not to scale that dream mountain because you’re afraid, and you need to focus just on surviving, which is often hard enough, but other times, even most times, scaling that mountain lets you touch the starlight—even if just for a moment. And that moment is everything. That moment will be the reason when you fall, if you fall, you’ll get back up and have the strength to climb again.

The truth is I’m terrified to celebrate this dream come true. Because that makes it real. That means I’ve climbed to a height that will hurt, if I fall. And I already have bruises and scars from that first awful fall. But the truth is also, if I fall, I know I’ll get back up. And that’s reason enough to celebrate.

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‘Grief Brain’ Has Stolen My Ability To Enjoy Entertainment Like I Used To

I’m weeks too late to the Tiger King phenomenon that swept the nation in the early days of the pandemic. In those early weeks, while we all adjusted to a new normal and tried to figure out whether this was real life or some collective nightmare we needed to be woken from, everybody was watching and talking about and meme-ing about Tiger King. I wasn’t. I read the reviews and think pieces and giggled at the memes (so many memes), and I have a good-ish sense of what happened in the show, but mostly I missed out on an entire national conversation.

Not for lack of time. Though time can be hard to come by between being a single parent, a crisis school teacher, and a woman attempting to build a career for herself during a pandemic, I could have watched something after my kids went to bed. Often I’m too mentally drained to do anything that involves major cognitive function. But night after night, remote in hand, I turn on the television and watch nothing (unless it’s Dead to Me—because if I can find a reason to laugh about my young widowhood, sign me up).

Instead, I let the TV function as background noise in a house that is suddenly too quiet and too lonely, and I catch up on social media or attempt to write or (most likely) lose myself in a mindless Internet hole for a while. And I miss national conversations.

But I have a good reason: I have grief brain.

Before widowhood, I’d never heard about grief brain, and I probably would not have understood how sitting to watch a show on television could be a struggle. There’s not much to the act other than staring at a screen and letting the characters do the work.

But that requires focus and concentration, which is surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly) hard to come by when your world is turned upside down by grief. Lisa M. Shulman, MD, a professor of neurology at the University of Maryland and author of Before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Loss, Grief, and Our Brain wrote that, “When we think about brain trauma, we usually think about physical injury. But we now understand that the emotional trauma of loss has profound effects on the mind, brain, and body.” The impact of grief on the brain can “lead to confusion, disorientation, detachment, and increased forgetfulness,” according to Shulman.

Grief brain is real. It’s a trauma as impactful as a physical injury. I remember the early days of grief. I remember the first time I missed (read: completely forgot about) an appointment—something that had never happened to me in my pre-loss life. I remember walking from room to room, trying to remember why I’d stood up from my seat in the first place. I remember staring at a newly released book by an author I loved and wishing the words on the page held the magic they used to hold, or could at least hold my attention for more than twelve seconds at a time.

Until I started reading other people’s stories of grief, I thought it was just me. I didn’t know then that grief is more than feeling sad during the funeral and the days after, and more than crying on birthdays and anniversaries. I didn’t know grief is something that often informs your every moment and thought, and sometimes rearranges all the things you knew to be true. Once I knew, once I’d learned my experience wasn’t unusual, it was easier to give myself the space and time I needed to find my way back to myself.

These days are easier. I’m not much more scatterbrained than I was before loss (or I am more scatterbrained, but that’s due more to solo parenting and attempting to singlehandedly manage a life built for two, rather than grief), and it’s easier to focus throughout the day on important tasks—or I’m better at writing myself notes and setting phone reminders.

And yet, the ability to watch a show or read a book hasn’t completely returned. Which is rough in regular life, and particularly brutal during a pandemic when zoning out to a series and participating in a national conversation to distract from the awful reality outside would be really welcome.

When the inevitable “what are you watching,” question arises in Zoom calls and virtual happy hours, I have no answer. I mumble something about a show I heard was great and am planning to watch. I don’t add that my list of shows I’m planning to watch is absurdly long and rarely touched. I don’t usually volunteer that I still can’t watch TV. My husband died two plus years ago, and I don’t want to sound broken by grief, because I know I’m not.

It’s simply the reality of grief and where I am in my grief journey.

I don’t know that I’ll be able to ever watch TV or read a book again. I assume I will. I hope I will—I missed the Tiger King trend, but I’d like to be able to jump into the next series that takes over the national conversation. But in truth, I don’t know. Grief has no rules, no one-size-fits all timeline.

I know that all I can do is find some grace for the post-loss version of me, the version that has lived a lifetime in just a few short years, the version that maybe can’t watch Tiger King just yet, but can stand tall in the face of a global pandemic for her children. The version that knows that, like a physical injury, healing takes time, and it will always look different from person-to-person, but it will happen, with a little grace, a little self-compassion, a little hope. The version that keeps sharing her story because one day, another woman might need to know that even if she can’t join in the national conversation, she’s not broken by grief.

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