In the summer of 2005, my mother committed suicide, and my life changed forever. Her death marked a significant demarcation point in my life: who I was before her death, and who I became after.
The initial pain I felt in the wake of her death was unfathomable -- it was disorienting, gut-wrenching and incomprehensible. At 24, I had lost the most important person in my life. I had just graduated college, moved to a new city, and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My mother represented the strongest emotional connection I had ever experienced with another human being. There were no words or explanation needed to understand what we felt for each other. It was like an undercurrent that ran through me and everything I did in my life up until then. I felt naked and emotionally raw when from one day to the next she was gone for good.
When I look back at that time after my mother's suicide, I still remember much of it vividly. I can recall times and situations where I know exactly what I was wearing, how I felt, who I was with and what I was doing. Although many years have passed since her death, the change and shock are still very alive in my memory. As I settled into my new life without my mother -- feeling vulnerable, weak and threatened -- my body progressively went into a certain state of shock. When humans feel a threat, they naturally go into survival mode. Without making a conscious choice about this, I seemed to have put some of my pain, sorrow, and grief into a box, and placed it high up on an imaginary shelf. Then I said "f**k off" to it, and slowly moved on.
An important point to mention here is that this didn't happen right away. In the beginning, my feelings and grief were all over the place, openly addressed and talked about. I went to therapy, had enormous support from my family and friends, and felt that I was actively dealing with my grief, not hiding from it. But the world never stops, and life goes on. The more I put myself together again, the more my mother's death and presence was less on the immediate stage, and gradually those feelings and thoughts transitioned behind the curtain, along with my wounded heart.
Life went on ... and on. Many years passed and a numbness started to set in. I could sit across a table with a friend and talk about my mother like I was talking about the weather. They would cry for me! I could be running errands and see a mother-daughter pair shopping together and it would barely phase me. I could objectively look at that kind of scene and think "nice ... I remember those days ... oh well ... what can you do!" And yes, sadly, there was nothing that I could do to make my mother come back.
But over the years, this detachment from my emotions became more troubling to me. I'm not sure why, but it seemed to prevent or hold me back from growing up, from maturing, from being present and accounted for in my closest relationships, and from simply connecting with others on a deeper level. When I first became pregnant, I was delighted to feel emotional. I could cry watching a sappy movie, and be incredibly touched by anything quite ordinary. It was a breath of fresh air! After my pregnancy, my emotional state reverted back, but something shifted. Becoming a mother made me more vulnerable as a woman.
It now seemed like my heart was walking outside of my body. And for the first time, I was what my mother always was to me: a mother. As my children grow, I am gaining a whole new perspective and appreciation of her life, her experiences, and her challenges. I see much (but not all) of myself in her ... in how I am changing as a woman, how I parent and what personal roadblocks I now face similar to what she faced, or at least what I remember. It's challenging not having her here as a sounding board and having to navigate these waters mostly alone. Her death has made me more resilient and less fearful of the unknown but it also leaves an empty hole behind.
A few years after both my children were born, and after the passing of my grandmother (my mother's mother), my own therapy triggered something in me relating to my mother. Subsequently, I had a dream after which I woke up sweating quite profusely. It was the first dream of my mother in many, many years. As with all previous dreams of my mother, she wasn't dead nor did she die in my dream. However, the dream always followed the same pattern ... she is running away, and I am desperately looking for her. I chase her, see glimpses of her, but I'm never quite able to catch or confront her. Until I had this dream.
In the short version of this dream, I find myself in a room perusing a fashion catalogue, which is filled with the newest perfumes (on a side note ... my mother introduced me to the world of perfumes and it became our hobby to try to purchase many different ones. And this is a tradition I have continued to this day ... only now to find my daughter looking up to me already asking me to spray her with a douse of perfume!). But here in this dream, I was frustrated and turning the pages slightly aggressively, wondering what perfumes my mother might be wearing these days.
One of my oldest friends who knew my mother was the only other person in the room. She was sitting in a chair observing me but did not say a word. Next to the magazine lays a phone. I then spoke aloud stating that it's been a long time and I was going to call my mother to ask her what perfumes she liked these days. I finally dialed her number and it rang ... and rang ... and rang ... until she finally picked up. She didn't say much. She wasn't excited, surprised or upset to hear from me. I did all the talking. She seemed far away, distant and remote. She calmly told me the perfumes she was wearing and I didn't recognize any of them. Her nonchalant responses began to stir up frustration (but mostly hurt) in me, as she seemed foreign to me. It was as if I almost didn't recognize the person I was talking to on the other end ... my mother.
Right before I woke up I had a vision of a rather large, beating heart. It was ... heavy ... moist ... raw ... alive ... it was a chilling image. Then a thumb appeared that pressed into the heart and as it let go, it pulsed and left an imprint that was slightly visible. It was my heart. That's when I woke up. It dawned on me, for the first time ever, how abandoned I felt by my mother ... how angry I was at her ... how her choice to commit suicide had impacted my life and my relationships with others and myself in unexpected ways. For all this time I mostly thought only endearingly about her -- always missing her immensely. I became highly sensitive to loss and abandonment, and therefore often remained guarded about exposing my own feelings and vulnerability. It was an ever-conflicting, double-edged sword. But that day of the dream, it was as though the box I placed high on that imaginary shelf finally cracked, fell and shattered right in front of me. Eleven years later.
And I believe this is an instructive narrative for how grief works. It never fully leaves you. It disappears for a time and revisits you when it needs to. It becomes a constant companion, and like any relationship, goes through phases of closeness and distance. I experienced a wave of relief after this episode and I believe it's opened a new door to how I perceive life and relationships. For one, my expectations of important others have decreased in a good way, as I no longer seek or look for what I once had with my mother in others. I've realized that is an impossible ask and as hard as it has been this realization has also given me peace and acceptance for what simply is in life. Life is not meant to be easy and without hardship. We all experience our struggles and challenges in different ways. Nobody comes out of this life unscathed. As a clinician, I am exposed to this harsh reality every day, and it has given me tremendous respect for life and what it means to be a human being in this world.
One year ago, I started a support group for women who lost their mothers. For informatiom, please click here. It was sheer coincidence (or destiny) that multiple women contacted me around the same time asking if I had an active group open. I did not, but I knew then that I had to start one. And so I did and it's been one of the best decisions I've made as a therapist. I recognize there is a tremendous need for this type of catharsis, and since the group is unique to mother loss, there seems to be an instant connection among the women and the group has taken on a life of its own.
I facilitate the group, but I do not participate myself. Having had the experience of losing my own mother, I have an advantage in relating to what this loss means and feels like to every daughter. The group has grown into a core group of women (with new members having joined over time), mostly in their late 20s and early 30s who lost their mothers mostly to cancer-related illnesses. I have listened to countless stories and experiences that speak to this loss, from this group, from clients in my private practice and through the years of writing my doctoral dissertation researching women's experiences of losing their mothers while in their twenties. It's been humbling, and I have gained an enormous sense of appreciation for the strength and determination of these ladies in particular, and women in general, and most of all, for the power of mother, daughter, sister and womanhood!
I chose to write this post to demonstrate that, even as a therapist, and with many years behind my loss, I am still human and seek comfort like everyone else. I want to impart a brief insight into the changes, the fluctuations of grief, and the unexpected consequences we experience over time ... not simply what it's like in the early stages or immediate aftermath of such a loss. And although my dream and realization struck an important chord within me and made me look at my mother from a different angle, I love and miss her all the same. That will never change. It always puts a smile on my face when I suddenly recognize something about her in me or when I think about what a loving and dedicated mother she was to me and my sister until her last breath.
Happy Mother's Day to all women, but especially to all the motherless daughters out there who may find this day more difficult than comforting.
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Dr. Olivia Schläpfer Colmer offers individual, couples and family therapy in Miami, FL. Her office is located at 4770 Biscayne Boulevard, Suite 1440, Miami FL 33137.
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