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My mom peacefully passed away last year after a long illness. She was surrounded by family and I tenderly held her soft, warm cheek as she breathed her last breath. Not only was I her daughter, I was also her caregiver.
“Now you are free.” A family member uttered these words to me as he offered his condolences during the funeral visitation. Free? I was never imprisoned. The audacity to even suggest this. Were these words supposed to console me? I didn’t feel comforted. Instead, I felt an ache. The ache of loss. My landscape had just changed.
There is no road map or compass to help me navigate this new landscape. This is brand new territory for me: a world, my world, without my mom in it. Adjusting to life after the loss of a loved one – and when caregiving ends – has been difficult.
Caregiving can be rewarding and challenging. Caring for my mom strengthened our mother-daughter relationship. A couple of years ago, on my birthday, my mom hugged me and uttered, “I love you. Thank you for caring for me.” I didn’t hear those words often and I tried my best to not cry.
But I also feel emotionally depleted and physically battered. The health-care system is ill equipped to provide care to chronically ill seniors who are housebound. Not only am I trying to recover from caregiver burnout, I’m also grieving. Grief is a natural and normal response when someone you love is no longer a presence in your life. No matter how prepared you are for a death, you can never be fully prepared for the loss nor the grief. It’s not a linear process. Some days I am perfectly fine. But there are days when the tsunami of emotions are crushing and suffocating. I feel like I’m drowning. It’s on these days that I mindlessly binge watch episodes of Grey’s Anatomy or Sex and the City. McDreamy, McSteamy and Mr. Big have each become my personal flotation device. I stop and stand still until the disorienting reality of loss subsides.
This new landscape is rugged terrain. I think it’s time to ditch the stilettos for hiking boots.
The reality of my mom’s death hasn’t yet fully sunk in and I don’t think it ever will. No, I’m not in denial; it’s just that this whole experience feels so surreal. Intellectually, I understand loss. Everything has a beginning and an end. But emotionally, I don’t want to let go of my mom’s hand. This is my first experience with a significant loss and the hiking boots are not comfortable. I can already feel a blister forming. Ouch.
I have so many questions and no answers. Two days prior to my mom’s death, I began to wonder about the realm of non-existence. I engaged in mental philosophical conversations with myself. What happens after death? Is there an afterlife? If an afterlife exists, what will my mom’s afterlife consist of? Death. All of a sudden I find it difficult to take a deep breath. This is forever. The very thought of this, of finitude, is a tad unsettling and panic-inducing. Oh how I desperately want to reach back in time and save my mom. The pain of loss is more than I can bear some days. I just want to take off the hiking boots and put on my stilettos again. But I know this is not possible. The blister is more painful now; I reach for an adhesive bandage. Yes, there will be some slight discomfort. No one said it would be easy.
Am I really free now? I hate to admit it, but maybe that family member was correct. I don’t feel free; instead, I feel displaced, untethered. Not only did I lose my role as a daughter when my mom died, I also lost the role I identified with for five years – that of caregiver. Being a caregiver had become a large part of my identity. I didn’t have much personal free time. But now I do. This sudden shift is somewhat overwhelming. What do I do with this free time? The challenge I now face is to choose what my life will be and to discover how to exist in a world without my mom. I must relearn how to walk, to courageously take the first step, sure-footed, upon this new terrain.
What was once, no longer is. The structure of my life is different now. My landscape has changed, and my world seems a little less bright. The pain of losing my mom will lessen over time, yes, but the ache of loss will always be present. I honour this ache and the tears that flow. This ache is love.
Sometimes the changing landscape will lead me slightly outside of my comfort zone and onto rugged, unexplored territory. After my mom’s death, I started experiencing panic attacks, sometimes daily. I now have to become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. So, I think it’s wise to keep the hiking boots on until I find a new pair of stilettos, possibly hot pink slingbacks.
Helen Da Silva lives in Toronto.