This is a picture of my mom, Laina. my youngest daughter Eleanor looks the most like her. When I see this picture, I can see the heart of my daughter and sense both my mom and my daughters infinite goodness.
This Mother’s day will mark 5 years without my mom. Although this time of year can bring some joy, connection, celebration and love to some. It can also bring heartache, loneliness, sorrow and pains of grief to others. Through my own healing journey I have come to understand that both can be present in one day, we can feel insurmountable amounts of loss and an overabundance of joy at the very same time. I have moments like this not only on Mother’s day, but other days too.
To explain my mom to you, I think I need to start with a story. When I was in 5th grade, I was watching a T.V. show. I saw a boy and girl kiss, and I turned to my mom and said, “I get a weird feeling in my stomach when I see people kissing each other, is that normal?” She looked at me smiled, and said, “Yes, that is very normal.” Fast forward 20 years, I am sitting with my 5th grade daughter right before bedtime. She says, “Mom when I think about boys and girls kissing I get this weird feeling in my stomach, is that OK?” My eyes filled with tears, and I said, “Yes that is OK.” My mom’s gentle voice came rushing back and in that moment, I remembered both her gentle acceptance and trust that had been established in my early years. In this moment I was graced with the thought that I have this with my daughter too.
My mom was so many things. She was wildly creative and would put together craft sales, birthday parties and had an understanding for good taste. She could cook the most delicious roast beef and potatoes. She would answer our questions openly and honestly. When I was 5 years old, I would write her poetry and songs and sing them to her. My 10 year old daughter now writes songs and sings them to me. My mom would listen, smile and say, “you are so brave to sing out loud.” I listen to my daughter and tell her the same things. I knew I was loved by my mom, most importantly I could feel it. It was her presence and kindness in my earlier years that I remember the most about her, and the memories I choose now to go toward. It was this foundation that she gave to me, that I am now able to pass onto my children, and for this I am deeply grateful.
My mom also experienced untreated mental health, she struggled with early childhood trauma and later bipolar disorder. Which means that her foundation was shifted at an early age which impacted her entire life. She would also experience rapid changes in her mood through cycles. Some years were better than others, but overall as she aged, her mental health continued to decline. She was at a low point 5 years ago, which was the hardest memories for me and our family, this is when she left. In my heart I choose to believe that her untreated mental health took over, and she was no longer the mom I once knew. She left her apartment along with all of her belongings. We had no point of contact, no way to reach her. At first, I didn’t realize what her intentions were and I certainly didn’t understand them. Over time I have come to not only accept and understand what happened to her, but hold her life with compassion.
When she first left, I was mad at her. I felt like and was the victim with the mom who had left. I took down all of her pictures. I would not talk about her, and honestly, I made myself very indignant in my perspective towards her. I felt overwhelming and intense shame about her behaviors and tried to hide the sting of abandonment. I could not touch any of it, so I put it all away in a tiny box. Literally in a box in my home, and I boxed off my heart. Thinking about and talking about her was not an option. It was unresolved and the last 10 years of my life with her were filled with such turmoil and pain, I couldn’t touch any of that either.
I often found myself in between a place of shame and resentment. When in shame, I would be paralyzed when people would talk about their mom’s. I felt such a personal deficit and inadequacy for not having a mom. When someone would bring up my mom, I would either get mad at them, or I would place shame on her behaviors. I began to feel very alone in my grieving of my mom, and found myself pushing away the grieving process. Not only was I not honoring who my mom was, I was also not honoring the gifts she had passed onto me. I could not wear them, so I regularly wore perfectionism. I call this process grieving in silence. What this means to me, is grieving in shame. In my personal and professional experience, people grieve in shame over many of life’s struggles. Grieving in shame or silence happens when we experience something hard, and we don’t tell others because we may feel judged or unaccepted for what has happened. We could experience this over a miscarriage, divorce, adoption, separation, sexual abuse, financial instability, job demotion or loss, infidelity, pet loss, a parent with a mental health issue or addictions in families.
These experiences are painful, first because they happened to us, sometimes out of our control. Also because there is deep shame around speaking about what happened. We need resources and supports to work through them. I needed to work through that pain and grief to come to a place of peace and understanding. I shared in my last blog that the two things I bring with me everyday that help me to work through shame, and grief are self-compassion and my faith.
The practice of self-compassion was introduced to me while in graduate school studying clinical mental health counseling. I watched a video by Dr. Kristen Neff. She is the leading researcher and author on the topic of self-compassion. It was the fall of 2013 and was one year after my mom had left. I needed the practice of self-compassion in my life because, so often others were unable to validate the pain and understanding of this type of loss. Often times, people do not know what to say. Over the years I have heard many well intended responses to my pain. One time while sharing with a friend, she said, “being an orphan would be hard.” I remember thinking, I have called myself many things in my life, trust me, but orphan was never one of them. It is well intended moments by friends and family, that can leave gaps and hurts in our sense of connection or disconnection.
We place a heavy expectation on those who are closest to us to anticipate our every need, and to validate all of our pain and experiences. It is simply not possible, and quite honestly would be exhausting to always do. Self-compassion is the practice of validating and affirming our own inner experiences. When I have been grieving or in a place of despair, words, actions and encouragement from others is needed. I also feel that we can and need to do some of this for ourselves. The idea is not that we practice this alone, and then we are “good”. The idea is that we practice this alone, and then we begin to practice this with others to stay connected.
Self-compassion has 3 components. The first is mindfulness, we must first become aware that we are having a thought or feeling, in order to attend to that thought or feeling. The second component is common humanity, this is our understanding that ALL people go through struggles in their lives, and that you are not uniquely alone. The last is self-compassion or radical self-acceptance. When we practice self-compassion, we open the door to self-acceptance. We call this a self-compassion break. This is the practice, of taking a moment and using all three components.
My self-compassion break surrounding the pain of my mom would sound like this,
This is hard for me to miss my mom. (mindfulness)
Many people have experienced loss and grief. (common humanity)
May I be gentle with myself as I heal. (self-kindness, compassion, acceptance)
In this practice we begin to give ourselves permission to feel, to stay connected and to heal. Through this process over and over again we are able to touch on our pain and to do this in a safe way. We don’t need to take on everything all at once, we just need to touch on the pain to begin the healing process. Listening to our inner guide is an important piece to the forward backward movement of grief and loss.
Faith has been a foundation practice in my own healing. After receiving training in mindful self-compassion and learning and understanding the language, people will often ask me, “are you a Buddhist”. I tell them, “I understand the teachings of Buddhism, however, my faith is in Christ. There are many overlaps in the teachings, and they both share the language of compassion. In my own practice of forgiveness and reconnection, I first needed to forgive myself, for the unhealed pain in my relationship with my mom. Then I needed to forgive my mom for her inability to be present and well. Now I choose to forgive myself and others daily for our shortcomings. I turn towards the gentle words of Philippians 4:13-14 (NIV)
“I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
I forgive my mom for what has happened in our lives. I have compassion for her struggles and I am with her in spirit. I will be spending Mother’s Day this year with my husband and 3 children, who know my love, because I was loved by my mother when I was little, and I accept love from my father now that I am older.