by Alaina Leary
I’ve never liked the word grief. To me, it just doesn’t describe the experience of losing someone who you love, of that moment when you realize that they are gone forever. There really is no word for it, but I like melancholy. In the book Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, which was one of my favorite books as a child, a young girl describes missing her mom as melancholy. In that book, her mother left the family when she was just a baby, but I found that I could relate to that feeling after my mom passed away when I was eleven years old.
I’ve found that there are just as many expectations for how we should grieve, as there are actual, genuine feelings that come. The first is that you will be bone-achingly sad when the person dies, probably for a few days straight. I accomplished this expectation when my mom died, but before and since then, I have also lost aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, and a close friend. I did not always feel the kind of life-changing loss and complete sadness, and sometimes I felt guilty for that. That’s the thing about grief, about melancholy: it is messy and it doesn’t always feel the way you expect it to. Another expectation, I’ve found, is that I will be gentle and sensitive about my loss. This is true every once in a while, but a vast majority of the time, it isn’t true. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t want people to censor “your mom” jokes. I enjoy being asked about my mom, and I don’t think that we should stop talking about someone when they die.
I think that often the hardest part for people to understand is that losing my mom has changed me—and it affects everything that I do and every decision that I make—but it isn’t necessarily always in a sad way. I’m not at home every afternoon writing poetry about death and crying over last Mother’s Day, although I have done both at times. A lot of the time, I’m grateful for how my life has turned out. This was especially hard for me to admit at first, but a lot of beauty has come from losing my mom. I remember the moment that I realized it, when I was looking through a bag of her things and I found a binder of her miscellaneous writings. Inside was her hand-copied The Beatitudes, which is a list of what good can come from a loss. It felt like she was telling me that it was okay to be happy with the way my life was becoming.
Because my mom and dad were always my biggest supporters, and a few times in my childhood, it felt as though they were my only supporters. When my mom died, I felt like I should be better for her. In seventh grade, armed with a notebook and many pens, I started a journey of writing about the year after her passing. I had always been a writer, but my short fictional children’s books lacked substance and dedication. My mom had spent many hours of her life listening to my stories, rubbing my back as I created characters for her. I spent six months writing and ended up with a type-written 365-page account of my life in 2004-2005, starting with the day that she passed and ending with my first experience with Camp Angel Wings, a camp for children who had lost someone close to them. I titled the novel An Angel’s Wings. My dad encouraged me to print the book out at a local free “book-creating” program that met weekly. Every other participant was looking at short picture books. The supervisor of the club was so impressed that she passed my story on to the mayor, who met with me and gave me a citation for my work. The book was dedicated, of course, to my mom.
I don’t know if I ever would have starting writing as much as I did, or with as much passion, if it weren’t for losing my mom. After the first book, I haven’t stopped working on novels (the rest have been fiction) and occasionally poetry.
I also don’t know if I would have put as much effort into my work without the support and love of my dad. He and I had a very different relationship before my mom passed. Although we were always close, I saw him as the “strict one” and my mom as the one with her head and heart in the clouds. After her passing, I saw a new side of my dad and our relationship. Every Sunday, he would sit down with me to talk about my mom in our little therapy sessions. After my book was finished, he and I took turns reading chapters aloud to one another. I remember that while he was reading one of the scenes in the memoir where I am surveying my empty house after my mom’s death, my dad began to cry.
Before my mom’s death, I identified her as my best friend, the Lorelai to my Rory Gilmore. Afterward, my dad slowly began to be the same to me, as we grew a uniquely honest and witty relationship filled with inside jokes and long car ride stories that has only grown to this day. I called my mom “Mama Chicken” as a kid and now I called my dad “Old Man” and “Dad Biscuit,” which he is named in my cell phone. Even as a college junior, he’s the most used contact in my list hands down.
Losing my mom also came with questions that could never be answered. One of the most difficult things to deal with after losing her was coming out as bisexual. I always regretted that I had not talked to her about it before she passed away, although my dad assured me that she would have loved me and accepted me. Then, on the first day of high school, I met a girl who would become my best friend, and who I would slowly fall in love with over the course of a year. I’m left always wondering what my mom would think of her if they had the chance to meet. My life has become separated into two categories: people who knew my mom and people who didn’t. I still have two very close friends from before she passed, but the rest of my friends know nothing of her beyond my detailed stories.
Whenever I lose another person in my life, I think of what my dad told me when my mom passed. He said, “It made me think of my mom. I missed her, and she was the one I wanted to talk to about it,” even though she had passed about three years prior. He was absolutely right. When my friend Mary passed away in March of 2012, it was my mom I wanted to talk to, despite her never having met Mary. I cried for both of them the moment I found out about Mary, and often, when my sadness about one resurfaces, my sadness about the other isn’t far behind.
My life has also become about waiting for funerals. A part of me is startlingly aware that anyone in my life could die at any moment, made worse by the more people I have lost. In 2012, I lost a close friend who was only 18, an aunt, a great-grandmother and a grandmother. It felt like every other month I was writing memorial Facebook statuses. Sometimes it feels as though Peyton Sawyer, a television character who also lost her mother, is right when she says: “Everyone always leaves.”
My worst fear is not failing out of college or having someone discover a secret, it’s losing someone else that I love to death. I can’t name someone I am close to whose funeral I haven’t imagined. When I don’t hear from my dad for an unusually long period of time, part of me is absolutely convinced that he is dead. I am attracted to stories about death, because characters and people who have experienced this kind of loss are bound to understand me. I’m always ready to cry along with them and a part of me is crying for my own losses as I do.
That’s not to say that acknowledging that life isn’t permanent is always negative. Almost all of the time, it is positive encouragement for me. I know that I could lose the people in my life, so I appreciate them. When I graduated from high school, I wrote over 20 letters to all the people I thought I had “unsaid feelings” I needed to tell them, including friends, but also acquaintances and people I disliked. I’ll be the first person to put aside homework to spend time with a friend or family member, and people can expect me to try my hardest to show up at events they plan. The phrase goes “live like you are dying,” and I’m not perfect at it, but I certainly do think about it at least once every day. It has made me vastly more grateful, the kind of person who has a jar filled with at least one good thing about every day in 2014.
People tell me I’m empathetic, caring, honest, optimistic, and as close to being stress free as they have ever seen, but it wasn’t always this way. A lot of the best decisions that I have made in my life I owe to losing my mom, including the decision I make every morning to make the best out of whatever happens that day.
About the Author: Alaina Leary of Fall River, Massachusetts is a 21-year-old junior at Westfield State University studying English and Communication. Her passions include fashion, writing, reading, cooking, graphic design, and photography. She works as a reading and writing tutor at the university and also independently tutors for several different courses. Alaina is a member of the Honors Program and Sigma Tau Delta and an intern at Beetle Press in Easthampton, Massachusetts.