I was 14 when my mother died. On the morning of January 10th 2001, I said goodbye to her as she lay in bed with what seemed to be a bad cold, and left for school like any other day. That was the last time I would see her alive.
I recall the evening/night through a dream-like filter. The colors and textures of what I ate for dinner, but not what it was. My uncle —the person who would soon become my legal guardian— being at home with us because my mother had been rushed to the hospital as her lungs began to fail earlier that day (a detail I would only discover later).
There is nothing that can prepare you for an earth-shattering event like this or the shock and trauma that follows the sudden loss of the most important being in your world. Especially as a child. In the hours and days following my mother’s death, I was told by a relative of my mother’s boyfriend to take ten deep breaths, and that I would feel better after the funeral. I was encouraged to drink cups of milky black tea with plenty of sugar; my next-door neighbors offered a set of F.R.I.E.N.D.S tapes and bought ‘really good’ cookies by someone else.
I remember thinking how incredibly inadequate all of this was. My mother was dead. The person I had loved and needed the most in the world was gone and ten deep breaths and some cookies were not going to help me. Why did no one have anything of real help to offer?
I had no tools with which to navigate this monumental loss. No language with which to express the gut-wrenching devastation I felt. I was just entering into adolescence—a child, but not. No one knew what to do. No one could have prepared for this. A vale of shock settled over my life and my family and continued to thicken and rout over the next several years.
In hindsight and having educated myself on trauma, I understand that we were all in a state of shock. As Joan Didion describes in ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, your mind can convince itself of the most fantastic scenarios when in shock. For years I secretly fantasized that my mother had concocted a brilliant plan to run away and was actually alive in some foreign place. I would try to find her in the crowd when on holiday.
Maybe she was there…
I was too young to have read or know anything about the experience of loss back then. There was no ‘Super SoulSunday’ where I could grab sound bites from trauma specialists as we can today. I didn’t have the language, or the knowledge to process what was happening in or around me. I went into survival mode and lived in that state for the next 14 years.
It was only after beginning to tackle the insidious coping mechanisms I had developed in order to try and manage my vast, untreated grief, that I was able to start to bring it into the light. In the years that followed the death of Sarah, I used starvation, work, boys, alcohol, drugs, food, relationships, and more starvation to try and seek relief from the trauma of my mother dying—of losing my connection to the earth. I spent the best part of my teens and 20’s stuck in an endless loop of addictive highs and lows.
At the tail end of yet another devastating relationship breakdown, encouraged in part by a deep fear of intimacy and inability to trust anyone or anything, I was finally willing to do the thing that therapists had been trying to coax me into for years: talk about my mother and her sudden death. Gradually I became open to the tools that were available and willing to let go of those I had depended on for so long.
Around this time someone the same age as me came into my life who had very recently lost her mother. Observing her open relationship towards her loss, her willingness to talk about it, to acknowledge the devastation, stirred something deep within me.
I began to come to terms with the reality of my own grief. That which I had not allowed myself to really feel; and the very thing that was preventing me to move forward with my life. To open up to love and closeness with others. I found the mirror I had needed, to reveal all the pain trapped in my body and psyche.
I offer this not as a morbid tale, but as a prefix for what I have learned: unresolved grief and trauma are like cancer, if you don’t do something about it, it spreads and destroys everything in its path. We become suspended in time and dependent on quick fixes to survive. There is a relatively new acknowledgment that all addiction stems from trauma of some sort, often in childhood.
I wish the 14-year-old and her sisters had had resources to better cope. That my family had had them. We didn’t. Today we do. Beyond this, no matter the nature of our relationships with them, for women our connection to our mother is at the core of our being. It is the person we turn to, or crave advice and solace from. She is how we know what it is to be a woman. For a girl to lose her mother at a young age has a specific effect.
We are poorly equipped for dealing with and honoring death in the West. Furthermore, there is shame attached to grieving that seems to be systemic. We assume we have a certain window in which to mourn and must then move on, but this is not how grief works. It is not a linear process. Some of the most joyful events in my life have come with deep grief also, knowing I would not be able to share them with my mother.
As with any systemic shortcoming, change begins with sharing openly and speaking up. Perhaps in doing so here I can encourage someone to acknowledge something they have not yet processed, as I was encouraged to do by witnessing a friend’s vulnerability.
There is freedom beyond grief. And yet, it is often through the loss of a loved one that we truly discover the intelligence of the body to remember and endure. Approached with awareness this can be a wonderful gift.
(Originally published by As Seen By Her)
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I’m and Grief and Somatics Coach obsessed with gaining deeper insights into what allows us to truly flow and thrive in life. I support my clients to come home to their body and liberate their minds, by teaching them how to harness creative, embodied approaches to healing and transformation.
I work with brilliant, but often burnt-out humans who are ready to change the question from "what's wrong with me?' to "what do need in order to feel whole?'
© 2021 [Natasha mcDowell Coaching]