Life after death: a story on grief

Disclaimer: I’m not a mental health professional. This does not replace seeking help from a mental health professional if you are in crisis.

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

Jamie Anderson

I’m lucky. I had two awesome parents. A lot of people can’t say that. I realize how fortunate I am to have had them, but I don’t have them anymore. They both passed away by the time I was 35. This is the story of their deaths and my grief.

When my Dad died, it wasn’t a surprise. I was 29 and he was 66. He was a type 2 diabetic and had complications for a while that were getting progressively worse over the last decade or so of his life. The first sign that something was wrong was when he had a mild stroke at the age of 55 that left his right hand numb, but not paralyzed. Luckily, he was a lefty. Then his kidneys started failing. Then another stroke. Then a fall at a rehabilitation facility that resulted in a brain hemorrhage and emergency brain surgery. We had a lot of time to prepare for and come to terms with his death. My parents had been living in metro Atlanta since 2001, while the rest of the family stayed in New York. My Dad was a truck driver from the Bronx and worked hard to provide for his family his entire life. He was tired of plowing the runways at JFK every time it snowed. He wanted to live somewhere with “no more fuckin’ snow” but he hated everything about Georgia except for the mild winters. When his health declined to the point where he couldn’t safely drive a truck anymore, he decided–with very little persuasion from his kids needed–to move back to New York without my Mom. They were still married, but my Mom was younger, healthier, and had a successful career she didn’t want to leave. Plus, my Dad needed her health insurance.

On Father’s Day weekend in 2011, my brother and I drove from New York to Georgia to get our Dad and bring him back home. He and my brother moved to a small rental house out east on Long Island, while I stayed in the city. Between my brother, sister, and me, we all managed to chip in to make sure he had what he needed: transportation to doctor appointments and weekly dialysis, warm clothes as his husky frame seemed to disappear and he was always cold, a walker followed by a wheelchair, batteries for his CD player. When it was no longer safe for him to live at home, my sister coordinated getting him into a nursing facility. We were lucky that though his physical health was declining, his mental sharpness never did and he always kept his wits about him. In one particularly hilarious incident, he and my sister were in a very important meeting with some staff at the nursing home when my Dad decided he was no longer interested in being involved in this discussion. He began to gather his things when his cell phone rang. The others in the meeting stopped talking and looked at him in disbelief as he answered it: “Hello? Okay, I’ll be right there.” He hung up and informed the room that he was leaving because his pizza had arrived. He then proceeded to slowly wheel himself out of the room, leaving my sister and the nursing home administrators in shock. A few minutes later when my sister met back up with him, she said, “Dad! Don’t you want to know what’s going on with your care?” He looked at her very matter-of-factly, and between bites of his folded up pepperoni pizza, said “Nah, know you got this under control. I trust you, darlin’.”

Near the end, when we realized that he wasn’t going to get any better, we let him have the unhealthy things he enjoyed without a fight. We didn’t object when he drank a couple of Heinekens or asked for a couple of double cheeseburgers from McDonalds for dinner. When I’d drive out to the island to visit every weekend, I’d always stop at Dunkin’ Donuts and pick up some jelly donuts for him. He’d scarf them down almost immediately after I arrived. It didn’t matter that he was diabetic; he was dying and we all knew it, and a jelly donut wasn’t going to be the difference between life and death. At the end of July 2013, just over two years after he came home, he decided he didn’t want to do this anymore. He didn’t want dialysis anymore. Once he made that decision, it only took a couple of days before he died. He passed away on his own terms, in a hospital surrounded by his kids and his wife. I held his hand and looked at his face as life left his body and his hand relaxed its grip on mine.

The days immediately following my Dad’s death are a blur; however, I distinctly remember my Mom being the strong one, despite just losing her partner of over 35 years. She arranged everything with the hospital and the funeral home. She contacted the Catholic church where my Dad was a parishioner and arranged his funeral service. She did everything, and then got on a plane and went home.

After my Dad died, I didn’t really grieve in a healthy way. Even though we knew it was coming, I was shocked that he was really gone. I was in denial. I had a lot of other stressors in my life that were preventing me from focusing on the fact that I had just lost a parent. I was in an unhealthy on again/off again relationship with a man who had broken up with me six months prior after a 4 year relationship, one that I had been 110% sure was going to result in marriage, kids, a house in New Jersey or somewhere, the whole works. After my Dad’s death, the relationship became a lot more physical and a lot more “on again”. It wasn’t good at all, but I pretended it was just because I needed something consistent and familiar, despite how toxic I later realized it was. I was living in Queens in an apartment by myself and I spent a lot of time alone. My friends would check on me, and I’d tell them I was doing fine, but I know I wasn’t. I started drinking a lot by myself. I would drive 45 minutes to another borough to see my “boyfriend-who-wasn’t-really-anymore”, get drunk, stay overnight, regret it in the morning, drive home, drink in my apartment alone, and repeat the cycle. I became part of a shitty club that no one wants to join: the “people with a dead Dad” club. People pitied me because I was only 29 - so young to have lost a parent already. I really didn’t know how to deal with the loss, but I didn’t think it was bad enough for therapy. I felt so much pain that I was doing whatever I could to feel anything else remotely good. I started smoking cigarettes, a habit that I never thought I’d pick up. I didn’t eat and I lost a ton of weight without even trying, or needing to. People at work commented on how skinny I looked, and I couldn’t tell if it was complimentary or if they were worried about me.

One day, the faux-boyfriend came over and told me he wanted to get back together officially. For some reason, as I looked at him, something in my head suddenly clicked (maybe it was me remembering that my Dad never really cared for him), and I decided right then and there that I was going to leave New York. I was going to move to Atlanta to be with my Mom. I needed her. I needed to get better, I needed to grieve with her, and I didn’t need this narcissistic shithead gaslighting me, playing on my grief and vulnerability for his own benefit until he got tired of me again. “No, I don’t think that’s going to work for me,” I said. “In fact, I really need you to get the fuck out of my apartment.”

Once I had that goal in my head of moving, I set the plan in motion and did everything I needed to do to accomplish it. I sold my furniture, put in for a transfer at work, arranged for a moving truck, and was on my way to my new life down south in less than a month. I moved in with my Mom for a couple of months so that I could check out apartments. I found an awesome place in the heart of the city, only a couple of miles from my new office. It was pet-friendly and below my budget. Things were finally looking up for me, and I spent the next couple of years building a new life for myself in Atlanta. I met some new friends, drank a lot, dated a lot, went to concerts, and really loved my new life. I quit smoking. Things were going really great for me. I met Justin, the man who would eventually become my husband, at a music festival in 2015, two years after I left New York. He also lost his dad in his 20s, so he really knew the struggle. We were a part of the same shitty club. He treated me like a queen and I got to learn what real romantic love should be. For the next four years, nothing was painful. Nothing hurt. I got a couple of promotions at work, adopted another dog, and everything seemed perfect. Justin and I got engaged in 2016, moved in together, and flew to Las Vegas to get married by Elvis in 2018. Life. Was. Perfect.

In early 2019, my Mom had a cough that wouldn’t go away. I started to worry when she told me she was starting to have some chest pain, but she went to the doctor and they said it was probably an ulcer. In March, for my birthday, Justin took me to Panama City Beach, FL for the weekend while my Mom watched our two dogs. When we arrived home from our trip, my Mom was in so much pain that she could barely stand up to hug us hello. I told her this was not normal and made her go to the hospital. They took X-rays of her chest and there was nothing there. The ulcer theory was thrown around again, but at this point my Mom didn’t think that was right. “I’ve had an ulcer before, and I never had chest pain. I’m scared there’s something wrong with my lungs.” She was sent home with some pain medication and told to follow up with her regular doctor. A couple of days later, she called me at work and said her chest pain was getting worse. I told her to go to the hospital (a different one this time), and I would meet her there as soon as I could. Just as I was pulling up to the emergency room, she called me. “They found something in my lung,” she said. “Are you almost here?”

Let me stop for a second to tell you a little more about my Mom. She was the best. No, I mean it. She was THE. FUCKING. BEST. She was a badass, she worked hard, and she loved everyone (unless you crossed her, then she wouldn’t think twice to tell you to fuck off in that special way that only New Yorkers can). When I was a kid, she would pick me up from school in a dark red 1989 Corvette. We didn’t have money like that, but she saved and bought herself something she always wanted. She raised me to be strong and independent, and I credit her with showing me how to love people. She was compassionate, yet firm. She raised my dad’s daughters from a previous marriage as if they were her own, no questions asked. Despite being raised by her grandparents, she knew exactly how to be a badass mom. She wasn’t perfect, but that only taught me that mothers are human. When she first met Justin, she immediately loved him and treated him like he was one of her own. He was in, and she let him know it. Growing up, there was always a seat at our dinner table for any of our friends who needed a meal. She rarely, if ever, showed fear. That’s why it was so terrifying to hear the fear in her voice when she told me they found a mass in her lung.

“I’m coming in right now, I’ll be right there, Mom,” I said. I parked the car and ran into the emergency room entrance. I told them my Mom was there and the woman at the front desk buzzed me into the treatment area. When I got to the door, it was closed and a doctor was in with her. She was sitting upright in the hospital bed, looking intently at the doctor’s face as if the doctor was telling her something really important. I knocked twice on the door and opened it, and walked in. I gave my Mom a hug and I could feel the tension in her body through my chest, like she was holding it together as best she could and was going to break down at any moment. “I assume since you look like twins that this is your daughter?” the doctor said. “Would you like me to fill her in on what we were just discussing?”

“Absolutely, please,” my Mom said. “Tell her anything and everything, like as if you were talking to me. I don’t keep secrets from her.”

The doctor told me that they found a large mass in my Mom’s right lung that was concerning for cancer. They wanted to admit her and do more tests. After the doctor left the room to get started on the paperwork, my Mom looked at me, lip trembling, and broke down. “Erin, I’m scared,” she said. “I don’t want to die.” I was trying my best to hold it together. “It’s okay to be scared, Mom. Let’s just see what the doctor says after they do the tests. It might not be that bad. You can do chemo and if you’re worried about losing your hair, I’ll shave my head in solidarity!” She laughed. “You don’t have the head shape for that.”

Of course, it was that bad. It was worse than anyone expected. When all the tests came back a couple of weeks later, my Mom was diagnosed with stage IV non-small cell adenocarcinoma. Fancy speak for, that cancer is BAD, AGGRESSIVE, and is SPREADING like a motherfucker. She had lesions in her spine, ribs, and sternum. It was in her lymph nodes. It was eating away at her bones. She hurt everywhere. But, she was never one to back down from a fight and she was ready to give it all she had. She went in for her first round of chemo feeling totally optimistic that she would beat cancer for the second time--she beat ovarian cancer about 10 years prior. In a matter of a couple of weeks, she developed a cancerous lesion in her hip that made it impossible for her to put any pressure at all on her right leg. She couldn’t walk. She couldn’t get to the bathroom. It was decided that the best course of action was a hip replacement, which would delay her next round of chemo by a few weeks. She went in for the surgery, but had a difficult time waking up from the anesthesia afterwards. She was in the ICU for a couple of days, but ultimately recovered. Unfortunately, the delay in the chemo was catastrophic. The mass in her lung was growing so rapidly that her lung was collapsing and filling with fluid. She couldn’t breathe. It really wasn’t looking good for her, but they removed the excess fluid with a needle to re-inflate her lung, stabilized her and released her from the hospital with an oxygen tank.

My Mom never got healthy enough to get any more rounds of chemo. She had one round of radiation treatment, but the cancer was just too aggressive. She was losing the ability to breathe and was admitted to the hospital multiple times. In May 2019, Justin and I were supposed to go to Las Vegas to go to Punk Rock Bowling to celebrate our one year wedding anniversary. I was getting ready to cancel the trip, and my Mom got pissed. “YOU BETTER NOT. You’re going. There’s no way you’re going to miss this trip just to sit around here with me. I’m going to be fine, I’m in the hospital. They’re taking care of me.” Reluctantly, I agreed not to cancel the trip. We talked a lot, about life and what I had planned. “I’m so happy that you found Justin. I’m really sorry that I won’t be there to see you become a Mom.” I was heartbroken. I hadn’t even thought of that. “It’s okay Mom,” I said. “You taught me everything I need to know.”

On the trip, I was drunk a lot. Escapism at its finest. I had a good time, but my Mom was always in the back of my mind. I’d text or call her to see how she was, and she’d reassure me she was fine. Later, I’d learn from seeing other text messages on her phone that she was in pain the entire time. But, she always told me she was feeling good. She didn’t want me to worry. It’s weird grieving someone who’s still alive, but that’s what I was doing: I knew in my heart that she was going to die.

When we got home from Vegas, my Mom declined pretty quickly. She was released from the hospital the day we got home and she went to stay with my grandma to recuperate. She called me the next day to tell me she couldn’t breathe and needed to go back. On the way to the hospital, she started yawning a lot and saying things that weren’t making any sense. Later I learned that’s a symptom of your brain not getting enough oxygen. In the ER, she was starting to get agitated and combative with the nurses (another sign). The doctor asked her what year it was and she said it was 1999. According to her, Bill Clinton was still the president. She was admitted to the ICU and was starting to experience oxygen starvation and something called the hypercapnic alarm response, which is a painful, terrifying feeling of panic due to not getting enough oxygen. She was suffocating, and she knew it. They sedated her to get her out of that stress response, and she was unconscious. She’d periodically wake up and be incoherent and unaware. At one point in the middle of the night, she woke up and had a moment of clarity: “Erin, I don’t want to do this anymore,” she said. I knew right then and there that she was telling me she was ready to die if she had to. I told the nurses that she was a DNR (do not resuscitate), signed the necessary paperwork, and silently said the rest of my goodbyes.

For the next three days, my Mom was unconscious. Family members and friends came to visit and say their goodbyes. My sister and niece flew down from New York. We were just waiting for her to die, though no one really wanted to say that. Waiting for someone you love to die is a strange feeling. It’s normal to want someone you love to die if that’s inevitable and they’re suffering. It took me a while, and therapy, to accept that feeling as being normal. She died on May 31, 2019, just six weeks after being diagnosed, when she was 61 years old and I was 35.

I took my Mom’s death a lot harder than I took my Dad’s. I vowed not to make the same mistakes that I did when I lost my Dad. I didn’t want to run away from my grief, and in this moment I realized that even though I had moved away and started a new life, I really never dealt with my Dad’s death, I just pushed it down and buried it. There are a lot of speculations I can make about why my Mom’s death was so much harder for me: she and I were closer, we didn’t have as much time to prepare for her death as we did my Dad’s, her death was so much more painful, she was younger than he was, her death made me an orphan. It wasn’t fair. I struggled with the idea of there being terrible people who miraculously recover from cancer, while my Mom didn’t. I know I’m not the only person who has lost their Mom to cancer, but I felt like it. I grieved for a LONG time, but I felt like it would never end, like I would never wake up and be okay. I’ve always had issues with depression and anxiety, but I felt like everything was getting worse. I was in physical pain, couldn’t sleep at night, but I was tired during the day. I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of my symptoms were reactions to grief. Add a global pandemic on top of everything, and I was at my mental and emotional breaking point. I needed help.

About a year after my Mom died, I started seeing a psychiatrist. After a few sessions, I was diagnosed with severe major depressive disorder and persistent complex bereavement disorder, otherwise known as complicated grief. In a nutshell, I was not moving on and my grief was getting worse instead of better. I couldn’t get past the loss of my Mom. I couldn’t go to places that reminded me of her. It had been a year and I had a storage unit filled with her things that I couldn’t go through. I couldn’t look at pictures of her without crying. I avoided seeing my grandmother, aunts, and uncles because they reminded me of her. I barely spoke to them. I couldn’t even talk to my siblings about it, but I knew I wasn’t grieving the same way they were. I was inconsolable most of the time, and I often thought about dying. I wasn’t suicidal, but I was preoccupied with death. When I googled “complicated grief” after my diagnosis, it fit me exactly.

-Extreme focus on the loss and reminders of the loved one

-Intense longing or pining for the deceased

-Problems accepting the death

-Numbness or detachment

-Preoccupation with your sorrow

-Bitterness about your loss

-Inability to enjoy life

-Depression or deep sadness

-Trouble carrying out normal routines

-Withdrawing from social activities

-Feeling that life holds no meaning or purpose

-Irritability or agitation

-Lack of trust in others

I didn’t want this. I didn’t want to be this fucking sad anymore. MY MOM wouldn’t want this for me. In July 2020, I started weekly therapy for complicated grief. It can be challenging to find a therapist who offers this specific kind of therapy, but it’s not impossible. I cried a lot those first few sessions, and the work was hard. I had to keep a daily log of my grief and what I was doing when I felt grief more intensely. At first, my answers were ridiculous. “8/10 - was cooking dinner.” “10/10 - saw a commercial on TV with a mother and daughter.” Over time, I had to do specific things like make lists of my most favorite and least favorite memories of her. I listed her charming characteristics and the ones I thought were annoying. I loved telling my therapist about her. It sounds corny, but sharing memories and photos of her with my therapist was, in a way, bringing her back to life. Gradually, my symptoms improved. I was able to talk about her without bursting into tears. I started socializing and talking to my friends more (as much as possible during a pandemic, at least). I was able to donate a majority of my Mom’s clothes and held on to certain items that I’d actually wear or had a specific meaning to me. Don’t get me wrong, I still had bad days here and there--but it wasn’t EVERY DAMN DAY like it was before therapy. I started posting my thoughts and experiences with therapy on my Facebook and got a lot of positive feedback. A few of my friends reached out to me privately to tell me they, too, had lost someone and hadn’t considered therapy before reading my post. A few months into therapy, I posted this on Facebook:

I cried today for the first time in weeks (still a marked improvement over crying every day before I started complicated grief therapy). My homework assignment was to list out memories with my Mom, including things I loved about her, the most enjoyable times I had with her, the most important things she added to my life, and so on. As I was filling this out, I realized that I wasn’t excited about the assignment like I thought I would be. I started to grieve again. I started to cry. I realized it’s because so much of this therapy has been getting over her death, but I will always mourn the loss of her as a person. I’m mourning the loss of the first, and most intense relationship that a human ever has.

So, this is just a reminder to anyone who’s in therapy (or contemplating therapy) that it’s a process. It’s okay to have bad days. Setbacks will ultimately make you realize that you’re complex and you’re dealing with things the best you can.

I finished therapy in November 2020 and I’m in such a good place right now. I never thought I would get here. My life isn’t perfect, but I know it never will be. I no longer feel pain whenever I think of my parents - instead, I feel their love. Justin and I are currently expecting a baby. He’ll be born almost 2 years after my Mom’s death, and I’m delivering him at the hospital where my Mom died. That’s intentional. I can’t quite put into words why I chose to do that, but I need to stop associating hospitals with pain and death. I’m also kind of hoping that maybe some of my Mom’s energy is still hanging around there. Maybe in a weird way, she will be there to see me become a mom.

My point is, if you’re grieving, you’re not alone. Grief is fucking hard. It’s the hardest, and most difficult thing that I’ve ever had to go through, and I’ve gone through a lot. There is light at the end of the tunnel if you’re willing to see it. It’s not weak to ask for help if you need it. You’ll know if something isn’t right. You’ll know when your grief becomes unmanageable and you’ll know when you need to get help. I really never thought I would get to the point where I would be able to have one day without crying, much less weeks or months. Of course, there are still certain times that are triggers for me, like my Mom’s birthday (which happens to be today, December 19th), my Dad’s birthday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, but those days aren’t totally crippling for me like they used to be. The holidays can be painful for a lot of people, especially that first year after a loss, but IT WILL GET BETTER. IT DOES GET BETTER.

If you think you may be suffering from complicated grief, the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University is a great resource.

Much love to everyone. xo