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packing up the first year

I used to see a butterfly in my mind’s eye every time I heard the word ‘transformation,’ but life has taught me otherwise. Transformation isn’t a butterfly. It’s the thing before you get to be a pretty bug flying away.

It’s huddling in the dark cocoon and then pushing your way out. It’s the messy work you have ahead of you. It’s making sense of your fortunes and misfortunes, desires and doubts, hang-ups and sorrows, actions and accidents, mistakes and successes, so you can go on and become the person you have to next become. Maybe the one who doesn’t wallow in her own despair.

I have spent a fair amount of time this last year wallowing. And, I learned some things.

Wallowing is not really allowed. We’re allowed to be deeply into hockey, or yoga or jazz or Star Wars, but we’re not really allowed to be deeply sad. We’re taught not to accept sadness for too long. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, to alleviate unpleasant feelings. But sadness, particularly deep sadness, has its own merit, its own story – and its own purpose and timing. I’ve found it’s something to sit with, not something to rush through, as my younger self would have. Like, you don’t want to unpack and live there or anything, but sitting with it, and processing what’s in there for you, has felt really important.

And, it takes some time.

But grief is a thing, as far as I can see, that we’re encouraged “to let go of” or “move on from” and people waste no time telling you how you might do this. More than a few well-intentioned people have recited the famous five stages of grief to me this year. It’s alarming really. How many people know them – how deeply this single definition of the grieving process permeates our world. I am supposed to feel these five things. In this order. And, in a prescribed amount of time, I should be “getting past it.”

I actually think we say these things because it’s maybe how we hope they might actually be. We always try to name, identify and define the most mysterious life matters, don’t we? Sex, love, marriage, infidelity, death, loss, grief, and the list goes on. We want these things to have an order. An internal logic. And we want them to be connected to each other. We want it to be true that if someone we love dies, we have to pass through a series of phases, like an emotional obstacle course, from which we will surely emerge happy, content, unharmed and unchanged.

It doesn’t quite work like that.

Healing seems to be a small and very ordinary and very burnt thing. And, it’s one thing and one thing only: it’s doing what you have to do. Whatever that is. Whatever other people think about it. However long that takes.

This week marks one year since I sat at my mom’s bedside as she was dying. A year ago tonight, I had one of the last good conversations with her that I would ever have.

“We had some good times, didn’t we?” she said, looking up at me with tears in her eyes.

“We did,” I said. “We were so lucky to have you for a mom.”

Some of our last words…

Three hundred and fifty-some days later, the grief feels no different than it did the very first day. The waves just come further apart now.

Over the past five or six weeks, I’ve packed countless boxes of her things to donate or discard, as we emptied my parent’s house. Overall, it feels surprisingly good to have this behind us. It also brought surprising amounts of joy to mine the joys of her life via the things that she’d held on to for so long. And, purging it all actually felt like a really fitting way to end the year. A year that has left me with a hundred more things to dissect about her and I, and life in general. The purging I do onto the page. The healing.

Their house sits empty now, ready for new owners next week. They’ll get possession the day after my Mom will have been gone from us for a year. On that day, I plan to be standing on some distant, beautiful shore with her in my mind’s eye. Not so much escaping from reality as finally taking the time to step back and truly absorb it. And, to honour my mother’s hope for me to “have the best life.”

That day, like so many others before it, I intend to thank her for every kindness. For being my biggest fan. For challenging me. For believing in me. For her sweetness. For giving me practice in healing long before she ever left this earth.

If your mom is still with us, or whether she’s not, be kind to yourself. We will never have a more complicated, intricate relationship with any other human being as long as we live, than we do our mothers. They are our portal to this world, biologically or not. They are our guides and our foils, our partners and our adversaries.

They are all of everything.

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