A deeper toll of grief

January 20th, 1980.  The date of my Mother’s death from cancer.  I was 16, she was 55.

Most winters, I feel a sense of loss.  That long ago time of her dying lingers deep in my bones.

I have spent the past 34 years feeling some trepidation about turning 50.  That was her age when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  It was also a very transitory time in her life which my sensitive 11 year old self perceived.  She was in the process of leaving a dead end marriage with my father and was having a lot of problems with my older brother.  Ironically, when she was diagnosed with cancer, she was beginning to blossom and find a sense of her Self.  She started going to night school to pursue her dream of becoming an early childhood educator, and she and I moved out from our family home a couple of years later.

At a relatively young age, I witnessed my mother’s simultaneous burst of growth and rapid decline.  When I found my way to therapy in my early 20’s, I said, ‘I don’t want to end up like my Mom, starting to live when she was 50 and dying a few years later’.  I’ve worked damn hard over the years to untangle my self from dysfunctional family patterns, to live a meaningful (to me) life, to make healthy choices about everything I have any control over.

I was very pleased and proud to turn 50 last August.  I’m sharing my life with my beloved husband in a nurturing relationship, living in a warm and beautiful home in a community which sustains me, working as an artist, I have meaningful friendships and am looking forward to the next decade and beyond.  I’m grateful that I was able to receive the teaching from my Mom’s death about not leaving ‘me’ too late and that I’ve truly lived my life with no regrets.

I decided a few weeks ago that I would like to plant a rose bush this springtime in our front garden in her memory.  When she died 34 years ago, my remaining family – Dad, myself and two older siblings, couldn’t find it in ourselves to have a ceremony or service to mark her passing.  It was as if a door had closed, and we no longer spoke about her.  Not our memories or how big the loss in our lives was.  I still feel, when I think of my Mom, that I am walking through a house with many empty rooms.  I have little kid memories of her.  When I got to be about 13, I hated her, probably the way most teenagers hate their Moms.  And then she was gone.

In earlier years, at this time, I’ve felt the acute loss of an un-mothered child.  I didn’t feel ‘down’ this winter, as I often have in the past.   I thought it had something to do with the relief of  turning 50 and having made it through.  The 20th of January came and went, and the day after, my heart cracked open.  Besides the longing and loss of all of the past 34 years, I wonder how can I possibly move into my 50’s and become more than she was?  This is very new territory for me.

I’m sailing without a map and hoping to find the way forward.   I’m surprised to find that I need her in a different way than I ever have.


Nell Rose Schwakhofer née Martin on Dia de los Muertos, 2013

This is such a bleak time of year, yet I feel the growth stirring beneath the surface of the earth, and over the past several days, I’ve been nurtured by the new growth appearing at the tips of bare branches.  This gives me heart.  Losing a few minutes taking in the beauty of new growth can clear our mind and help us understand the strength of growth despite adversity.




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