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Challenge: Gratitude & Giving

Twenty years after my mom passed away, I'm grateful I discovered a bag of letters

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A few weeks after I had my first child, my mom passed away from stage 4 cancer. This strange twist of fate has been one of the greatest challenges of my life. As a new mom, I found myself feeling elated at having a new baby, and devastated from the loss of my mom. I wasn’t sure how to navigate this situation, and found myself struggling. It was hard for me to accept what had happened, give myself permission to feel the pain, make peace with my mom’s death, and be the happy parent I felt my daughter deserved. So many times over the years, I longed to talk with my mom, ask her questions, reminisce, and share with her things that only a mom would understand. Ironically, she was an early childhood educator. I finally had a child I needed her expertise with, and she wasn’t here to guide me.

Life can be unfair.

It took me a long time to come to terms with my mom’s death. Time marched forward, I was blessed with another daughter, and I continued to search for a way to find peace with what had happened. I felt like my mom had been cheated, that we had been cheated, and it was hard to let go of my feelings of anger and sadness. I knew I was blessed with two beautiful daughters and a husband who loved me, but I still had a hard time shaking the grief that seemed to follow me around like my shadow.

Thanks to a random sequence of events, twenty years after the death of my mom, I remembered a bag of letters I had in my home. These letters were written to me, starting when I was nine and first went to camp, until I graduated from college. Most of the letters were written by my mom and two grandmothers, the three strong women who loved and raised me. Sadly, they have all passed away. The bag of letters had been sitting in a piece of furniture in my den, stuffed at the back of a drawer, waiting for me to remember it was there.

Reading these letters, I felt like I was having a conversation with my mom and grandmothers. I could hear their personalities, and I got a much needed dose of their wisdom and guidance. I realized they would never have wanted me to dwell on their deaths. Above all, they valued life. The letters gave me an opportunity to see clearly how they wanted only good things for me, and would want me to make the most of each day of my beautiful life. Their words, written to me so long ago, was the nudge I needed to put the pain and sadness away.

When I look back on the years since my mom’s death, I recognize that I was “stuck” in my grief for a long time. My sadness became all-consuming and got in the way of my enjoyment of the present moment. I allowed grief to take a seat at the head of my table, where it stayed for way too long. I didn’t see it then, of course, because I was so stuck in my sadness. You would have thought I’d learn from my mom’s death to make the most out of each day. However, I missed this lesson. This is hard to admit, but it’s the honest truth. Instead of seizing each day and living life to the fullest, I wallowed in self-pity.

What I’ve learned from personal experience and from talking with so many people is that you can’t run from grief. You can try to distract yourself and pretend it isn’t there, keep yourself busy and try not to think about it, but this will only delay the inevitable. It also doesn’t matter how old you are when you lose someone you love. Whether you’re a twenty-something daughter trying to move forward after the loss of your mom or a seventy-something widow trying to figure out how to live in the world without your partner, losing someone you love hurts. When you lose someone you love, intentionally allow yourself time to feel the pain and sadness, but do everything you can to push yourself back into the land of the living. Not only do you deserve this, but your loved one would want this for you.

I miss my mom and grandmothers each day. But, they are still with me, their presence pulling at my heartstrings, but now in a good way. My dad always says, “Don’t be sad it’s over; be happy it happened.” He typically says this when we’ve had a visit with each other and I’m sad it’s time to say good-bye. These are wise words that I try to remember when I find myself missing my mom. Don’t be sad she isn’t here, Dara, I whisper to myself, Count your blessings that you had her for as long as you had her. Now, when I need a dose of her wise words of wisdom, or want to feel closer to her, I can pull out the bag of letters and read some of her beautiful words and timeless advice.

This isn’t the way I wanted things to be. I wish she was alive and able to know my two daughters, who are now twenty and eighteen. But, I’ve learned to accept what happened, focus on what I have, not what I lost, and count my blessings. I am my mother’s daughter, and for that, I will always be grateful.

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