On the last Saturday in September, on a still warm Pacific Northwest afternoon, friends and family gathered at my grandparents’ beach house on the shores of Case Inlet to say goodbye to my mother. The setting was informal, the attire casual, the food potluck. It would have felt more like a summer barbecue than a memorial service, had it not been for the shock and grief hanging in the air. When the opportunity came for me to speak, I couldn’t. Instead, I just sat there, numb, drinking from a bottomless cup of red wine. My father, ill with cancer, sat next to me, holding my hand. Later, I rested my head on his shoulder as we talked through what we would do with Mom’s ashes. We confirmed what we both already knew: that she wanted to be scattered here, on this beach, in this inlet. But Dad didn’t want to do the scattering. And neither did I. Not yet. Not today. After all, my mother wasn’t dead. She couldn’t be. She never even told me goodbye.
The five stages of grief, as laid out in Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying, offer a framework for the emotions a person may typically experience when faced with the death of a loved one. But these five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – are only a framework. They are a useful road map to help make sense of life at a time when life can often feel senseless, but they are not meant to provide a one-size-fits-all explanation of the grieving process. The experience of grief is unique – and uniquely personal – for everyone who goes through it.
In re-tracing my own grief process, I can see now – with the perspective that only time can bring – that I spent months on a seesaw between stage one (denial) and stage three (bargaining). Unable to accept my mother’s death, I adopted something that the author Joan Didion calls “magical thinking.” It seems insane to me now, but for a time, I think I convinced myself that if I was a good enough daughter to my dying father, that my mother – who had always wished Dad and I were closer – would come back. I tried so hard to be good that for the sake of my devout Irish Catholic father, I pretended to be Catholic, too. Even after he died, I continued pretending. Picture this: a tiny, Medford, Oregon-bound Bombardier plane taking off from Seattle into a rainstorm, and me, terrified of flying, trying helplessly to untwist my malfunctioning seatbelt, while my cool-as-a-cucumber older sister attempted to calm my nerves by telling me a story about a bizarre dream she’d had the night before. As the plane ascended into turbulent skies, the woman in the row ahead of us joined our conversation, and before I knew it, I heard myself telling her – with tears streaming down my face – that we were on our way to our father’s funeral mass and the box containing his ashes was above us, in the overhead bin.
This scene – and what happened next – is funny to me now, but at the time, I can tell you with absolute certainty that I was convinced that the plane was going down and we were all going to die. So, when the woman in the row ahead (She was Catholic, too!) asked me if I’d pray for her, of course I said yes. Never mind the weird look I got from my Atheist sister, or the fact that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d prayed. In that moment, I would have promised just about anything to get off that plane alive. In the fog of grief, it turns out that my parents’ lives weren’t the only ones I’d end up bargaining for.
Grief is not a linear process. Though I did – eventually – experience all five of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, I did not travel through them in order. Of all the stages, stage two – anger – was the hardest for me to get to. Anger has never been easy for me to allow myself to feel; it is too private, too vulnerable. It took almost two years after my mother’s death for me to admit that I was furious with her for leaving me. As a method of coping, I wrote about my anger in a searing essay I published on my blog Extra Dry Martini called “Things my Mother Never Did.” A part of me still feels guilty for writing that essay, particularly because – to date – it remains the most read, shared, and re-published piece of writing I have ever authored (sorry, Mom). But I also know that writing it was what allowed me to feel ready to enter counseling, where, with the help of an excellent therapist, I reached the fifth and final stage of grief: acceptance.
There’s a common misconception that “acceptance” means that the bereaved is “better” or that they’re “over” the loss. But anyone who has ever lost someone they deeply love knows that there’s no such thing. Instead, acceptance means that you’ve learned to live in a new reality, one in which your loved one is no longer a physical presence in your life. You have decided, despite this loss, to move forward. You have decided to go on.
For me, acceptance came down to forgiving myself for things that – in the end – I had no control over. With the other members of my family who had died – my father, my grandparents – I had some measure of closure. I got to say goodbye. But with my mother – whose death was sudden and shocking – I had none of those things. I spent years after her death going over and over the timeline of events in my mind, thinking about what I could and should have done differently.
It took nearly four years after her death to find the forgiveness I’d been seeking. When nothing else worked – therapy, travel, writing – I sought the help of a psychic medium. By the time I got to that summer afternoon last July, sitting across from a woman named Fleur in her sun-filled Los Angeles living room, I knew that the weight I had saddled myself with was simply too heavy to carry anymore. And so, when Fleur told me that my mother wanted me to forgive myself, that I couldn’t have altered or changed her death in any way, I chose to believe her. And when she told me that my mother was proud of me, that she was always with me, and that she sent me white butterflies as a sign to let me know that she was thinking of me, I chose to believe that, too. In truth, I have no idea if Fleur communicated with the spirit of my dead mother. But I’ll tell you something: before that day, I can’t remember ever seeing a white butterfly. And now, I see them all the time. Almost every day.
I don’t know what grief is like for other people. I only know what it has been like for me. It is complicated. It is messy. And it is a process, one that needs to unfold in its own time. And while it’s cliché to say this, it’s also true: in the end, time really is the only thing that heals.