What It’s Like to Lose Your Mom When You're 20 Years Old
The stages of my grief are not linear and don’t look like the movies. I’m learning that’s OK.
I recently drove down the main road near where I did most of my growing up. It’s not something I enjoy doing, though I hope one day I will associate it with happy things. This time, I noticed how short the distance was between my old street and my primary school. It used to feel like it took forever to walk there. My mom would do my hair, give me my packed lunch and we’d be on our way. I’d hold her hand and we’d walk together. As a small girl, it was like a hike, but it really only took ten minutes, maybe even less. I needed my mom every single school day to get me from A to B safely. Nothing could hurt me if I was holding her hand.
When the time came for her to stop walking me to school, I was beside myself. Each walk felt impossible. She started by walking to the corner with me and watching me go. I got used to it, as kids do. I made it work. There was a time when she took me to school for the last time, and I didn’t even know it. When she did my hair for the final time. When she kissed my cheek for the last time. Hugged me. Rolled her eyes at me. Made me a cup of tea. These tiny, seemingly inconsequential things now feel so big. So important. Things I want to remember. But the reality is, I probably won’t. Not forever.
My mom passed away in the summer of 2020, six days before my 21st birthday and ten days after her 49th. Her struggle with mental health and addiction had been long and complicated. It had been a ticking time bomb. After a few close calls, we knew this was the last go. I was in a constant state of anxiety. My brain was trying to prepare itself for the worst, the very thing that I had feared my entire life. But there is absolutely nothing to prepare you for something like this.
I Felt Deeply Connected to My Mother
Losing a parent isn’t how you picture it. It’s also not what the movies show. It isn’t some big dramatic moment where you fall to your knees and scream, even if that’s what you feel like doing. When we heard the news in the waiting room, I only remember frowning. Shaking my head. I didn’t even cry right away. My life changed completely at that moment, but my body didn’t catch up. If I moved, it would be real. The only thing you can do in these life-altering moments is lean on those around you. It’s a test for those closest to you. If your friends stick around through something like this, they’ll stick around for life.
From that point, it felt like I was missing a limb—like someone had come along and stolen something from me. It didn’t matter that we were expecting this outcome. I felt cheated. I needed this situation to have a creator so I had someone to blame. I was entirely different but somehow exactly the same. A struggle I didn’t prepare myself for was the one with my own identity. This won’t be the case for everyone dealing with this, but my mom was my very best friend. It didn’t matter how much she put me through; I was aware that it wasn’t her fault. I couldn’t blame her for things out of her control. The biggest part of me still looked at her and saw Superwoman.
I grew up around her, my dad and three brothers. We girls stuck together. We did everything as a pair, and I’ve grown up to be a lot like her. We used to joke about it. We used to say, “The apple never falls far from the tree,” except my apple was stapled to her tree. She gave me the best parts of herself. It had me worried that she’d given me the not-so-good parts, too. So much of me is what she gave me. During some of the worst times, when she was unwell, I was so involved that I couldn’t figure out where she ended and I began. It’s an impossible position to be in as a young woman.
As Her Illness Progressed, I Took on the Role of Being Her Mother
These years defined the first part of my adult life. I was almost in the role of the mother, worrying and panicking at every corner. Since her passing, I have had to spend a lot of time with myself—really spend time with myself. That sounds strange, I know, but it was important to get to know myself outside of my worry for her. It was only then that I was able to separate us—her from the woman she raised and only ever wanted the best for. I am like her in the best ways (and some not so good), but it doesn’t matter. I am me. I know this is something I’ll continue working on. I’ll still have days where I look in the mirror and think, “Bloody hell, I look like my mom,” but I want to be happy when I do. I’m reminded of when the nurse came into the waiting room afterward. She grabbed my face and said, “Your mom will live on through you.” At the time, I was angry and upset. But now, not so much. I hope she does live on through me.
The whole five stages thing hasn’t helped me. They may help you, and I wanted them to help me, but they never did. I’ve always liked things to have a rhyme and reason. An order. I expected these five stages to make sense for me. But I was all over the place. Yet another thing you can’t prepare for. Yes, you’ll be angry. You’ll be sad. You’ll deny. You’ll lose sleep. But it doesn’t happen in a specific order. Sometimes, it’ll just be a little bit, and sometimes, it’ll be all at once. People around you will also forget. This huge thing that will be at the forefront of your mind for years will not be at the forefront of theirs. But even when it slips their mind, it doesn’t mean they don’t care about you.
My memories hurt me the most. As I struggle with my ongoing mental health problems, that nasty side of my brain reminds me of moments that I don’t want to remember. But one thing I feel grateful for is that most of the time when I think of her, I don’t think of her looking sickly and weak. I see my Superwoman.
The Grieving Process Is Your Own Process
If someone reading this is worried that they won’t be able to unsee their unwell relatives, you will. You eventually won’t remember how sick they looked. Eventually. I’m still working on this. I’m trying to get to a place where I can indulge in nostalgia without breaking down. It took me the better part of six months to look at pictures of my mom. It took me seven to put up a picture of her in my house. I want to get to the point of thinking about my life—the life before her addiction and struggles—in a happy way.
The toughest part is that I still need her. I wish I could still call her up and tell her what I’ve been doing each day. I have moments where only her advice would suffice. I still need her to do my hair once in a while. Now the journey from A to B is different. It’s the journey from where I am now to the rest of my life. And it will be long. Worse than any hike you’ve ever been on. It’s forever without my mom, a seemingly impossible journey. If I look back to the corner, she won’t be there watching me to make sure I get there safely. She’s not holding my hand anymore. It’s going to take me a long time to accept this. As long as I need it to.
If you’re grieving, do not let anyone decide how long you grieve for. This is your process and yours only. Progress is not linear, and most days will be bad. So bad. Some days will be OK. Some will even be good. You will never forget them. I think I felt that the more time was passing, the worse it was getting. I was further away from the event itself. I didn’t want those memories to falter. But they haven’t. I have them stored away safely for when I’m ready.