In a search to honor her mother, a daughter finds meaning in grief

Blogger Carmen Golay was a mess after losing her mother to lung cancer. In reflecting on her mourning, she asked: How can I turn this grief into something that will make me a better person?

 

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Blogger Carmen Golay (right) poses with her mother and infant. Golay wanted to find a way to turn the grief over losing her mother into something positive. Photo courtesy: Karissa Holcombe

I was annoyed at myself. I felt like all I talked about all the time was grief, and answering peoples’ “how are you?” questions with their sad eyes. To my therapist: “I just don’t want to say any more about it, you know? It’s not like grief is an uplifting topic for dinner conversation.”

He responded, “Why can’t grief be uplifting?”

I sat silent. Because grief is grief, I thought to myself. It’s sad. It’s final. It’s miserable. Everyone hates it. People die and we cry and we miss them and it’s not fair and then how do we go on?

“What if grief has just been put in a box, a category, and we could change that?”

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I held her hand as she took her last breath on this Earth. That was five months ago. She had just turned 57 and hadn’t touched a cigarette in 15 years. Her last words were, “It’s not my time.”  Because she was stubborn and fought to the end. But cancer is horrific and this one moved fast — it was five months from her diagnosis to her last breath.

Today was the Grandparents Day program at my son’s school and seeing all the grandmas and grandpas hugging their little kindergarteners set me up for lots of sobbing when I was alone. She should have been here for that.

She went from full-time grandma for my son, to full-time patient in three days time. I held my newborn baby and watched my mother decline food, try and learn to walk again, cough up blood and forget what day it was. Lung cancer spreads to the brain and back into tumors that immobilize, confuse and shut off all bodily controls.

In between infant nursing sessions I juiced organic carrots and blended soups and read Naturopathic Oncology. I made lists of supplements and organized trips to naturopaths on days we weren’t going to radiation or physical therapy. And now, on my bad days, I think it was all for nothing. She died anyway.

But when she was living, she wanted the help; she was glad I wanted to help her and maybe that’s what it was all for. Because I wasn’t helpless — there were things I could do and I did them. I washed her hair with organic lavender shampoo and rubbed baby lotion on her legs and feet. Standing back and doing nothing at all is not in me, so it wasn’t all for nothing.

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The blogger’s mother, husband and two children, posing during a family trip. Carmen’s grief was devastating but, she wondered, could it also be uplifting? Photo courtesy: Karissa Holcombe

Today was the Grandparents Day program at my son’s school and seeing all the grandmas and grandpas hugging their little kindergarteners set me up for lots of sobbing when I was alone. She should have been here for that. She would have loved the little paper lei the kids made and all the badly choreographed songs.

My meltdown made me start thinking again about that question: Why cant grief be uplifting? I didn’t make a choice to come home from that stressful event, crack open a bottle or fight with strangers. (Sometimes that’s what grief makes us do.)

No, I made dinner, cried a little bit, talked to my husband and now I sit with my beautiful sleeping baby next to me writing a proper essay for the first time in months. I’m a writer and yet I haven’t written anything since before my daughter was born. Yet here I am, in grief, writing. Transforming. And trying to find out how my grief might lift me up.

It already has in some ways. I can sometimes feel my mom pushing me from the Other Side to get off my butt. I sought counseling for my grief, because to say you can handle it alone is pretty much never true. But I did wonder at first, “What will I talk about in counseling?”

It is different for everyone, I’m sure, but for me, I needed to recount her actual death — details of the disease that I didn’t tell friends or family because it would feel like shaming my mom to tell people those things.

Transformative grief has made me a more deeply spiritual person, one who is more patient with human flaws and loving with her words.

The next thing I did was clean up my own diet again. I had been taking it “easy” on myself during the first few months. Which meant I cut myself some slack when it came to what went in my mouth. But gently, I felt the pull of getting back to caring more about myself. I started clearing out the processed convenience foods, the massive amounts of sweets and foo-foo coffees I had been wallowing in during my saddest days. My mom submitted to my organic vegan diet for her — the least I could do was stop ordering dessert with every meal.

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Grief has forced me to get my body moving. Western societies generally don’t make too much fuss over the mind-body-soul connection, but I’m here to tell you that stuff is for real. When a hard workout makes you burst into tears, not out of pain or exhaustion but from something else deep in your belly, that’s the connection.

When a particular yoga pose is difficult or impossible because of a pain in your hip or a tight muscle, but talking and crying for an hour makes it possible to move again, that’s the connection. When all your muscles are warm and you feel you can move more freely and you close your eyes to stretch and all you can see is the smiling face of the person who went to the Other Side, that’s the connection.

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The author poses with her mother, who died five months after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Photo courtesy: Carmen Golay

Three days now I haven’t been able to do a proper workout and I feel it in my body, I feel it in my irritation with the smallest inconveniences and I feel it in the catch in my neck that makes it so I can’t quite turn my head all the way to the left. Transformative grief is getting me into shape again.

Spiritually, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt closer to God, or Universe or the Great Unknown. I see Her miracles in my children, I notice the magic of nature and I stop to ponder the “coincidences” that bring people into my life.

Quiet meditation isn’t common in a house full of dogs, kids and ruckus. My prayers are more likely to take the form of spoken words while driving. Or for three minutes before turning out the light for sleep, I sit absolutely still on my little rug next to the bed and focus on a rock under a tree I see in my mind. Thoughts flow in and out but I try to stay still, just looking at that rock.

Before I crawl into bed, I sometimes speak out loud to her, and to God, that I’d like a visit in my dreams. A nice chat, or a hug to let me know that my mom is OK. I have had many of these visits, and they bring me such comfort. Transformative grief has made me a more deeply spiritual person, one who is more patient with human flaws and loving with her words.

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I’m learning that transformative, uplifting grief, is possible. But it’s not a straight line, and it’s not predictable or easy.

It’s like taking the long way around and you might find yourself wallowing again in absolute sorrow right in the middle of some lovely yoga session or a fun night with friends. It’s OK. Just keep going.

I’m also learning that the the key to making it actually work is a simple one: choice. I choose to make my body-mind-soul a priority right now, up there with looking after my kids and loving my husband, but I have to make that choice many, many times a day. It’s not the easy choice.  And yet it is.

I’m learning that transformative, uplifting grief, is possible. But it’s not a straight line, and it’s not predictable or easy.

Compounding grief with other secondary problems that come, such as weight gain, addiction, loss of work or conflict in relationships only makes the road that much more difficult to navigate. Instead, how can we let grief uplift us? How can we be transformed by it? I am forever changed anyway, by the loss in my life, so why not allow it to propel me towards a greater good or more meaning in my life?

I feel that by seeking the help I needed I can allow my life to become better, more positive and more helpful to others. How better to honor my mother than that?

Carmen2Carmen Golay is the former coordinator of military 4-H programs for youth in Hawaii, Japan, Korea and Kwajalein. She has a background in anti-violence work and attended Richmond American International University in London and State University of New York at Albany. She is also a trained lactation educator, master gardener and permaculturist. She is a full-time mother to a rambunctious kindergartener, a baby who just learned to wave bye-bye, three canines and a turtle. She and her husband have lived in Hawaii for most of the last 12 years and love hiking all over Oahu.

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