Processing the Death of my Mother

My mom Sandy (Aug. 2, 1953 - Aug. 24, 2014) with my dad Bill.  They married in 1972.
My mom Sandy (Aug. 2, 1953 – Aug. 24, 2014) with my dad Bill. They married in 1972.

Today is six months since my mother’s passing on August 24 from a suddenly appearing aggressive brain cancer. I normally wouldn’t focus on stuff here that’s so personal, but perhaps my working out of some of these things may be helpful to folks in similar situations or who know people affected in this way.

Even though it’s been half a year, it’s still hard to figure out just how to process her loss. There’s not been any clear emotional “release” for me in the mourning. Watching other people mourn, I get the impression that I’m supposed to have big emotions (not that anyone has said anything to me about it), but I suspect that perhaps my incongruity here is because the processing has no obviously linear path to follow. I’m beginning to have a few ideas as to why this is.

The first thing that occurred to me is that this is partly because it’s been some 11 years since I lived near my parents. And while some adult children are on the phone with their parents every day, I’ve just never been that way. My mother hasn’t been a daily part of my life in a long time. So her loss for me is more as an unavailable presence than as a present loss.

There is also the difficulty of being a clergyman. One of the odd things I experienced while in Colorado both for my final visit with my mother and then later for her funeral was the feeling of multiple internal “hooks” being pulled at once. On the one hand, I was her son and also a brother, nephew, cousin, etc., and experiencing the events in those ways, but also all my training and experience with death as a priest came to the fore. Especially since there was no one present acting as a priest (I’m honestly not sure what the norms surrounding impending death are for my parents’ church), I often got the feeling that I needed to be the one in the room who was emotionally steady and providing context, etc.

At first, I tried to separate out these two roles, familial and clerical, but then I realized that that would have been pretense on my part. I’m still all those things. I didn’t need to try to pastor my mother or family, but I also didn’t need to try to pretend that I haven’t already seen a lot of death.

All told, though, I think it makes it harder to process for me in the long term, because like most clergy I’m now well-practiced in the skill (and it is a skill) of getting through death in the short term without breaking down.

What may be the most difficult, though, is that my experience at processing death has been almost entirely within the context of the Orthodox Church. Prior to my conversion to Orthodoxy, I didn’t go to many funerals, and no one really close to me had died. All that really only started after my 1998 reception into Orthodoxy. So for me, dying, death, funerals, memorials, etc., are all Orthodox and liturgical.

But with my mom, the process of her death was only slightly touched by the Orthodox tradition, in that it was brought to bear in the prayers that I myself provided at her bedside, when I took my turn speaking briefly at her funeral, and then again at her graveside. While I wouldn’t intrude upon what was the norm for her church, I did find myself wanting something more. So my sense of what death normally looks like, especially in terms of the accompanying prayer, didn’t quite line up with what took place in Colorado last summer. That is not to offer any criticism — it was all meaningful and appropriate — but this is my experience of how to work through all these things.

All that said, the touchstone of the experience for me which not only brings all these concerns and complications together but also provides a roadmap for continuing the mourning process throughout the rest of life (mourning never really ends) are words that my mother spoke again and again to any who came near her during her final weeks:

The love of God is beyond all measure.

God is saying something to you. He has so much for you to do. It’s very important for you to listen.

In the Orthodox tradition, we pray often for “a Christian ending to our life, and a good defense at the fearful judgment seat of Christ.” It is clear to me that my mother had the first. Who could ask for more than an ending so filled with love and a clear message of hope?

As for the second, I hope very much that my mother will help to provide my own defense when that great and fearful day comes.

May your memory be eternal, Mom. May you pray for us as we pray for you.

10 comments:

  1. Dear Fr. Andrew,

    It’s good you were able to be with her during her last days on earth, at at her funeral: that helps much in the mourning process. The opportunity to pray with and for her was priceless.

    I wasn’t able to be at my fathers’ funeral, but nearly 40 years later I was able to fly from Moscow Russia to Austin TX for my mother’s last days and for her funeral. I was blessed to pray with her as she breathed her last breath.

    In Christ,
    Robert

  2. Father Andrew,

    Thank you for expressing your thoughts , they are very helpful to me. There are many similarities to my mom’s passing. Your writing was timely.

    Thomas

  3. Thank you for sharing, Fr. Andrew. A couple of thoughts, as someone who has lost both parents:
    -I process the loss (still) in terms of the feelings of other people: my sisters, my children. How much mom would have liked…How proud dad would be of…Hardly ever in relation to my experience. Which I think is amplified by your training/experience as a man for others.
    -Like you, I was with my mother at her passing. I had a greater experience of closure with mom, than I did with my father, whose sudden passing I missed. Additionally, I had the experience during mom’s final week of watching her mental/emotional transition to new life. This was of great comfort to me, knowing that she was not fearful.
    -I, too, had been long removed from daily interactions with my parents. In some sense, they are more present to me now in spirit than they ever were as a physical presence. And I truly believe that my strong, opinionated Italian mother may be a more effective intercessor on my behalf than Mary.
    Peace.

  4. Dear Father, so sorry for your loss. May you hold her close to your heart always and may her memory be eternal. In the Greek Orthodox tradition we never lose loved ones. They stay with us always and remain a very strong presence within the family. That is why we hold memorial services throughout our lives so that we may never forget them and that their memory will truly be eternal. And that we will be with them once again.

  5. Bp. Basil had a wonderful word of encouragement to the parish of St. Michael when he spoke at the funeral of Fr. Alexander Atty. For the purpose of this comment suffice to say that we become part of the ‘good defense’ for those who have nurtured us. Undoubtedly you are becoming part of that for your dear departed mother.

    It is available in its entirety http://www.ancientfaith.com/announcements/bishop_basils_comments_at_fr._alexander_attys_funeral

  6. My Sympathies for your loss. Everyone grieves differently but if I could encourage you to do one thing and give yourself permission to do that would be to grieve the death of your Mother. I’m not qualified to comment outside of my own experience (both my parents are gone) and the experience of many others I’ve encountered in my field in Human Resources but I’ve witnessed the “strong one”, the “leader” in the family, the one who is there for everyone else “break down” a couple years after his/her parent had died because they didn’t take the time to grieve with everyone else. I’ve encouraged many to take “leave of absences” because of that very fact and most had agreed it was the right time and the right thing to do for their own recovery.

    1. Everyone grieves differently but if I could encourage you to do one thing and give yourself permission to do that would be to grieve the death of your Mother.

      What makes you think I’m not? More here: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/roadsfromemmaus/2015/02/26/prayer-for-the-dead-and-family-process/

      (I am not, BTW, the “strong one” or “leader” in my family. I’m the middle child who went off and joined a different religion.)

  7. “What makes you think I’m not? More here:”

    That’s good to hear. I’m not saying you need to grieve like everyone else but it is important to grieve within your own personality makeup which by the linked article seems like you are doing so.

    “Middle child who went off and joined a different religion.”

    Well that’s a perspective I can’t identify with as you and my youngest brother are the same age. The Big 40 this year for you both! I pray it will be an enjoyable and blessed year for you and your family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *