So years ago, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross set up grief in a bunch of distinct stages. To keep things organized, I suppose, because death and mourning are so … whatever.
Caveat: this post isn’t for everyone. So if you know me and you had a totally delicious memory of your time with my mother, please skip this post. I also offer this: you weren’t her middle child and only daughter.
As a student of this Earth, I determined that Kubler-Ross must know more about it than I would. So I submitted, a long time ago that when The Day came for me to experience profound grief, that the order would be as she prescribed.
Upon the death of my mother, now 4 weeks in the distance, I can unequivocally say that Kubler-Ross was full of shit.
It’s not “anger.” And I know we all say (correctly so), “Everyone grieves differently and to differing degrees.” I’m sitting shotgun on that bus.
Anger to me is a reaction that I experience when say, someone drives into my car. Or when things don’t turn out the way I’d like. Or when someone is horribly rude to me.
It used to take a snap to make me angry. I’ve done a lot of therapy; I’m OK with things not turning out the way I’d like; all my counseling and recalling my resilience from the Eugene O’Neill -esque childhood I survived has fostered a kind of, “eff it” mentality. Fifteen years of yoga has helped too.
Until of course, my mother died.
I mentioned Mr. O’Neill. I’ve done it before on this blog. What I didn’t define is which play I feel most accurately resembled my life. That would be … >drumroll please…<
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” You can click on this LINK to read the wikipedia on it. I won’t take up precious word-count to regale you. The only difference is that the children (my brothers and I) are not alcoholics, nor addicts nor even too weird. To quote one of my favorite relatives, “We’re all a little crazy.”
So, once you have that perspective about the play, you might be better equipped to understand when I use the word “rage” to describe my “anger” phase.
It visited or, probably more likely, culminated last Friday. Ironically, it rode in on the waves of a tremendously gracious offer by one of my beloved relatives as received and planned by my husband: “Go out to a terrific restaurant on me, as a birthday gift to Molly. Get her out of the house. Give her a break. Show her some kindness.” It made perfect sense, for this relative had just returned from a glorious trip to Napa, California, to celebrate a birthday and wedding anniversary. A blissful and fulfilling time was had by all, so why not share the good feelings and the love and make a similar offer to Mol? Surely she would see the fantastic opportunity in the moment and let herself be treated.
It was a lovely gesture and I was thrilled to accept it. We made plans to go to one of my favorite restaurants, 1789, in Georgetown last Friday. I would
have get to shave my legs and blow dry my hair and everything. Five courses, sterling silver, a gorgeous bottle of wine, crumb sweeps, low lighting, fancy food, no crayons… history, a glorious night in the nation’s capital. I planned to bring along the Faceless Chicken for photo ops.
I was grateful and appreciative. Not even humbled. I understood the intention. It was meant for healing. So I was in.
Until that Friday. It set in around noon. My husband took the afternoon off, so we could go sight-seeing, and we returned from running some errands together and as we pulled into the driveway, all I could feel was NO NO NO NO NO NO DINNER. NO GIFT. NO 1789. NO. NO. NO.
Something snapped in me. An O’Neill-esque cloud of woe, loss, confusion, incongruence, unworthiness and despair and ultimately rage — full-on rage — the likes of which I’ve not experienced full-for-bear overtook my mind, body and soul and wracked it for seven, maybe eight hours.
My husband had to call my relative; cancel the reservations. It was terribly tenuous. I wasn’t able to keep a handle on the pace or the direction of what I was feeling, so I had to get away from my children, my husband, my dog. Even Murphy was rebuffed.
I holed up in my bedroom. I sat and then lied on the floor. That didn’t work. I went to bed and tried to sleep; I almost did it, but the rage grew. I wasn’t even sure of what I was feeling, it was so intense. I considered taking pen to paper but my hands were shaking and my thoughts racing and fleeting and unintelligible. I knew I was in grief, a new stage, a different one for me, but I didn’t understand its mission. For me, everything has a reason, a lesson, and I wanted desperately to know what I was to learn or … release.
I tried yoga, chanting, breathing… all of it. Nothing. I was urgently needing a message. Something.
The emotions came and went. It seems the body can only withstand so much. So I thought I was ready to join the human race again and I saw my son, whom I love deeply, and a blackness overcame me again. He put out his arms to embrace me and this was all I could do: I said to him, “Not now. I love you,” and I retreated to my bedroom.
All sorts of thoughts: that I wasn’t worthy of the dinner or any gift because it was incongruous: how could a child who was constantly cast aside and ignored by her mother possibly be worthy of anyone’s love or generosity? How? I see kids every day who have matted hair like I did, and are dirty like I was and I love them. They speak to me. I see them in their oversized coats and tattered dresses and sad faces when I drop off my son at school every morning and I pray for them. I see their eyes, cast downward to the cement sidewalk, cheeks a little too pink for so early in the morning and dewy eyelashes. I feel them. I know how it is, I whisper inside: I know you. You will survive.
Then darker thoughts. Darker even. Ephemeral thoughts of self-harm, but I knew that was nuts. I started to mock myself for my thoughts: “C’mon. Bootstrap. Rally. This is bullshit, Molly. She’s dead and you’re pissed because someone wanted to treat you to dinner?? What the fuck’s the matter with you?”
Physically, I was depleted but the emotions rolled on and up and down and around and good God, it was torture. This lasted for about four hours. And then an image of my mother, that gorgeous black and white shot of her in total peace, looking out at the sea, popped into my head and I then felt seething rage, deeper still and then this:
“You. You @$%)(@ $@)(%# )@#( **$&@_ _) !@$)# ()*#$% @$)%#) ##@%&. You made my life a @$(%@ )@$(%& !_%*@#&( _%(*#_!_ &%@)(! and a %#@_)! _%*#@@. I could never possibly ($%)#!* %)(@#* or even &T%)($ with friends. I never felt #%*%&@ 0(#$_!#% because of your *@#($#%#( )%#$. It was always about you and _#*$@ $ -)%#*$# @_ %&#($ my life was )(@$*@ and _#*@# stalled because %#)($@*@# )%(#@ $ ($* #%)($&@_ ! I lost @$(*#@ you. I totally @#(*@#! you.”
and then this: “I don’t miss you at all.” As quiet as a sunrise.
And it was like ice had cracked and the sun was cresting the treetops in my mind. The noise in my head silenced and I could feel my breath again. I could see things in my room as they were, the blackness was gone. There was no guilt. I didn’t feel a need to “bargain” as Kubler-Ross states. Maybe I did early on, but that was sort of more in the beginning stages, but I’ve made peace with that. If Mom were here right now, it’d be the same thing: she’d talk about what interests her and I’d listen and try to relate and beg internally for her to get where I’m coming from, for ONCE, hear me.
Someone asked me the other day if I were able to accept that my mother was narcissistic. I get it in concept and on paper and when I think back, on certain things, yes: I accept it. But I also have a nag that says, “Not so fast, not so broad a stroke, here: I survived; I made it. My kids are thriving so she must’ve done something right… RIGHT?”
I don’t know. I mean, clearly, I am here. Clearly I have valuable relationships and her death has taught me to dispose of the ones that hurt, the toxic behaviors and toxic people because life is simply TOO SHORT. But yeah, for me, she was all about Mimi. It’s folly to suggest otherwise.
So I go back … again and again and again to two quotes:
Forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past. –Buddy Wakefield
Still, it made me sad. You always think that a bolt of lightning is going to strike and your parents will magically change into the people you wish they were or into the people they used to be. But they’re never going to. And even though you know they’re never going to, you still hope they will. –Nora Ephron
And I realized today while in svasana at yoga that my release of that hope isn’t just taking the pressure off them (or other people) to change, it’s taking the pressure off me to wait for it. I don’t have to wait anymore. I don’t have to wonder or be disappointed. My mother’s death confirmed for me that it’s never going to happen; her potential for change or true remorse or intention for a better relationship with me is GONE. It was gone decades ago, but her death sealed it. It also sealed for me the reality that waiting for other people to change into what they can be is something I’m not going to do anymore.
Will it come back? Will I feel “angerage” again? I’m not a bottle-upper. I’m more of a distiller. I process stuff. So, yeah: for sure. But I don’t think it will be over a lovely innocent gesture like offering a gift. I also see where living my O’Neill-esque life was
good beneficial: I am resilient, courageous, tenacious, hearty, wise, real, loyal, a fighter for the underdog, an advocate, a “troubadour of truth” as a cousin called me. I see the benefits.
I’m worthy. I get it. I am. She was the vessel; God is the creator. And she was worthy in her own way too. The rage softened me; it smoothed the edges a bit and allowed me to see her more clearly with less attachment. It reminded me of the work we did on the retreat with the Kundalini yoga to express rage, frustration, anger, repression and fear. We worked physically and strenuously with tremendous intensity and focus, several times a day. When it was all done, we were sweating, searing muscles, tired faces. “Now try to get angry,” our teacher said and I laughed a little. Getting angry was impossible.
So I get to let go. I got to express my rage and it was incredibly liberating. Not going to dinner that night was the best thing that could’ve happened.
Hi Molly, I’ve been reading your posts on your mom and the thought has been there lurking. The N word. Well before she died, I read about your relationship with her and it would flash at me. Narcissist. Your mom was a narcissist. I get it. Because mine is too. I’m so sorry because it is big burden to bear. An incredibly hard legacy. Just because you survived and became a good and functional person doesn’t mean she did good. You are who you are in spite of her. Owning that doesn’t make you disloyal or mean that you never loved her. It is she who was never truly capable of love and you who desperately sought her love and approval all your life. Go gently through this journey. It is a hard road to tread emotionally but you don’t walk alone.
thank you so much for your comment. it healed a little part of me. it’s really hard to admit the narcissist thing, for some reason. it seems so incongruous… it’s a mental space i simply can’t comprehend for relationship in my life, but i see it in others’ all the time. i don’t know what the barriers are to my accepting it.
i appreciate all you said about me being a good and functional person in spite of her; i’ve felt that but then i’ve felt guilty for it, but then i get mad for feeling guilty and then i feel proud and then i feel guilty.
i will go gently and tread lightly. i don’t have to wonder if i’m going to have to sit through another call or worse: ignore it altogether. i know how that sounds to someone not raised by her or her ilk, but i know you get it.
i wish our lots were easier. the book i’m reading, “your soul’s plan” which is super woo-woo and focuses on “soul planning” — it has some relieving ideas in it, but i still get lost in the whole intention to hurt someone thing… i just see these behaviors as choices, as was mine to end the cycle. but it’s a mental illness, i suppose. so that makes it a little easier. just a bit though.
It will sound off to those who do not understand. Society holds the concept of “mother” in a special, exalted place and it makes those who have difficult relationships feel terrible. Because society so reveres the mother, it must be US who failed. However if you think about some of the most hurtful things your mother did to you, can you imagine ever doing those things to your own children? Would you not do anything, anything, to have a healthy and respectful relationship with your own children? The failing is not yours. The guilt is there because you are a good and decent person and not because you deserve to be, or to feel, guilty.
Narcissists are not evil and they are not mentally ill. They have a personality disorder that makes their thinking different to that of normal, decent folk. In a lot of ways, their behaviour isn’t even a choice, it just is. They know no other way. For that, I feel an extraordinary amount of pity for the stunted half life they lead. However it has taken me a long, long time to et to a place of pity.
You may find reading on the topic will help you to process why this fault lined relationship was not your fault. People of the Lie is a good, fairly easy, way to start the process.
Thank you for the book recommendation; I will check it out. I’ve read a couple things like it since you wrote and they have been helpful; neutralizing.
It’s such a relief to not feel like you are waiting for something anymore. I have had that experience. You might like this poem by Mary Oliver: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2000/12/11
Lil, that poem is some powerful stuff. thank you. wow. yes, it’s nice to not have to wait. now: to install that… every day. xoxo
Unfortunately there is belief floating around that anything “judgmental” is something that human beings can be free of. A lot of this springs from the New Age people and Buddhist-lite types who are the same kind crying at the execution of a serial killer. You can develop over time a certain equanimity regarding regarding the arising of rage or extreme anger and not have to act it out by just witnessing it. I use noting and labeling which is one approach but there are many other ways as good psychotherapists know.
hi wayne! i’m in no rush to dismiss the rage yet. as long as i’m safe and my kids are as well, i can hole up and they understand. i push it off until later times if it’s not right, logistically. i’ve been on the couch long enough to know that i’ve got a handle on what is going on even if i don’t know exactly why it’s there. for me, the work is in the work: finding the message, feeling the feelings and synthesizing it all. i know that over time it will diminish and maybe by then i will be ready for the next big thing.
being her daughter was tough enough as it was; it’s a place no one, not my brothers or my father, will ever understand. i’m ok with it. as long as everyone’s on the same page about me not having to justify anything, we’re good.
thanks for chiming in! 🙂
I’ve been meaning to say this to you for a couple of weeks. This seems to be the opportune time. I’ve made a couple of observations about daughters who’ve lost their mothers. I don’t have a huge pool to pull from but here goes. Emotions are going to happen. Rage, as you described so well, guilt, regret, sorrow, anxiety (Am I like her and don’t realize it?), relief, freedom, and the rest of the spectrum.
Let them happen. Don’t feel guilty for feeling.
You may find yourself thinking, “What would Mom think? Doesn’t matter she’s gone.” and, “If Mom could see me now. Oh that’s right she can’t.” Let these thoughts happen too. I think you’ll start to move towards, “What would Mom think? Doesn’t matter; it’s up to me.”
It can be liberating and cathartic. Be you, not the person someone else would have you be.
Let, “What would Mom do?” or, “What would Mom want me to do?” become, “What’s best for me? What makes me happy?”
Also, take this with a grain of salt. This is coming from a completely external perspective.
Take care. 🙂
Eric, this was amazing of you to share with me and is actually the genesis of how I treated myself today. I heard you, “let it happen” and I was able to release.
Thank you for being so gentle, honest and kind.
Oh, and the comparing: HUGE. You’re right: doing it serves nothing. Nothing. I’ve been trying to just not judge stuff anymore, especially in this realm; it’s like I’ve become this neutrality-geared entity when it all gets to be too much, which is how it feels lately.