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Grief: The Ultimate Purgatory

A gold and black bronze urn is perched in my lap, a burgundy velvet bag sits nestled around the urn. My hand rest atop, my mother's gold chain interlaced in my fingers.
Holding my mother for the first time in over 20 years.

My mom is dead. She died in July. I mailed her a copy of An Obituary for the Living, but she never opened it. She was probably too sick to. I placed the unopened envelope in her coffin before they slid it into the cremation oven. I hope that in the life beyond this plane, she knows that I loved her with a depth that words could never fully articulate. Hopefully, one day I’ll know she loved me, too.

I’ve started this piece a handful of times in my head and a few from my fingertips. None of them ever seem right because grief is sticky. It gets everywhere. It seeps into even the most mundane of tasks. There are stages of grief, and depending on who you ask, there are five or seven, but they aren’t linear. You don’t move through them like you’re in an emotional assembly line. No, instead, you get flung around like a lone shoe in the dryer banging about not sure if you’re up or down but in desperate need of a better way to get to the end of this cycle. There isn’t a better or faster way to get through grief. You simply carry it until it becomes so light that you forget you’re even carrying it. The length of time it takes to reach the light as a feather portion varies greatly, and from what I’ve learned speaking with those who lost their mothers years ago, it only takes one moment to remind you that you have a heavy load in your arms. One moment to send you right back to those feelings of loss and confusion, to sweep you up in a wave of grief and remind you of how empty death leaves the living.

It’s been three months. It’s only been three months.

When you’re this close to death’s orbit, the waves are stronger. I’ve found myself weeping in my car after an ice skating lesson, followed by going home and putting on a brave face long enough to make it to the bathroom, where I collapsed under the weight of all that my mother’s death has required me to carry. I’ve sat by a fire with her urn, rocking myself back and forth and weeping as I stated what I’ve held in for decades, “I wanted my mommy to hold me and keep me safe.”

The well-meaning individuals, the beings who fill my life and want to offer me a tether to a world beyond my grief, remind me that what I did not receive as a child, I have put into the world ten times over. While this is true, it also came at a price. In pursuit of preventing others, mainly my children and loved ones, from feeling the depressive loneliness that comes from abandonment wounds, I abandoned myself time and time again. I had hoped, subconsciously, that by sacrificing myself, I could save myself from the demons left by those who had harmed me. That’s not what happened, though. Instead, I taught myself how to bury my pain so deep that only death himself could resurrect it and lay it before my feet.

I always pictured the grief I would feel at my mother’s passing to be akin to relief. There hasn’t been relief. What I’ve felt has been far from relief. There is a heaviness, an unliftable weight, that sits firmly on my chest. Each day, I wake up and try to move that weight or ignore it, but it doesn’t budge. Those who have been around since July comment that I seem better than I was in those first weeks after her death. It’s true that I can make it through more days without bursting into tears than I could at the beginning of this journey, I still feel stuck in grief’s sticky web. I’m only getting better at hiding it.

I feel like I’m the little girl sitting in the backseat of her dad’s Ford, weeping again because she can’t see her mother. Or the lost teenager who desperately wanted someone to love her whole. While physically and mentally I’m neither one of those girls, emotionally, I feel like I never left those moments. A part of me is still there, searching, yearning, and hoping. Logically, nearly 40-year-old me knows that my mother doesn’t show up. She sits in a jail cell and then disappears into the wind while I gaze out the window, silently crying because the sound of my tears grates my father’s nerves. I know she doesn’t show up when I’m 15 and take the pill bottle out of my hand. She doesn’t save me or hold me. I learned to do those things for myself, and yet… when the grief gets heavy, I’m there sitting in that gold car, tears streaming from my face. Or staring into a bathroom mirror, wondering if that will be the last time I look into my hollow eyes. Those moments scare me.

I had found a way to convince myself that I had made it to the summit of my trauma mountain, but now I’m wondering if I had ever even started the climb. Have my feet always been kicking at the base of the mountain and calling each pebble that falls a victory? Or is this new? Is this only my grief talking? If I haven’t started the climb, is grief what finally equips me to do it? If so, what happens when I reach the top?

I grew up learning about heaven, hell, and purgatory. You definitely wanted to go to heaven, hell was a hard no, and purgatory was sort of this not-great, but not completely horrible, middle ground where you could get yourself together, hopefully. I used to think that maybe purgatory was the best option, with less pressure and more time to figure yourself out. Now that I live here, I’m sure it’s merely hell with less BDSM. The only thing torturing you is your mind and the lifetime of baggage others have asked you to carry. It plays on a loop, asking you to examine the root of each morsel and make peace with them. Each experience reminds you that you haven’t climbed that mountain yet. You’re still at the base, kicking off pebbles and hoping one turns into a boulder that releases you from this halfway house of hell.

I don’t know when I’ll climb. Hell, I don’t even know if I can. I know I don’t want to. I want to lie down and wait to be buried. I know that’s not an option either. Not for me. Maybe one day I’ll wake up and I’ll open my eyes to see that I’ve reached the summit. I’ll feel lighter than I ever have before. I don’t know when that will be, and if you’re waiting around for me to go back to “normal” you’d best move along and find another mountain to hang around. I can’t go back to who I was before death knocked on my door and grief barged in demanding a seat at my table. My mother’s death changed me. It broke the carefully crafted veneer that hid the cage I trapped the wounded parts of myself inside. Now I sit with two versions of myself who look at grown-up me with bloodshot eyes and tear-streaked faces, hoping that I’ll save us from the horrors that live on that mountain.

I don’t know if I can save us, but I can at least stop kicking at the mountain and start climbing it. To those who stick around for the climb, I look forward to seeing you at the top. To everyone else, I wish you peace, and may your mountain be an easier climb than you believe it is.

I’ll leave you all with the words of Megan Devine -

“The reality of grief is far different from what others see from the outside. There is pain in this world that you can't be cheered out of. You don't need solutions. You don't need to move on from your grief. You need someone to see your grief, to acknowledge it. You need someone to hold your hands while you stand there in blinking horror, staring at the hole that was your life. Some things cannot be fixed; they can only be carried. Grief like yours, love like yours, can only be carried.

Survival in grief, even eventually building a new life alongside grief, comes with the willingness to bear witness, both to yourself and to the others who find themselves inside this life they didn’t see coming. Together, we create real hope for ourselves,

and for one another. We need each other to survive.

I wish this for you: to find the people you belong with, the ones who will see your pain, companion you, hold you close, even as the heavy lifting of grief is yours alone. As hard as they may seem to find at times, your community is out there. Look for them. Collect them. Knit them into a vast flotilla of light that can hold you.”

Copyright(c)2023 Rayven Holmes

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