I lost my mom when I was 18. It has been almost ten years of navigating my 20s without the guidance so many of my friends have had through this confusing, messy time of life.
Mother’s Day can be triggering. A day that specifically highlights what you no longer have. The pain will always be there, but how you handle it does get easier.
Here are tips and reminders I would tell anyone trying to navigate their 20s without their mom:
1. Know That There is Life After Loss
Your whole world just blew up and you have no idea how you’re going to make it through the next hour. You are in a place where you have to reimagine the future without one of the most important people in your life. Everything seems surreal and that maybe like it didn’t actually happen. That this is all some sort of joke and you will go home and she will be making dinner like always and we can all get on with our lives. Nothing will be the same, but life will resettle. It will take time, it will be hard, but peace and happiness are possible again. You will laugh again.
2. Feel Your Pain
If I could go back, I would tell 18-year-old me that understanding death on an intellectual level does not mean you’ve dealt with the emotions and pain of loss. I would tell her that it’s okay to cry, to not be okay, and that you don’t have to hold it all together for everyone. That all the emotions you are suppressing are meant to be felt, heard, and moved through your body. That by reaching outside of yourself to numb the pain will only mean you have to deal with it later on in life. That it will stay stuck in your body until you bravely look at it and release it. It will hurt, but it will release.
3. Take Care of Yourself
There is nothing that mothers want more than making sure their children are taken care of, safe, and happy. When you lose your mom you are likely losing the person who took care of you the most. The person who was always on the other end of the phone when something went wrong, your life was in crisis, or you just needed advice on how to rearrange the furniture in your living room. This one is a hard pill to swallow and I still struggle with it. You must take care of yourself. Good care of yourself. Take breaks, set boundaries with what you can and cannot do, buy yourself flowers, eat good food, move your body. Mother yourself.
4. Honor Them by Honoring Yourself
This one is similar to taking care of yourself, but takes it a step further. Remember that you are worth caring for and honoring. Remember that reaching outside of yourself to deal with the pain is only a temporary bandage. Booze, relationships, shopping, drama all will only fill the hole for so long. Remember this when you want to throw in the towel and say screw it to everything. That the biggest gift you can give to yourself is to honor yourself. Sitting in the fire of our pain is some of our hardest work, but in the fire we rise.
5. Understand Grief is Not Linear
Even though I knew what the five stages of grief were, it was weird learning them in the context of my own life. I feel like in textbooks we learn them as linear stages. Step one: denial. Step two: anger. But over these last ten years I have learned that grief is not linear. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance can come in waves, jump from one to another, and hit you all at once. Triggers of loss can show up at anytime. Even when you think you’ve felt it all, been through this part a million times, and have gotten through it, it can come back. And that’s okay. It’s a deeper part looking to be healed.
6. Your Support Squad
It is so important to identify who your go-to people are when you’ve lost your mom. I briefly attended a grief counseling group in college. We completed an activity where we divided a piece of paper in half and on one side drew our support system before the loss and on the other side drew what it looked like right after. This was eye opening for me. On the one side I had mostly my mom and a couple of other friends. When I drew the other side it was a reflection of how people come into your lives when you need them most. Friends and family members had stepped in to fill some of the void. I’m grateful for the relationships I have in my life now that I can turn to during those times I wish I could just call up my mom.
7. Find a Good Therapist
Working with a good therapist can be so helpful when navigating loss and grief. Having someone that knows how to work with these deep, complex emotions can bring some ease on this path, or at least reaffirm that no, you’re not totally crazy. You don’t have to work with the first person you come across. Make sure you find someone who is a good fit for you and what you are going through. You can interview therapists before committing to working with them and get a feel for how you will work together. The key is to find someone who can be a source of guidance and support while wading through the confusing waters of loss.
Have a place where you can write down all of your frustrations, fears, wins, and losses. Journaling helped me to get all of the confusing thoughts out of my head and onto paper where I could go through them later. Writing letters is one of my favorite journaling tools. You can write to them whenever you want. I always journal on and off. It’s so helpful to look back on to see how far you have come and see how the feelings you felt have evolved and transformed. When you’re dealing with loss and grief, having an outlet for releasing anger, sadness, and frustration is so therapeutic.
9. Establish Community
Humans thrive in community. It’s so easy to detach and isolate when we’re going through a loss. Over time we can get stuck in a rut where we don’t want to go out and do anything. But it is so important to engage in community. People lift you up. You never know who you will meet or what they have gone through and how you can support one another. As an introvert I know how hard this one can be, but it’s also been one of the most transformative in my healing process. Everyone’s community is going to look different. Start by getting involved in an activity or hobby you love and find other people doing the same thing. What may start out as a distraction may end up being a great source of support.
10. Put Up Reminders in Your Home
This one may take some time. At first it may be too painful to look through any of their things and the flood of memories may be too hard to bear. But over time this weight get lighter and lighter and looking through their belongings triggers warm memories instead of sharp pain. I have little reminders of my mom around my apartment that make me smile when I look at them. A picture of her on my nightstand, a ceramic hanging decoration she bought me that says, “I can handle anything if I have the right shoes” (which is true), one of her jackets hanging in my closet.
11. Quote Them Often
The best way to keep them alive is by quoting them often. This is one of the ways that I am able to look back and actually laugh about things we used to do or say. With time, things that trigger what they would have said or things they always used to say or do can be met with bright eyes and fond memories. I laugh when I mute the TV because she always called it the ‘mutate button’, whenever I get a great parking spot I hear her ‘thanking the parking lot gods’, and I proudly accept I inherited her black thumb in regards to gardening when I kill a plant that is ‘easy to keep alive’.
12. Trust Yourself
You have to learn to trust yourself. Healing takes time. It’s the work of our lives. Living in this for about ten years I can say for sure it never just goes away one day. Before that would have caused me anxiety – knowing that this won’t just go away. But it brings me peace now knowing that as I peel back a layer, a deeper level of healing occurs. You have to trust yourself and this process. Know that you don’t need to lose yourself after you’ve lost your mother. You can get through your 20s and you will be stronger because of it.