The Grief Writer.

Via Ann Nichols
on Sep 14, 2013
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In three weeks and six days, my mother will have been dead for a year.

I have just started to dream about her, for the first time since she died.

I am now, just right now, starting to feel like I am a mummy being unwrapped on a metal table in a museum. The gauze that protected me and gave me a layer of softness to cushion bumps and jolts is being unwound, and I am exposed as what I am: a fragile, desiccated skeleton. I could be shattered by a wrong move or a careless jostling.

I’m pretty sure that even as I lie immobile, fragments of me are splintering away—a nearly transparent chip of metatarsal here, a flake of sacrum there.

I am worried that the statute of limitations has run, and that I have squandered my grief time working, playing Candy Crush and reading novels. I should have wailed, rent my garments, taken more time off… taken the sympathy the world had to give while I could still say “my mom died last year.” Because every day past that year I become just another motherless child, no big deal, a person doing something almost everyone does if they live long enough.

People are kind. When they know I’m particularly sad, they say things like “do you want to talk about it?” But what would I talk about? Would I say? That two days ago I had to stop using the purse I carried all summer because I suddenly had a vivid memory of the day we were shopping and I said I loved it but couldn’t afford it, and I went to the bathroom and came out to find that she had bought it for me?

Would I say that on days when I have trouble breathing because of the pain and fear I still wear her Dior Dry Rose lipstick, and the jade necklace my father bought her in China?

Would I say that the start of the new TV season is making me desperately sad because last year’s season premiere of my favorite show was on the night she died, and when I came home from the hospital the next day I lay down on the couch and watched the recording because I was numb and it seemed like as good a plan as any?

I have tried to spin this straw into gold. I really have. I have immersed myself in Buddhist practice, which helps. I have also written about her illness, her death and what came after. I’m a Grief Writer now; it sounds funny to me, like being a Sin Eater or a Freedom Rider. I am, for many readers who know nothing else about me, defined by my role as the daughter who loved her mother, and lost her. I think it helps people. I know my mother would be proud of me.

Still, though, still I find myself crying over mother-daughter scenes in books and movies, and I wake up some days and think that I will have to spend every waking minute sitting with the pain, observing it, giving it my full attention.

Still, I curate my relics: her voice on iPhone messages, the lipstick, her collection of Christmas tree pins. I am letting my hair go gray, and now I begin to see her beloved face in the mirror; and it is so very good to see her, but sometimes I can’t look very long because it’s just a shadow of what I have lost.

A chip.

A flake.

And what if, once I cross the one-year mark, I am no longer allowed these feelings?

What if the line I imagine, the line between October 12th and Everything After is a real thing, and I am not only motherless, but prohibited from seeking or even accepting compassion and sympathy about her death?

One day I may have the wisdom to see that my own loss and grief are as inevitable as all of the change in this life. I can say it now, write it now, I get it, it seems true, but lately it seems that I have lost the cushion of rationality and being all philosophical.

I only have three weeks and six days and I’m panicking. The person who knew me best, and loved me most is not available to offer comfort. Because now I am not her daughter; I am a Grief Writer. I am alone, exposed and spending each day trying to feel the feelings without wallowing, be present without obsessing, and get on with life without resorting to mindless pleasures for distraction.

I am stripped to the bone, and the broken bits can’t be restored, but I’ll keep writing what I cannot speak. I will write with compassion, infinite compassion for all who grieve and all who need desperately to know that they are not alone on their metal tables of sorrow, fear and chaos.

Maybe I’ll become something that’s better for having been laid bare, and broken in spots. Maybe I’ll gradually stop being a Grief Writer and be just…a writer.

Maybe—whatever I do is okay, and there are no rules, or deadlines. Just moments of panic, moments of joy and the rightness of sharing myself, unwrapped, chipped and flaked.


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Assistant Editor: Leace Hughes/Ed: Sara Crolick



About Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols has been everything from a cellist to a lawyer, and is currently a Buddhist who gets paid to cook at a Protestant church. She lives in a 100-year old house in Michigan with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals. You can hang out with her by joining the Facebook group “Metta-Morphosis.”


35 Responses to “The Grief Writer.”

  1. @DanaGornall says:

    Thanks Ann for writing this. I lost my grandma last year and I still sometimes forget that she is gone.

  2. One again Ms Nichols shoots her arrow directly into my heart. I lost my mother on February 17, 2012. She had dementia, so we lost over time, piece by piece, bit by bit, memory by memory for about a decade. But, it doesn't matter how or when or why, when you lost a parent you feel like an orphan. That feeling does not change. And it is difficult to talk about to others — so many had mothers who left them, mothers who drank or did drugs, mother who had the unforgivable sin of dying in childbirth. The feelings are so raw and so ridiculous — sometimes I am resentful of anyone whose mother lived beyond 79 — the age my mother was when she died. Of course, that's ridiculous. In reality I had a lovely mother as did you, Ann, and for me, I wasn't cheated. I know my mother loved me with every fiber of her being until the day she died.

    You are indeed a Grief Writer, and it is okay. We are allowed to feel and express our feelings, and I'm glad you did.

    All the "firsts" are awful, but it does get easier. We never forget, but we are lucky to have good things to remember.

  3. tnbroom says:

    In the world of sailing, there is one 'first' that is always commemorated and that is a ceremony of initiation on every sailor's first crossing over the equator. Officially recognized by entries indicating date, time, and place via latitude and longitude, the crossing of the equator involves elaborate preparation by the "shellbacks" (those who have crossed the equator before) to ensure the "pollywogs" (those who are about to cross this invisible line for the first time) are properly recognized. All pollywogs, even the Captain if s/he has not crossed before, must participate. No one escapes the preparations or the ceremonial baptism and it is a commemoration no sailor ever forgets. There may be many more crossings ahead, but the first is the one that forever remains in the memory of all who pass over that invisible line for the first time. I have a feeling you will commemorate this first crossing in your own unique and meaningful way, Ann. It is the first of many, but it will be a special 'first' for you — and for your mom.

  4. Phyllis says:

    I don't think there is a one year statute of limitations on grief, but I do think that grief starts to lesson at that one year mark, it did for me anyway. I get what you're saying about the mementos, using the lipstick but not being able to look at the purse. What was, what could have been, all of that is gone now. My mother will be gone 2 years in November and my Grandma 12 years last August., I still get pangs.

    So you do what you have to do to get yourself back to an even keel, don't worry about what anyone may think. It's different for everyone.

  5. Raven says:

    Thank you. The year anniversary of my mother's death is today. I've immersed myself in Buddhism too but I haven't even been this angry. Good luck to you. xoxox

  6. imagineannie says:

    I think that's healing! Although it's probably very sad and hard when you have that "remembering" moment.

  7. imagineannie says:

    Thank you so much, Bea. And yes, we are very, very lucky. Sometimes I think about what it would be like if we hadn't been so close, and I actually think it would hurt more, now……

  8. imagineannie says:

    That's a magnificent analogy tnbroom! This will be the last real "first" in terms of the calendar year, but I suspect there will be many, many crossings in which i will be a pollywog. I am blessed with many shellbacks in my life, and I feel their support every time.

  9. imagineannie says:

    Phyllis, that's great advice. I know, rationally, that there's no time limit, but I also feel that we live in a society that is incredibly uncomfortable with grief. I sometimes wish there was institutionalized, ritual mourning like Jews sitting shiva and burning a yartzeit candle every year – in fact, my mom was Jewish, and I'm pretty sure that I'm going to do that for her………

  10. imagineannie says:

    Raven, I hope the day wasn't too terrible for you. The Buddha taught us not to be attached, but he also knew that we love people deeply, and miss them terribly when they leave us. I'm thinking the "trick" is to balance; to be grateful to have the love and relationship, but to keep in mind always that the cycle of life and death is natural, and inevitable, and not a disaster but a part of living. Take care of yourself – we're in this together. 🙂

  11. Ambroyogini says:

    Thank you for sharing your writing, Ann. This particular post hit my heart in a profound way. My brother, with whom I was very close, died in June and I began blogging to help offset some of the grief and pain that kept (keeps) building up within me, in hopes of averting a string of seemingly perpetual melt-downs. However, I've recently scaled back any blog writing because I felt like I must be dragging out the pain longer than it should be. By sharing your doubts about whether there is, or should be, a "timeline" on our grief, and whether our feelings are "acceptable" has made me feel less isolated in thinking those same thoughts. I thank you so much for that! Also, I believe you are a writer – a talented writer – who just happens to be writing about grief at this time in your writing life. Please keep sharing what's in your heart. I look forward to watching the evolution! Sending you peace and love…

  12. Jessyca Chavez says:

    Hello Ann,

    Thank you for sharing your heart. This writing is one of the most realistic, reflection writings of my own emotional experience loosing my mother, my best friend very unexpectedly. I was 26 and she 52. It has been 5 years February 12. Thank you for giving of your thoughts for they resonate with me. The first year mark was “a wake up call” to say the least as my husband expected things to get back “to good”. Unfortunately, it took the loss of his mom, dad, and step dad all in 2010 to really understand you change, life changes and you have to figure out this new life, you can’t possibly get back on track with life as it once was. It has been a struggle but I try and seek out peace everyday and have just begun understanding mediation more as the losses have brought me to a stronger awareness, maybe even consciousness. What has helped me after my “flakes” have fallen these last years is to ask myself….” Would I trade the person I am today, for the person I used to be before mom died?” …my answer is always “NO”. In that I find my comfort, I am becoming who I’ve always needed to be and her spirit is able to help me more now than ever before.

    In light & love, Jessyca

  13. Kaffirlily says:

    Thank you so much, Anne. My mother died just this last June, and I struggle. Even though it was terrible to watch her deterioration over the last two and a half years as three separate cancers ravaged her poor body, and even though I have to be grateful for her sake that she is now no longer in pain, the fact is that I miss her dreadfully. We had become even closer than before during her illness, so that now I keep thinking, "I can't wait to tell M… Oh." And the giant boulder takes up residence in my heart centre again.
    So my heart goes out to you and to everybody who has experienced grief – may we all learn ways to live with our sadness.

  14. Fantail says:

    What you've written is what I feel.
    Two years ago I lost me fiance, suddenly and too young.
    After a year I thought, "shouldn't I be 'over it'?" Now after two I struggle with accepting that it will always be apart of me, that loss and that missing.
    It seems unfair that a year is the 'acceptable' amount of time to grieve. After a year I was only just coming out of the PTSD and letting the sadness in.
    Thank you. Thank you, for voicing the feelings in my heart and soul that I have not been able to.
    You are not alone either.
    Kia Kaha

  15. Rhonda says:

    That right there…the "can't wait to tell M……."….I deal with almost daily. I lost my Mom September 1, 2012….so I am just over the one year mark…….I must say the first year was easier because I was so numb…..I feel I was in a fog for year…..and then those moments, I want to call Mom, I ALWAYS called Mom when something happened…I have to tell her Allison got a job, Kelly is student teaching, Alex FINALLY got a job…….
    …….and I can't…….and so now I dread the holidays, never my favorite time of year, all over again yet more aware this year that Mom will NOT be here……again…..or ever again…..

  16. Kaffirlily says:

    Oh Rhonda, it's so hard, isn't it? I so much want to tell her that her grandson finally has a steady girlfriend, and a decent job, that my feet are healing after their injury, etc etc etc. I told her everything, and now I can't. My heart goes out to you; and at the same time it is weirdly comforting to know that I'm not the only one who doesn't just "get over it" in a few weeks. Thank you.

  17. imagineannie says:

    Thank you Ambroyogini, and I'm so sorry for your loss. It seems there are a lot of us in this club we never wanted to join. I'm so glad this has helped, and I say "write on." I'm learning, as I do this, that not only are people not saying "Oh my God please stop writing about this!" but that I am getting messages from people who feel the same way, and feel better knowing they are not alone. I will also definitely check out your site!

  18. imagineannie says:

    Jessyca, that's so young! I'm so terribly sorry. And you've hit on several things that really resonate. I know my husband kind of hoped for "normal" by now, and he's good about it, but he hasn't had any losses of that magnitude yet and so I don't think he can totally understand. As for the changes that take place after a mother's death, I feel exactly as you do, although not as far along in t he process. I've kind of…incorporated my strong, confident mother into myself and it's good for me. Of course I miss her terribly, but this all feels like it has to happen for me to truly come into myself.

    Thanks for reading, and for such thoughtful comments.

  19. imagineannie says:

    Exactly, exactly. Especially the getting closer during the last illness – it was so hard, but i wouldn't trade it for anything. I think I see a circle forming, in which we support one another as we go through this thing. And of course, yes, I still think of telling my mom about things, or about how much she would love to know about what's going on with her grandchildren, and always I kind of think she does know. And that helps.

  20. imagineannie says:

    Fantail., you are so welcome. That's a kind of loss I can't begin to imagine – mine was not easy, but it was not unexpected. And "PTSD" is really what this is, I think.

    And today i really, really needed to hear that I'm not alone.

  21. Kaffirlily says:

    You are right, I wouldn't trade that closeness for anything, either, Anne. Yes, it means that the hole she has left behind is really huge, but even so, that love is not something I would want to have missed out on. I have to say that sometimes I wonder whether I am being self-indulgent when I take a packet of tissues to a corner of the park and have a good cry, especially on those days when essentially I feel like a little toddler saying, "I want my Mummy back!", but I am learning that crying helps.
    I look at other women around me who I know have lost their parent/s, and wonder whether they, too, feel like little orphans who have lost the one person who always wanted to hear their little stories, the one person who loved them best.

  22. Kaffirlily says:

    PS. "Kaffirlily" is the common name of the Clivia Miniata flower, just in case you come across it again.

  23. Sandy says:

    Oh, I can totally relate to this. I used to feel like I should "just get over" my grief, sadness, and loss, writing about it to help work through it, but I am tired of writing about it and only it. And yet the words still come pouring out. That said, two very good therapists have gently told me, over and over, that it takes time. Healing takes time. And this "time" is different for everyone. Thank you for reminding me that others are out there dealing with and working through their own grief and loss, working through it in different ways, and at different speeds. There is no right and wrong, only you. Thank you for sharing.

  24. Maria Kelly says:

    Thank you for so honestly sharing your thoughts and feelings. It is funny how we surmise that there must be a timeframe appropriate for our grief. I am a writer,Life Coach and Grief Counselor who mourned the loss of my brother who died of. AIDS in 1990 by working at an AIDS HOSPICE in the early to mid 90’s. i have lost the rest of my family and many friends too. Only my daughters remain..Death finds some of us more frequently , sooner, then others. There are days when my ghosts are very close to me, all or just one. There are days when they are fleeting thoughts that bring smiles and laughter and then a few tears or a complete waterfall. What gets easier is not grief as I have come to know it, but the living in exuberance in memory of them. That looking around and taking pictures with my mind of the things I have come to know as precious and beautiful in my life. Then too is the thought that their energy survives in all of my experiences . The joy of knowing that my life has greater meaning because I was given the gift of surviving beyond their years. I have come to live with the greatest of passions, never forgetting that each of them left a bit of their passion with me. Forever and always a part of grief I can cherish as strange as that may sound. Forever Cherished. NAMASTE

  25. Ele Lawlor says:

    Thank you. From the depths of my own grief, thank you. I am a daughter who loved her mum and is still in the fresh cut of that first year too. I dream of her often. Days where I wake after spending time with her in my sleep are particularly obscure and still. It is terrifyingly deep. Like I’m falling into the space where my roots should be, and there is nothing to hold on to, and I can not call out. I don’t know who to call, because she has gone. I don’t know how to explain because weight of her absence is invisible to others now. After seven months people have seen me smile, seen me in town drinking coffee, seen me taking care of my children, laughing, even. So I am fine. I am fine. It’s done? No. I am crawling the walls for relief from this pain. I dreamed she came back again last night. But it was different to the usual quality of visit. This time she lay on her bed; fragile but young and beautiful in a long, black silk nighty. I rushed up the stairs and snuggled into her, so excited she was back. But she was too tired, and my neediness embarrassed her. She brushed me away, it hurt.

    Today has been as empty as an echo. I ache so far down inside that I not reach it however deep I breathe.

    But you, grief writer, you just reached down inside me with your words and drew out fresh tears.

    Thank you.

    You are wasting nothing.

    You are playing your part fully.

    Namaste x

  26. imagineannie says:

    Sandy, you are most welcome. And you are SO not alone – I, for one, am right here with you.

  27. imagineannie says:

    That comment is kind of a beautiful little post all its own! Thank you for reading, and for encouraging me, on a tough day, to remember the joy available to me as I remain in this world, alive and aware.

  28. imagineannie says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. I share that feeling that once people think I'm "fine" the jig is up, and I can never again credibly feel the enormous grief that is always there, just below what they see. I'm thinking if those of us who share this suffering can be mothers, fathers, family to each other, or even bear silent and loving witness, we will survive and thrive as our lost loved ones would want us to. Hang on, Ele. I think we can do this.

  29. trish says:

    Thank you for writing this and sharing this. I lost my mom quickly on August 11th. I wrote a very long story about it and now I feel like it's all I can write about. I totally relate to what you are saying. Losing a parent (I lost my Dad 8 years ago) changes you and now I'm completely parent-less. Not a place I thought I would be at 41. My mom was only 72.
    Anyways, I wanted to Thank you, Ann, and Elephant, for this story and many others that touch us on so many different levels. Love, trish

  30. Sandy says:

    Ann – I totally thought of you and your article when I read this! More affirmation and validation about how we deal with grief.

  31. Ele Lawlor says:

    I just wanted to share this poem that our exchange inspired. I wrote it and felt the healing. Thank you. I hope today is deep and beautiful for you my lovely xxx

    Empty as an Echo

    It’s that space where my roots

    used to be – that’s so

    terrifyingly deep

    As empty as an echo

    the ache has become

    whole inside of me

    It’s how I swallow more words than I speak.

    Ask me how I am?

    I will lie, of course, gag another ‘fine’

    It’s too huge and I’m

    as frightened as you

    The grief crawls the walls for relief

    unseen, invisible absence

    I can not speak.

    Won’t you ask me how I am?

    Don’t you know

    that my cries can not leave the abyss

    because neediness embarrasses me so?

    But I am as empty as an echo

    I am as heavy as I am hollow.

    Ele Lawlor (2013)

  32. Writing Scales says:

    What a beautiful, poetic post. Grief is part of who we are. It has been four years since my sister died and soon five for my mother's death. In the four year anniversary of my sister's death I wrote a short post about grief in which I stated that grief can sometimes be a comfort for it tells us how much we loved the person, how much we cared for them and still do. Greif helps us carry the person in our hearts.

  33. imagineannie says:

    Trish, thank you for reading, and keep writing about it as long as you need to. I think it's finally sinking in that there are no rules, and we have to do the things that heal us.

  34. imagineannie says:

    Sandy – thanks SO much for passing the HuffPo piece along. I think I need to read it, like, right this second. Oh, and thanks for reading!!

  35. imagineannie says:

    Writing Scales, yes it does. I'm learning. It's just kind of hard because the person who would usually help me navigate this is the one I lost…and when she went through it herself I was a self-absorbed, geographically distant college student and I didn't pay attemtion.