It will always be my own version of the JFK assassination: one of those moments that you remember forever—what you were doing, what you were wearing, who you were talking to.
“Flashbulb memories”—as psychologists call them.
I was balancing two coffee cups in my hand, headed for a table just a few steps away, navigating the all-too-familiar restaurant that I’d been working in while I went to school.
“Melissa, your brother’s on the phone,” I heard a voice say behind me; stopping in my tracks, I winced as the coffee spilled over onto my hand.
Why would my brother be calling me at work?
I would soon find out, although he refused to tell me over the phone: the words he did utter haunted me, so ambiguous and terrifying and confusing.
“Melissa, it’s Mom…you need to come home.” He’d said, his voice thick with tears, exhaustion, fear…I couldn’t tell what. I turned them over in my mind as I left my shift early, the drive across town in rush hour traffic giving me ample time to hash out my worst fears.
Deep down, though, I already knew.
But it didn’t change the fact that I still expected her to wake when I rushed into her room. I still expected her to answer when I called out, grabbed her hand, then shuddered at its temperature—still and cold. She’d been gone for hours before my brother had realized she wasn’t merely asleep.
A bracelet was wrapped around her wrist, a white one similar to the kind they put on newborn babies at the hospital. But this was the bracelet for the other end of life, the one that signifies the worst kind of change—at least to me in that moment…that bracelet sent me into a tailspin of grief, regret, and darkness.
How do I live the rest of my life without her?
I was ill-prepared, to say the least.
I often wish I could hand that girl a letter as she walked into her childhood home that day, pull her aside as she padded up the driveway, about to confront her dead mother, and a version of life that she hadn’t expected to bear.
The same words I’d like to offer to anyone heading into a similar abyss: the grieving, the despairing, the fearful…the newly motherless daughters. The inadequacy of words in the face of loss is tremendous, but I pass these words across time, from the other side of a bottomless pain, as proof and hope that there is light on the other side.
You won’t ever be the same, and that’s okay.
There will now always be two yous: the one when you had a mother, and the one when you didn’t. Losing her scattered you into a million unrecognizable pieces—you will go searching for them, try to fit them back together, but you will fail. You have changed.
The motherless you will at first feel awkward, ill-equipped, and terrified. That’s okay; as you walk through these days, you are gathering a strength that you never knew existed. You’re learning what it means to feel completely unprepared and go forth anyway—how to reach out for help from people who have never heard you cry. This will feel terribly uncomfortable, but it’s leading you somewhere, because…
You will find your tribe.
Reach out to other women, sweet girl. Share your grief, show your hand, and hear their stories. As you cut through the brambles of your loneliness, you will forge closer friendships, find adoptive families, and befriend people who need you as much as you need them. No one will ever replace your mother, but this is the tribe you’ve been asking for. Your grief is your map to them.
Don’t get ahead of yourself.
You keep trying to imagine the rest of your life without your mother. What about your wedding, your graduation, or potential kids? Who will you call for advice, to celebrate, (or) to vent? I told you that your tribe is on their way, but you and I both know that they aren’t your mother. Here is what you will need to do, the only way to forge this new motherless world is…
One day at a time.
You can’t imagine the rest of your motherless life, but can you get through today? Can you get out of bed, brush your teeth, and go to work? One day at a time, one moment at a time—can you put one foot in front of the other? You can, and you must. You can’t imagine these future events because they’re not here yet. Stay in the day, because the rest will work itself out. Trust me on this.
Remember the phoenix.
In these dark days ahead, find a picture of a phoenix and put it somewhere that you see often. It will feel pointless, silly, and you’ll doubt that life can ever feel differently than it does right now. But that doesn’t matter.
Because the phoenix, that bird that regenerates itself from the ashes of its old life, is you, sweet girl. Your pain is the ignition, and the tears, the guilt, and the anger are your flames. You will feel like your life has burned down because it has…
But you will rise, stronger and smarter and more tender.
You WILL rise.
Author: Melissa Pennel
Editor: Taia Butler
Supervising Editor: Danielle Beutell
Supervising Editor 2: Erin Lawson
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