On Disorder, Grief, and the Dead Moms Club

When your Mom dies, it can really mess you up.

I don’t need to read one more study claiming to prove that losing your parent unexpectedly while you’re young can give you persistent complicated bereavement disorder (which is so poorly understood that it has been placed in the DSM-5 chapter “Conditions for Further Study”) if you show “severe symptoms” after only six months of the death. And that complicated grief disorder looks exactly the same but is slightly different from other disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. In many cases the diagnosis of grief (whether “complicated,” “traumatic,” or “regular”) is confused with other disorders like PTSD and Depression, because the grieving process in general can bring out “underlying disorders” that you never knew you had until your life was turned upside down and your insides ripped out.

Okay, let me get this straight. When you lose the person you counted on to love and to love you unconditionally, the person who was your main support system, to whom you turned to confide the happenings of your days and for advice in difficult times, the person who quite literally gave you life, you are now “disordered” because the person who helped you out and loved you no matter what is no longer here to help you out and to love you, and you need to learn a new way to cope.

The difference between the disorders is simple: my Mom died, and the only disorder I have is the one in my laundry basket.

Grief is not a disorder.

Grief is, in short, the period in which you learn how to move through life without someone you love. It’s both a process of re-learning, and a feeling of turning to someone – the someone you need most – who is no longer there. It is not sadness, or anger, and is most certainly not a disorder.

Sure, I have post-traumatic stress and nightmarish daytime visions and nighttime dreams from the traumatic and violent car accident that killed her. Sure, I was in “denial” for many years, believing she could still walk through the door at any minute to hug me and exclaim, “Hello honey! I’m home! I just had the most fabulous vacation but I missed you so much that I left early…” Sure, several people in my life told me to ‘see someone’ for depression, so when my therapist refused to diagnose me with some sort of disorder for the sake of going on medication to make me more pleasant to be around, I booked her twice a week for as long as I was in the area. Turns out, she also lost her Mom when she was young – and her father during our own sessions – so she of all people was overly qualified to know that grief does not equal disorder.

I almost wanted the disorder diagnosis, if not for any reason but to have an explanation for why everything felt so difficult that was more logical than the fact that my Mom died. I couldn’t admit fully to the fact, and needed some other explanation like “it must be the depression, or the PTSD, making me feel this way” since I hadn’t given up on the possibility that she would still come home.

But she missed my birthday.

The first birthday she missed was my twenty-third in 2014. Then she missed her birthday, and the winter holidays and the anniversary of her death, and Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day. And then all those days passed again in the same order for the following three years without her presence, until here I am in 2018, two weeks away from the fifth birthday of mine she will miss.

The birthday is significant because she never would have missed my birthday, at least by choice, since that was the anniversary when she became a Mother. She always told me it was the most important day of her life because all she ever wanted was to be a Mom, but every doctor told her it would be impossible, so when I came along, she gave birth to a miracle. When my sister was born two years later, she had a double miracle.

I justified her missing that first birthday – even the second and third – to the possibility that she was being held hostage in a cave but was fighting to escape. But here I am, about to surpass year five of missed birthdays and I’m putting my hope that she’s still out there to rest. The evidence is against me. It’s been too many birthdays.

It is hard for me to believe that I haven’t spoken to her or heard her voice in over four and a half years (that’s not entirely true, her voice does ring loudly in my head sometimes), that I’ve lost count of the days and weeks that I’ve survived without her, and that I’m pretty damn functional today considering where I was that first year. I couldn’t remember to shower or brush my teeth let alone make food for myself that first year. I didn’t know how to get through each minute without thinking about how much I missed her and how the one person I wanted to tell about my pain was the one person I could not contact.

And when I finally felt the courage to enter a new relationship, all I could think about was how she was watching me, in her ever-present angel state, in my most intimate moments and how uncomfortable and awkward I felt. Mood killer.

That first year went by so slowly because one hundred percent of my brain cells and bodily functions was devoted to surviving the impossible, to keeping her memory alive, and to re-learning how to operate in this life without her guidance. Okay, I was also devoting a lot of my attention to Executor of the Will duties and meetings with lawyers and running around like a headless chicken trying prove to banks and insurance agents that she was in fact dead, without physical evidence of her dead body. They needed multiple original death certificates plus all the account information and passwords and PINs and probably a blood sacrifice to close out one single account. And there I was, sitting across from the agent, holding back tears from looking at her name, wondering why it is so difficult to die in this country.

I miraculously graduated from college without my biggest fan applauding me on at the ceremony or celebrating with me at the party. I went to bed with her ashes stuffed in a pillowcase so I could hug her near me as I drifted off to sleep. I broke down unexpectedly in the middle of crosswalks, sidewalks, bars, paintings, sunsets. I wrote hundreds of songs but when I sat down to write about her I had no words. I sung in silence about her for years, clutching at empty phrases, desperate to put the pain and missing and despair I felt into something understandable – melodies, words and music – so I could let it go. I wanted to scream, but no sound came out. No sound would have been large enough to carry what I was holding within me, out into the world. And if I did produce such a sound, it would have ripped my fragile body apart.

Every time someone said “I’m so sorry…” I waited in agony for them to complete the sentence with something specific or concrete. What are you sorry for? That my Mom died and I’m here without her? For my pain? For what? 

Sometimes they would complete the sentence and say they were sorry for “my loss.” But this confounded me. (And really, what the hell are “condolences,” anyway? I didn’t want condolences; I wanted whiskey). We need to learn how to speak about grief in this country, because I did not lose her, for lost things and people are floating around out there, waiting to be found again. She certainly isn’t lost; she’s dead, lifeless. I lost all the voicemails she left me, you can be sorry for that, but I didn’t lose memories of her. To my relief, I actually started gaining memories, because as I’m no longer creating new ones, old ones resurface, fresher than ever.

And they are so vivid.

I wrote letters to her, letters that would never be sent. I left voicemails, and called out to her on long walks at night through the woods. I traveled the world in search of her in every corner. Perhaps I would have a better view, or perspective, from mountain tops, so I climbed. I never found her, but I did feel closer to her and to the Nature she loved, while I was in the forest or on the top of a mountain. So I’ve given up on my search, but I’m still climbing.

The one thing I want is to have her back, but if given the choice between being who I am now without her, or regressing back to who I was on that snowy January day in 2014 as she returned home alive, I would never choose to go backwards in time. Maybe my answer is due to the fact that I know deep within me that this thought experiment is total bologna, so I can’t let myself even entertain the possibility. It would be too much of a risk. But I think the real reason I wouldn’t choose to have her back is because if I did go back in time to who I was, I would lose all the growth I’ve done in these four and a half years, all the lessons I’ve learned, all the beautiful people I’ve befriended, all the passion I have within me, and the discovery that I can love again.

I could never give all that up. These past four and a half years have been filled to the brim with pain, but also with growth, newness, rejuvenation, awakening, love, and joy. To let go of the pain and allow the joy in to take its place is infinitely more joyful than having only joy in the first place.

I have gained so many other Moms, not to take the place of my own beautiful mother, but Moms who have supported me and been there to get coffee or to cry even years after the memorial service. My Aunts, my friend’s Moms, my Mom’s friends, my friends who are now Moms, my new Step-Mom and Step-Sisters are among my many Moms. (If you’re reading this, thank you, I love you, you know who you are).

I have found my tribe. Some of my closest friends who walk this Earth are members of the Dead Moms Club (or Dads) and we celebrate them, sometimes without speaking a word, because we know how difficult even the most mundane things can be without our Moms there by our side. And my sister and I are in our own subchapter of the DMC because we have the same Dead Mom and can laugh together as we imitate her goofy mannerisms and cry as we remember her fondness of potato chips and Swedish fish…eaten together. We have grown to be especially close following her death and I have so much gratitude for our relationship (though call me back, damn it!).

I have learned the value of true friendship, learned that true friends emerge from old fabric when least expected because no matter how many years have passed, the bond, however old, is stronger than time.

I have learned that I can love someone. And equally so, I have learned to love when he calls me out on certain behaviors that don’t serve me well. I have learned the art of slowing love down, of falling in love slowly, because however painful it may feel, it is rewarding times a million. Most unexpectedly, I can love someone who didn’t know my Mom.

I have learned patience. God, have I learned patience. I waited for four years for someone who cannot return my calls or hold my hand or hug me in the complete way only she could. And I will be waiting for a very long time. Being stuck in traffic, or being late, or waiting for someone to show up to dinner, or waiting for him to say I love you too, are nanoseconds in comparison. If I could, I could wait forever.

But life is calling, and there is so much out there to do, to feel, and to experience. It has been a long process and will most likely continue to be, but today I am ready to shed the thick skin that’s been protecting me from the pain and to see the world with a new set of eyes and feel it with a new layer of soft, permeable skin.

And maybe, I will find the secret to writing that song.

3 thoughts on “On Disorder, Grief, and the Dead Moms Club”

  1. Hey woman – there are a lot of folk looking out for you. I am feeling fortunate to have read this and to know more about you and how we an connect at Jay in the future. I have my own story if ever you want to hear… (-:


  2. Kate,
    I graduated from Friends with your mom& always loved her kind, positive, happy spirit! The picture you have with her and your sister doing what she loved shows perfectly what she was.
    My parents still live in Delaware and have failing health but I don’t know what it is like to not have them.
    I see your Uncle John’s posts with your grandmother& know your mom’s spirit lives on in them as it does with you and your sister!
    You are a very talented writer& look forward to reading more…
    Meg Dempsey Frey


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