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When My Mother Died: A Story Of 'Incomplete Mourning'

I was 8 years old and the sky was black the day my mother died.

That morning, after a five-year struggle with a brain tumor, she’d passed away at Bethesda Naval Hospital, where she had been admitted a couple of days earlier. I hadn’t seen her since.

Grieving wasn’t an option in our house. We were a “chin up, shoulders back” group led by Dad, a rising star in the Navy. At my mother’s graveside in Arlington National Cemetery, my 10-year-old brother and I stood like little replicas of John F. Kennedy Jr. 12 years earlier when he saluted his father’s coffin. There were no tears, no signs of weakness. Long periods of mourning or sadness were not in our family culture — our grief was put on hold. There were bags to pack, and new ports of call. I was Soldiering On.

The Hardest Thing

According to the advocacy group SLAP’D (Surviving Life After a Parent Dies), 1 in 9 Americans loses a parent before age 20. Of those, nearly half said it was difficult to talk about their grief and only 7 percent said a guidance counselor helped. Six out of 10 adults interviewed, who lost a parent when they were children, said it’s the hardest thing they’ve had to deal with.

Sarah Baker at age 6, two years before her mother died (Courtesy)
Sarah Baker at age 6, two years before her mother died (Courtesy)

For us, the coping mechanism of Soldiering On worked splendidly for years, even decades. I survived all of the moves due to Dad's deployments, even thrived, people might say. I went to college, graduate school, found great jobs, married a wonderful man, and had two beautiful children. All seemed well, at least on the surface.

But years of anxiety and disassociation gripped me. Recently, though, I felt all that emotional baggage was not sustainable. My external world appeared blissful (and it was!) but my internal world reeled. I had periods of blankness, inability to focus, sleeplessness, feelings of isolation when I was surrounded by loving people; despair, longing for something else, numbness, repeating negative loops in my mind, and sensations of being half dead. These feelings came in waves — days of it followed by lightness and connection. The longest darkness lasted three months — the world drained of its colors and none of my usual "reset," or coping, tools seemed to work.

Necessary Grief

Importantly, coping is not grieving. "There is a kind of sanity to grief," says Kay Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and author of “An Unquiet Mind.” "It provides a path — albeit a broken one — by which those who grieve can find their way. Grief is not a disease; it is a necessity."

Funerals and other rituals bring people together and defend against loneliness. But if the grief lingers too long, is too severe, or unprocessed, it might begin to resemble depression. It's a fine line indeed.

I now know I had never fully experienced the pain and sorrow of my grief.

Thirty-eight years after my mother’s death, I was standing at the kitchen sink in my house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looking out the window at our young tulip poplar tree, cleaning my 10-year-old’s lunchbox for his day at moviemaking camp. My husband and son were cheering over the headlines they’d just read about the Red Sox’s winning record. Our 13-year-old daughter was eating her favorite breakfast, Greek yogurt with honey and toast with peanut butter. Washing the dishes, without any warning, I had a terrifying vision. The room emptied of its color and sound and I became overwhelmed with feelings of gloom.

A Scary Vision

I could not see the deep blue and yellow of the painting of coffee cups that hangs over our espresso machine. I could not make out my toaster and the windowsill above it lined with the colorful bowls my daughter made in pottery class. I saw everything in a gray hue, as if I was looking out through a gauzy shroud.

Suddenly, into this vision a crowd appeared — ghost-like and massed together, as if formed from one piece of clay. They were lined up behind one woman and screaming at me.

I couldn’t hear my family’s chatter, the humming of the dishwasher, the gurgling our freezer makes when it releases new ice. All I could hear were these strangers’ taunts.

That moment in the kitchen felt eternal but might have lasted only a minute or two. I must have dropped the Tupperware but nobody noticed. In the midst of it, after I found my way to the sofa and tried to calm my racing heart, an image of my favorite candle found its way into my terror. A friend had once suggested that the best way to ground yourself when disassociating is to focus one of your senses. For me, this candle with its strong scent of mint, ginger, tea and tobacco seemed like my best chance. Somehow I found my way up my stairs and into my bedroom where the candle was. The next thing I remember is my nose deep in it and my sense of self back to normal.

This tale sounds crazy. I don’t do drugs. Never have. But, it felt as if someone had slipped some LSD into my latte. For the rest of the day, I felt tender and pulled apart.

An Intimate Sorrow

After a couple of weeks of piecing myself back together — talking to therapists, doctors and friends — and researching what might have happened, I began to think of the episode, strangely, as a gift. Ever since my mother’s death and without proper grieving, I’d been carrying her loss inside me. That morning in the kitchen, two summers ago, for the first time, I became conscious of the unresolved grief I’d been lugging around for decades.

The feelings of grief are completely individual — no two griefs are the same. That is why counselors recommend against saying to someone bereaving, “I know how you feel,” because most likely, you don’t. And as C.S. Lewis wrote in, “A Grief Observed,” “Sorrow...turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history.”

That being said, it is possible to make generalizations about grief, according to Holly Prigerson, professor of sociology of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and clinical researcher on grief.

The physical responses to grief vary but may include digestive problems, insomnia or other sleep troubles, sore or tight muscles, fatigue, headaches, chest pain or pressure, dryness of mouth, numbness, inability to concentrate and then, of course, the rollercoaster of emotions. Generally, these feelings are most intense in the first six months after the death. Then typically, they taper and begin to habituate.

Much has been written about Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s now-debunked five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Prigerson believes that grief should be considered in states, not stages. People might experience some of these reactions; but not all, in differing order and in differing degrees and not necessarily through a sequence of distinct stages. And, what’s missing, most crucially, from Kubler-Ross’ list is yearning — perhaps the most intensely felt state.

Incomplete Mourning

But what happens when you don’t go through this process? I didn’t have an answer, so I started researching.

What I learned was that the stories of childhood loss differed from adult loss. And in cases where the person didn’t mourn, I saw similarities to my own story — years of disassociation, hyper-vigilance, churning thoughts and depression.

In the midst of these grief conversations, my brother — the only person who could possibly understand my history and feelings — sent me William Styron’s, “Darkness Visible,” an honest and engrossing account of the author's depression. I was moved by the writing but mostly intrigued to keep reading because Sam said the book had been very meaningful to him. Then on page 80 in this 84-page book, I read, “The death or disappearance of a parent, especially a mother, before or during puberty — appears repeatedly in the literature on depression as a trauma sometimes likely to create nearly irreparable emotional havoc. The danger is especially apparent if the young person is affected by what has been termed 'incomplete mourning' — has, in effect, been unable to achieve the catharsis of grief, and so carries within himself through later years an insufferable burden of which rage and guilt, and not only damned up sorts, are a part, and become the potential seeds of self-destruction.”

“Incomplete mourning — according to Dr. Peter Shabad, associate professor of clinical psychology at Northwestern University Medical School and author of the book "Despair and the Return of Hope" — “is when people present a picture that something was left behind that they keep returning to.” In other words, it’s when people, for whatever reason, can’t let go of a trauma, loss or unacknowledged suffering. It’s a variation of what Sigmund Freud called “repetition compulsion” — a psychological phenomenon where a person repeats, or “relives," a traumatic event over and over again.

In my case, because I didn’t process my grief, and as an 8-year old didn’t even have the language for the intense feelings, it was as if I put them in a metal box, welded it shut, and buried it inside of me. Those feelings were too terrifying to let out. But over the years as I learned new coping mechanisms, for instance, the ability to be present and also to rely on others, that box’s seal weakened, maybe it even rusted a bit. That morning in my kitchen, it finally burst open. No wonder the people in my vision were so angry. You would be too if you’d been locked up for 38 years.

Sarah Baker is a freelance writer and independent radio producer.

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