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When My Mother Died: A Story Of ‘Incomplete Mourning’

By Sarah Baker

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. Continue reading