I stopped going to Mother’s Day services after my mom died. When that second Sunday in May pops up on my calendar, I find something else to do, anything that doesn’t remind me of the days and weeks that followed her passing. I’m certain prayers were lifted for the maternal among us whose warmth, love and care so many people take for granted. Lamentations may have been added for those who are unable to be mothers and those who have lost a child or miscarried. I’m not sure. I don’t avoid worship out of a need to avoid grief or a fear of moving forward. I avoid it because I know that almost everyone in those pews will soon experience what still wraps around me daily.

I remember my mother as a woman who tried hard to balance raising two kids with having fun along the way. We struggled for a time and scraped by for years before the dot-com era provided my mother with security and stability for the first time in her life, just as I was heading out to college. Our relationship ebbed and flowed no differently than that of most mothers and their children; we were still connected in that special way.

Mother’s Day reflected that connection. She loved the 10-year-old me who destroyed the kitchen to make a special meal for her, a mess she lovingly helped clean up afterward. She took pride in the adult me who treated her to dinner at a Dutch-Indonesian restaurant to give her a taste of my new world, now that I had married into a family that took me overseas more than I ever dreamed possible. She would gush over the flowers and gifts I sent from adventures in Europe or what caught my eye on work trips throughout the United States.

That connection held when we had our differences over life choices or our inability to visit more often. Our bond strengthened during the hardest moments toward the end: when she called me just before Thanksgiving to explain that the doctor found a mass on her thigh, when she confirmed around Christmas that the cancer had returned, and when the doctor said this type of cancer couldn’t be beaten.

Rather, the Tuesday after Easter, my stepfather called. “I just finished talking to the doctor,” he said, “and they say your mom only has about a week left.”

I hurried him off the phone and started packing to rush home. In less than an hour my spouse and I booked a hotel room, changed our work schedules and started driving south. We were stuck on the highway when my stepfather called again. This time he asked me to connect my brother and stepbrother onto the call.

“The doctor was just here, and it’s not good. She says that the breathing tube is the only thing keeping her alive. If they take it out, she’ll be gone in a matter of hours.”

He wanted us all to agree that now was the time to let her go. My stepbrother asked if we could talk to her. No. My brother asked if she wanted to say anything. No. All that remained was our consent. Nothing stops time and space faster or harder than having to consent to let your mother die.

At 5:53 p.m., I got the text message: “She just passed.”

The realization that my mom, the woman who had known me my entire life, no longer dwelled on earth gutted me. My heart sank into a void; my stomach churned. I was alone in the world. Our connection had been severed, impossible to restore.

Two years later, those memories still play out, though now they are flickering filmstrips from the silent era; I don’t hear the voices in my head so much as I read them on title cards while the sepia-toned past plays out in between. Sometimes I can feel the words as heartache as I experience everything all over again. Other times they are historical, detached, as if time created a barrier between the emotions I incurred and the state I am in. It’s the quirk of grief.

We’re told that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are made out to be phases, eras we pass through to navigate loss before we come out on the other side, ready to return to some sense of normalcy. But none of that is true, not for the profound, deep losses of a parent, a sibling, a spouse, a child or another close companion instrumental in our lives. The phrase “it gets better” seems hollow at first and even more false as time continues its cold, heartless progression.

The pain of my mother dying relatively young (she was 58) compounds because now I realize I may live more years with her as a memory than I did with her in my reality. It seems impossible, but millions somehow do it. Perhaps they are comforted by Christ’s promise of a reunion after death. I’m not, not while I may endure decades without that reunion.

Instead, I live in the comfort that God grieves with me. God is there for the mothers and grandmothers. God is there for those who’ve lost children, who’ve never had children, who don’t want to bring children into the world. God is there for those who used to be mothers in every conceivable way, and for those who become mothers in every conceivable way. And, not least, God is there as we bawl to ourselves while the world around us celebrates Mother’s Day at church, at brunch or at home.

Grief doesn’t disappear, it doesn’t diminish. We grow, we adapt, and we adopt the new normal we find ourselves in. God is right there as we take one step forward each day, discovering what is familiar about this new world and what is vastly different. The differences will hurt sometimes, and at other times they will make us smile at the memory of what was.

Eventually, I’ll return to church for Mother’s Day, I think. I’m not sure when or why. But I know I won’t be alone when I enter the sanctuary, when I see the carnations or roses in each mother’s hands, when I hear the adulation of mothers from the pastor or in the prayers. I’ll feel isolated, but I won’t be alone.

JN Shimko
JN Shimko is the ELCA director of content strategy.

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