What I learned from four years of grief
My mother’s last words have been haunting me since the day I heard them. I came up from Nantucket to Vermont on April 7, 2014, and barely recognized her. She was a shell of herself, yet so clear as she called me into her room and asked, “Did you write something?” And as I shook my head, confused, she paused and said, “Don’t worry, you will.”
She passed away the next morning . . . four years ago today.
Below is both the hardest and most heartfelt piece I’ve ever written. So for those of you who have ever lost someone, and especially those of you who have lost your mother, I dedicate this to you.
After the profound death of a loved one, you are unknowingly accepted and unwillingly enrolled into a school of hard knocks. Like those before you, you arrive at this campus anxious, disoriented, angry, and feeling a new sense of the word sad. And, I’m sorry, but you can’t harp on what happened to get you here. School is about to start.
So welcome, students, to the University of Broken Hearts.
Freshman year: The year of firsts
You arrive at the University of Broken Hearts, well, broken. And this place is just as awkward as it is uncomfortable. You are crying at the most inopportune moments, and there’s a serious disdain for people who just keep going along through their days, like all is well and nothing has happened. (Don’t they realize that the most important person in your life just died!?!)
A heavy sadness has found its way inside you, and you can’t explain it to anyone. This is one thing that can only be felt. Your freshman year is dedicated to going through the motions. Many freshmen choose vices over classes, as numbing our pain becomes the shortcut to pass the time. Other students choose to not talk at all, hoping to blend in, affirming “I’m fine” so many times every day that even they end up believing it. Most undergrads at the University of Broken Hearts can barely show up for Grief 101. The idea of having to go through a full year of firsts without their person sounds impossible.
But the year of firsts begins before you even realize it’s happening. The first Mother’s Day without sending her a card. The first birthday without her voice singing on my voice mail. The first Halloween without her telling me how much she hates the holiday. The first Thanksgiving without being able to tell her how thankful I am for her health. Her first birthday gone quickly, followed by our first Christmas without her. The first grandchild born that she doesn’t get to greet. And finally, we arrive at the first anniversary of her passing. It is only then that we take comfort in the fact that enough time has passed and we realize we are still here.
We are still alive. And it’s a Christmas miracle. We toast with tears as we try so hard to push forward. That excruciating year of firsts is now behind us. Life went on . . . and, somehow, so did we. And the best part? You never have to relive that year of firsts again.
Sophomore year: The merry-go-round
Our sophomore year arrives, and we are familiar with the campus. There’s a large merry-go-round in the center of school, and we continue to just walk by and work around it. We busy ourselves to drown out the overwhelming feeling of loss that persists.
Our sophomore slump creeps up when we realize that heavy weight inside us is the shadow of our lost one. We have survivor’s remorse and are so preoccupied with death that we are forgetting to live. Grief 202 focuses on how to rid yourself of that heavy weight and teaches us how grief is like a wave—you can stay put and continue to let the waves almost drown you, or you can release that weight, head to higher ground, and get on the merry-go-round with everyone else.
We start seeing the need to build up community around us again. We realize that living is not as fun to do on our own. The people we spend our time with changes. We recognize the incoming freshman class and give them a shout that things may suck for a little while but they’ll get past it. (And then we feel grateful knowing that our year of firsts is behind us.)
One spring day at the end of your second year, an upperclassman sees you on the sidelines, reaches out her hand, and pulls you up. All of a sudden, your view has changed, and everything seems a little brighter. Before you can digest the kind act, you’re spinning round . . . you’re back on the merry-go-round! And, damn, does it feel good to be among the living again.
Junior year: Life-after-death eyes
By your third year, your classes have intensified. They teach you a deeper understanding of loss, and you see life with more clarity. You become grateful for the time you had with your loved one and shift your perspective on what it means to experience profound loss. Even though you still miss that person every day, in Grief 303 you are recognizing that their death was not your end. That even though they may be gone, somehow, in a crazy, spiritual way, they are very much still here and have just transformed.
The University of Broken Hearts has shaped some of your biggest opinions on the world, and it’s helped you become more open. So much so, that you spend some of your junior year abroad. You see and feel and experience the world again. You can’t believe it, but while away you realize the university has become your comfort zone. Through your junior-year thesis on time, you recognize that life is precious and every day is a gift, not a given. You now know that growing older is a privilege denied to many, and you are here and that is what counts. One morning, you wake up and everything looks different. You literally have a new vision—and you are seeing a yellow butterfly everywhere.
You’ve been granted life-after-death eyes, and through this superpower, you can see that the one you lost is found . . . for they live everywhere. They are listening to you. They are watching over you. They are protecting you. That’s why you get these new eyes. You learned how to change your perspective. This is your gift for completing your junior year. For sticking through it. For keeping on the path and for holding on to hope. For continuing to show up in this world. And for showing up for yourself.
Senior year: Ah
And here we arrive at our senior year . . . four years post a profound loss and, gosh, look at ya. Still alive. Still kicking. Still keepin’ on, keepin’ on. You don’t fully realize it, but you are nearing the end of school as you can’t stay at this university forever—you’re actually beginning to outgrow it. You’ve passed all the grief courses and could go through your year of firsts with your new eyes closed. It’s time for your final exam. They ask you but one question: How have you healed?
Hmm . . . that’s a doozy. Let me think. Well, there’s a lot of empathy and compassion for myself as I reflect on my year of firsts (when I used to drown my sorrows in bottomless wine glasses instead of hydrating my mind and fueling my soul). I don’t spend nearly as much time on the Broken Hearts campus, but once in a while I find it my civic duty to mentor a freshman or to give a hand to someone who needs to get back on the merry-go-round. I’ve found joy and purpose in being of service to others. Death is still a total mystery to me, but now I’m not seeking to crack that riddle. I’m learning to love the unknown. I look back thinking what a true gift my time at Broken Hearts was—how lucky I was to love a mother so deeply that it took me four years to figure out how to wholeheartedly move on after her death.
Ah ha! There it is: wholeheartedly. My whole heart. I’m feeling with it again. It’s no longer broken. I took the time for life to process. That yellow butterfly that’s been chasing me this entire way was her! Letting me know, when I’m healed, I can start my new journey and fly away, too.
Graduation: The big reveal
It’s graduation day at the University of Broken Hearts, and today I get to be with everyone again. I now see the world with my life-after-death eyes, and when I look up at the bright sky, I see my audience is all my loved ones who have passed on. They are beaming, so proud of me for persevering. As I look up at everyone, my mom hands down my diploma. It reads, “I hereby declare Holly Finigan a graduate of the University of Awoken Hearts.”
And that’s when I realize there’s no such thing as the University of Broken Hearts! In fact, after a profound loss, each of us is lovingly accepted into a college of healing. Turns out, the University of Broken Hearts is just a nickname given by some sad freshman a long time ago . . . a story no one remembers but a name that the college chooses not to shake for the way it puts the new kids at ease.
So today and from here on out, I decide it’s time to fly on . . . wholeheartedly.
Here’s lookin’ at you, Ruth. And thank you . . . for everything.
P.S.: I hear you
You’re saying you’re scared.
You’re saying this pain is all too much.
You’re telling me that you don’t think that you’ll be able to make it through this school.
And to that, my mother and I say . . .
“Don’t worry, you will.”
Holly Finigan is the founder of the Nantucket blACKbook and lives on the island year-round. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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