I’m a 38-year-old guy and engaged to be married this summer. My fiancé is 35. I don’t need romantic advice. I’m writing to you about my fiancé’s mother, who passed away from cancer several years before I met her, when my fiancé was 23.
She and her mother were very close. Her death was an awful blow to my fiancé at the time and it still hurts her deeply. It’s not like she can’t get out of bed or is struggling with depression. She has a great life. One of her friends calls her “joy on wheels” and that’s accurate, but I know it isn’t the whole story. Her mom’s death is always lurking. It comes up on a regular basis. When she cries or talks about how much she misses her mom, I’m supportive, but I usually feel insufficient. I don’t know what to say beyond lame things like, “I’m sorry” and “I can imagine how you’d feel” (though I can’t because my mom is still alive). She never had much of a relationship with her dad, who left the picture a long time ago, and her sister and her aren’t very close, so I can’t rely on someone in her family to be there for her. Sometimes I try to cheer her up or try to get her to forget about “the heavy stuff,” but that usually backfires and only makes her feel worse.
I don’t know how to handle this, Sugar. I feel lame in the face of her grief. I know you lost your mother too. What can you tell me? I want to be a better partner when it comes to handling grief.
Several months after my mother died I found a glass jar of stones tucked in the far reaches of her bedroom closet. I was moving her things out of the house I’d thought of as home, clearing way for the woman with whom my stepfather had suddenly fallen in love. It was a devastating process—more brutal in its ruthless clarity than anything I’ve ever experienced or hope to again—but when I had that jar of rocks in my hands I felt a kind of elation I cannot describe in any other way except to say that in the cold clunk of its weight I felt ever so fleetingly as if I were holding my mother.
That jar of stones wasn’t just any jar of stones. They were rocks my brother and sister and I had given to our mom. Stones we’d found as kids on beaches and trails and the grassy patches on the edges of parking lots and pressed into her hands, our mother’s palms the receptacle for every last thing we thought worth saving.
I sat down on the bedroom floor and dumped them out, running my fingers over them as if they were the most sacred things on the earth. Most were smooth and black and smaller than a potato chip. Worry stones my mother had called them, the sort so pleasing against the palm she claimed they had the power to soothe the mind if you rubbed them right.
What do you do with the rocks you once gave to your dead mother? Where is their rightful place? To whom do they belong? To what are you obligated? Memory? Practicality? Reason? Faith? Do you put them back in the jar and take them with you across the wild and unkempt sorrow of your twenties or do you simply carry them outside and dump them in the yard?
I couldn’t know. Knowing was so far away. I could only touch the rocks, hoping to find my mother in them.
Not long before my mother died, I met a woman who’d been attacked by a man as she walked home from a party. By the time I met her she lived in a group home for those with brain injuries. Her own injury was the result of the attack, her head having hit the sidewalk so hard in the course of it that she’d never be the same again. She was incapable of living alone, incapable of so very much, and yet she remembered just enough of her former life as a painter and teacher that she was miserable in the group home and she desperately longed to return to her own house. She refused to accept the explanations given to her as to why she couldn’t. She had come to fervently believe that in order to be released she had only to recite the correct combination of numbers to her captors, her caretakers.
93480219072, she’d say as they fed her and bathed her and helped her get ready for bed. 6552091783. 4106847508. 05298562347. And on and on in a merciless spiral. But no matter what she said, she would never crack the code. There was no code. There was only the new fact of her life, changed irrevocably.
In the months after my mother died, I thought of this woman an inordinate amount and not only because I was distressed by her suffering. I thought of her because I understood her monumental desire and her groundless faith: I believed that I could crack a code too. That my own irrevocably changed life could be redeemed if only I could find the right combination of things. That in those objects my mother would be given back to me in some indefinable and figurative way that would make it okay for me to live the rest of my life without her.
And so I searched.
I didn’t find it in the half empty container of peppermint Tic Tacs that had been in the glove compartment of my mother’s car on the day she died or in the fringed moccasins that still stunk precisely of my mother’s size six feet a whole year later. I didn’t find it in her unfashionably large reading glasses or the gray porcelain horse that had sat on the shelf near her bed. I didn’t find it in her pen from the bank with the real hundred-dollar bill shredded up inside or in the butter dish with the white marble ball in its top or in any one of the shirts she’d sewn for herself or for me.
And I didn’t find it in those stones either, in spite of my hopes on that sad day. It wasn’t anywhere, in anything and it never would be.
“It will never be okay,” a friend who lost her mom in her teens said to me a couple years ago. “It will never be okay that our mothers are dead.”
At the time she said this to me she wasn’t yet really my friend. We’d chatted passingly at parties, but this was the first time we were alone together. She was fiftysomething and I was forty. Our moms had been dead for ages. We were both writers with kids of our own now. We had good relationships and fulfilling careers. And yet the unadorned truth of what she’d said—it will never be okay—entirely unzipped me.
It will never be okay, and yet there we were, the two of us more than okay, both of us happier and luckier than anyone has a right to be. You could describe either one of us as “joy on wheels,” though there isn’t one good thing that has happened to either of us that we haven’t experienced through the lens of our grief. I’m not talking about weeping and wailing every day (though sometimes we both did that). I’m talking about what goes on inside, the words unspoken, the shaky quake at the body’s core. There was no mother at our college graduations. There was no mother at our weddings. There was no mother when we sold our first books. There was no mother when our children were born. There was no mother, ever, at any turn for either one of us in our entire adult lives and there never will be.
The same is true for your fiancé, Bewildered. She is your joy on wheels whose every experience is informed and altered by the fact that she lost the most essential, elemental, primal and central person in her life too soon. I know this without knowing her. It will never be okay that she lost her mother. And the kindest most loving thing you can do for her is to bear witness to that, to muster the strength and courage and humility it takes to accept the enormous reality of its not okayness and be okay with it the same way she has to be. Get comfortable being the man who says oh honey, I’m so sorry for your loss over and over again.
That’s what the people who’ve consoled me the most deeply in my sorrow have done. They’ve spoken those words or something like them every time I needed to hear it; they’ve plainly acknowledged what is invisible to them, but so very real to me. I know saying those cliché and ordinary things makes you feel squirmy and lame. I feel that way too when I say such things to others who have lost someone they loved. We all do. It feels lame because we like to think we can solve things. It feels insufficient because there is nothing we can actually do to change what’s horribly true.
But compassion isn’t about solutions. It’s about giving all the love that you’ve got.
So give it, sweet pea. It’s clear that you’ve done it already. Your kind letter is proof. But I encourage you to stop being bewildered. Have the guts to feel lame. Say that you’re sorry for your lover’s loss about three thousand times over the coming years. Ask about her mother sometimes without her prompting. Console her before she asks to be consoled. Honor her mother on your wedding day and in other ways as occasions arise. Your mother-in-law is dead, but she lives like a shadow mother in the woman you love. Make a place for her in your life too.
That’s what Mr. Sugar has done for me. That’s what some of my friends and even acquaintances have done. It doesn’t make it okay, but it makes it better.
Next week it will be twenty years since my mother died. So long I squint every time the thought comes to me. So long that I’ve finally convinced myself there isn’t a code to crack. The search is over. The stones I once gave my mother have scattered, replaced by the stones my children give to me.
I keep the best ones in my pockets. Sometimes there is one so perfect I carry it around for weeks, my hand finding it and finding it, soothing itself along the black arc of it.
Sugar will take next week off. She’ll be back with a column on March 24.
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