A Life Shaped by Loss

September 8, 2007 6:45 a.m. The phone rang waking me from the first deep sleep that I had gotten in the last four months.  My heart raced as I immediately went into a panic mode anticipating that phone call that I had dreaded to receive ever since my mother had been diagnosed with cancer that was quickly consuming her body.

“Mr. Barber, this is Jamie, your hospice nurse,” said the calm, sweet voice on the other end of the line.  “Your precious little mother has died in her sleep.  I am so sorry for your loss.”

Strangely the moment I had dreaded did not bring a flood of emotions, but a feeling of relief and peace.  Mom was no longer suffering the indignities of debilitation and dying.

Mom’s death also brought relief at another level.  No longer would my mother be grieving as she had done since her youth for the deaths that shaped her life, me and my family.  At nineteen Betty Barber endured the loss of her forty-six year old mother to cancer just two months after giving birth to me.  At twenty-three her grief burden became heavier with the death of my infant sister Karen.

I remembered Mother telling me that people around her had been less than supportive during her grief over her mother and daughter.  They told her, “You are young and you have your whole life ahead of you.  You need to get over it and go on for you and your family.”

Mother’s grief went unacknowledged and unsupported as she tried to explain to those around her that the pain of loss she felt was not like a case of the measles.  Loss of such dear loved ones is not gotten over; it is gone through.  She felt alone and in a deep despair as a woman with her whole life in front of her without her mother and her baby daughter present.  On more than one occasion, our whole family had been awakened in the middle of the night by my mother’s sobbing and calling out in her sleep for her mother and her daughter.

Mother realized the need to remember both her mother and daughter by visiting the cemetery at least once a month for all of my childhood.  She later confided to me when I was an adult she spoke to her mother and to Karen each visit bringing them updates on her life and her growing family.

“Okay…” I replied to the hospice nurse slowly and half asleep.  “Thank you for calling and thanks for all that you did for Mom.”  For the next few hours my mind and my life went into auto-pilot as I carried out my duties as the eldest child and first born son: calling the funeral home and phoning family members including my newly widowed eighty-two year old father to give them the news of my mother’s death.

It was not until the funeral that the unfairness of my mother’s death and the overwhelming emptiness caused by the lack of her physical presence came in waves of sadness and grief.  I sat in the family’s reserved spots in the chapel between my father and my twenty-seven year old son confronted with the closed casket containing my mother’s earthly shell.  The choir began singing “Amazing Grace” and my father in his deep bass voice joined in.  My head dropped as tears filled my eyes and overflowed onto my cheeks and my neatly cleaned and pressed suit.

At that moment of my first openly expressed sadness, my father took my left hand and my stoic son took my right.  The simultaneous show of support and comfort was more than my grieving heart and soul could take and I sobbed uncontrollably.  Three generations of Barber men were united in that moment by our loss and our love.  Right then I realized the overwhelming loss of my mother…my nurturer, advocate, confidante, and advisor for all my life.

Mother’s Day has been a day tinged with sadness and loss for over two decades for me and my children.  Twenty-five years ago this May I lost my wife Cindy and my daughter Katie to injuries they suffered in a traffic accident involving my whole family.  I lost my baby daughter and wife.  But my son and daughter lost their sister and MOTHER.  Now I too have lost my mother.  Although our losses and griefs continue to be very different, we share the pain of loss that comes with the death of the woman who gave us life.

I hold stubbornly to the hope that one day these grief journeys will come to an end.  I look forward to seeing my mother, Cindy my wife and the mother of my children , my daughter Katie, and all the loved ones who have preceded me in death.  In the meantime, I deal with the especially difficult days of grief by following a three-point plan I have developed.

First, I remember that the dread of the special day is usually worse than going through the actual experience of the day.   This drops my anxiety and stress before and during the dreaded day.  Second, I make a detailed plan for the special day coming ahead.  This gives me a sense of empowerment and control although I know I am not really in total control of what happens to me and my family.  Third, I do something in honor of my loved ones.  Remembering my loved ones in meaningful activities such as lighting candles, have a special meal or gathering, or donating funds in their memory helps me to keep their memory alive and honors their valuable lives.

I wish for all many Happy Mother’s Days and that your lives will be a memorial and lasting legacy to your loved ones no longer physically present.

Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise”  available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Christianbook.com.

The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunica Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” on Amazon.com.

Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX  http://grief-works.org.