Last year was the first birthday without you — you would have been 21 on June 11th — and the day reminded me about what it’s like to be your mother. Even though you’re gone, in a strange and surprising way, I find that I’m not done being your mother. I thought that losing you would stop our relationship. I would have memories and mementos to hold dear, but that would be all. Instead, I find I’m actually building a new relationship with you now.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Reorganizing our relationship is a challenge I encountered many times as you grew up, and I learned to adjust my parenting to the person you were becoming. It wasn’t always easy – you loved to push boundaries and fiercely protected your new territory. “I can do it myself!” was a frequent refrain as soon as you could talk. I tried to listen and adapt to be the mother you needed.
‘I’m starting to think that missing you isn’t actually so bad. It makes me feel connected to you.’
My job description as your mother evolved significantly when illness forced you to come home from college, and I became your full-time caregiver. A young man should live in a world of infinite possibilities and adventures. Instead, your world was full of debilitating limitations, pain, and life-or-death uncertainty. Being a mother in those circumstances was frightening and counterintuitive. My initial instinct was to try harder, to get closer; but I knew that was the opposite of what you wanted. You valued every scrap of autonomy, so I pushed aside my fear and let you lead and control as much as possible.
After you died, I struggled to get used to the idea that I had a limited number of experiences and memories of you and our life together. We would not add new life milestones like your college graduation or your first job or marriage or children. My early memories of you as a young child are precious but feel very far away. And even though I’m proud of your strength and bravery, my later memories are tinged with sadness for how you suffered. How do I fit these together into a narrative that I can live with?
The passage of time helps. I’m past the fogginess of shock, and the everyday kind of pain of early grief. I’m finding comfort in a strategy that has worked in the past and reframing my expectations. I loved being your mom — watching you grow, discovering your special qualities, being proud of your strength and heart. I’m able to see now that some of the best parts of being your mother are still part of my life every day. The funny or poignant stories about you are still right there, ready to be shared. You still hold your unique place in our family, and my pride and love for you are not diminished by your absence.
I will always wish you were with me to enjoy a beautiful mountain view, or watch a scary zombie show, or laugh at one of your dad’s epically bad jokes. But I’m starting to think that missing you isn’t actually so bad. It makes me feel connected to you. And even with all of the challenges (and maybe because of them), being your mom is one of the best things in my life, and it always will be.
I love you.
Caryn Anthony is a nonprofit consultant and executive coach from Silver Spring, Maryland. She previously wrote “Bring Soup, Not Salad,” a guide for bringing food to mourners, for Modern Loss, and has a blog called “Any Way the Wind Blows,” geared toward families with a child managing a significant medical condition.