'My mum died... is there a way to lessen this unbearable pain?'

  • Posted by Moderator: Biju Mathew
  • Published 14:45 April 9, 2013

A reader asks: I lost my mother to cancer in July 2012, one week after my 24th birthday. Words fail me when I start describing how painful it was and it still is.

My mother suffered for three years and I was her sole care giver. I saw her suffer each day and I suffered with her too. Nonetheless, we still managed to go out and watch movies, do shopping, eat out and do many more things.

We shared everything with each other. I was her only daughter and we were as close as any mother and daughter could be. She was the centre of my life and now she is gone with nothing left behind. The last three months were the worst and those days still haunt me. I am unable to sleep and whenever I close my eyes I see everything flashing right in front of my eyes. I just can't bear the pain anymore. Watching my mother's vibrant face without any life was the worst that could have ever happened to me.

My life has come to a standstill. I am unable to do anything. I just don't have the will. My day would start and end after looking at her beautiful ever-smiling face. But that face is nowhere to be found now.

Everything reminds me of her. I miss her an awful lot. It's hard to imagine my life without her. I cry a lot but even crying doesn't make me feel better.

People said time heals everything. I say it doesn't. My relative's attitudes towards me made things harder. I just have friends with whom I can share my feelings. But eventually they will get tired of me.

I have one elder brother who is my biggest support. My life has no meaning now. Earlier, it revolved around mum. But now it's just useless and meaning-less. I feel tired all the time in spite of not doing anything.

I haven't left the house except for visiting my grandmother and my mother's grave. Instead of talking to her like before, I talk to her grave now. I wasn't like this before but then my life wasn't like this before. I had my mother by my side and that was enough for me. But now that she is gone I just don't have the will to do anything with my life. I just don't have any energy left. I really don't know what to do.
Is there a way to lessen this unbearable pain?

Carey Kirk  (M.Ed, Counseling Psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia, Dubai) replies: My heart goes out to you for the loss of your mother - it is clear that she meant the world to you. It is never easy when someone in our life dies, especially when that person is so close to us. Even if we know that person is sick, we can never truly prepare ourselves for what life will be like without them.

The experiences you refer to in your letter: being unable to sleep, not having the will do to anything, crying, isolating yourself, feeling tired all the time - these are all common reactions to grief. Other common grief reactions can include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty remembering things
  • Loss of interest in things we used to enjoy
  • Feelings such as shock, anger, guilt, loneliness, confusion, and relief
  • Having moments when we believe we hear the person (their voice, the sound of their footsteps, etc)
  • Treasuring objects that belonged to them
  • Wanting to avoid places and things associated with them

It takes a lot of energy to go through grief, so you will feel tired. Your entire world has changed and energy is required to adjust to this. People often don't realize that - when someone dies - we don't just grieve for them as a person. We also grieve for the memories we shared with them, we grieve for the future that we had imagined with them, and we grieve for all the roles they played in our life - the role of confidante, of comforter, kindred spirit, motivator, problem solver, the person we could share everything with, the person who would love us unconditionally.

After the death of someone as significant as your mother, it will take time and effort for you to 'recalibrate' because it is not just your world that has changed. You have changed too. For many individuals who become the sole caregivers of people in their lives - whether it is a parent, spouse, child, relative, or friend - this caregiving role can become a central part of their identity. Who they are. Caring for your mother was part of your identity and everyday life for three years. Now that you no longer have this role acting as an anchor in your life, it makes sense that you would feel lost - cut adrift from when life made sense and had purpose. Your priorities in life may have also changed since your mother died, so may have your outlook on the future and your perception of other people and the world. It takes work to adjust to all these changes that have happened all at once.

Like you, I am similarly against the platitude that "time heals everything". Time in itself does not heal. It is what you do during this time that is the deciding factor in how and how much you heal. Over time, a cut can become infected and heal badly if we do not pay attention to it, clean it, and provide it with the things necessary to heal properly. 

So how do we heal the wound left by the death of someone we love?

  • First: We try to wrap our heads around the fact that this has really happened. This, as you already know, is no easy task.
  • Second: We give ourselves permission to grieve. Grief hurts. Everything hurts. We are exhausted. That's ok. Grief is a natural reaction to death. Don't fight it, just give yourself some space.
  • Third: We give ourselves permission to laugh. It is ok to still laugh at jokes you think are funny and at stories or traits about your loved one that make you smile. Laughing and smiling in the moment does not mean that you have forgotten them or that you are grieving any less.
  • Fourth: We try to adjust to our new world and our new self at whatever pace we need to. This time frame is different for each individual. There is no "this should have taken longer" or "you shouldn't still be sad." It takes however long it takes.
  • Fifth: We acknowledge that we never have to forget our loved one. 

One of my least favorite things people say when it comes to grief (besides "time heals everything") is that people can or have to "get over" their grief. Let me be very clear: there is no "getting over" grief. There is only getting through it. We hurt so much because of how much we miss them and how much our world and ourselves have to change without them. And we will always experience grief on some level throughout our lives because we will always remember them and carry a piece of them in our hearts. We do not have to forget them.

Your mother will always be a part of your life and just because she is no longer physically present, it does not mean that you can no longer have a connection to her. There is a lot of research indicating that people who find ways to stay connected to their deceased loved ones are able to manage their grief in healthier ways. You mentioned in your letter that you go to your mother's grave and speak to her. This is one way you can use to continue feeling connected to her. Talk to her, continue sharing things with her, consider how she would advise you in various situations.

Grief is a painful experience in itself, but it is often made worse when the other people in our life react in ways that leave us feeling hurt or unsupported. I am sorry to hear that your relatives' reactions are making things harder for you. You also noted that you are worried that your friends will get tired of you and your grief. It can be difficult for people who have not gone through grief to understand the depth of our pain and the time it takes to adjust ourselves to our "new normal".

What helps many people in this situation is talking to others who know what it is like to lose someone close to them. Sometimes we can find these people within our own network of friends and family. Sometimes we cannot. When we cannot, I encourage joining a grief support group. This type of group provides an opportunity for people meet others who know what grief is truly like, hear how others are managing their grief, and to work through their process of healing at their own pace in an environment without judgement or imposed time lines.

If you are interested in learning more about joining a grief support group, I encourage you to contact Raymee Grief Center. Raymee Grief Center is located at The LightHouse Arabia clinic in Dubai and is the first of its kind grief center in the UAE that provides no cost grief support groups for children, teens, and adults whose loved ones have died. These support groups take place twice a month and are open for people to attend for as long as they find them helpful. To contact Raymee Grief Center, you can email raymee@lighthousearabia.com or call +971 4 380-9298. You can also find out more information at www.lighthousearabia.com/raymeegrief.html

My thoughts will be with you and I hope that you find something in this letter that can provide you some solace.

Write with your concerns to inmind@gulfnews.com and selected questions will be answered by a panel of qualified psychiatrists and psychologists. Your contributions will be modified for length and appropriateness, and will be open to other Gulf News readers to comment and suggest solutions. Let us know if you would like GulfNews.com to withhold your name from your letter should it be published.

Disclaimer: This blog is a conversation and is not an alternative for treatment. The recommendations and suggestions offered by our panel of psychiatrists are their own and Gulf News will not take any responsibility for the advice they provide.