Like Mother, Like Daughter

Source: [Public domain]/wikimedia commons

My mother died four months ago today. I’ve survived the “crisis” phase of grief pretty well, partly because my mother was elderly and in some ways “ready” to die, and partly because of my history and relationship with grief, which has evolved since 1994, when my dad died and I gradually fell apart, unwittingly overwhelmed by grief.

I intentionally have done what worked with my father’s and my husband’s deaths—wrote a eulogy, cultivated happy memories and temporarily compartmentalized unhappy ones, tuned into what I think of as my mother’s spirit: her humor, her honesty, her direct statements of need and wish.  I also have remembered what didn’t work, and been careful to not repeat the earlier mistakes, including a false attachment to a man who seemed caring and protective after my father’s death, and a false assumption of responsibility for all the complex legal and financial matters associated with my husband’s death in 2013.

Instead, this time I relied on my own abilities to soothe and console myself with deliberate meaning-making.  As an example, I recently was angered by a friend interrupting a story I was telling. I shut down, refused to continue even when my friend apologized.  And then I realized that the experience was a re-enactment of an early and persistent dynamic with my mother, who tended to appropriate my stories and hold forth when I was talking.  An old trigger.  And one that is no longer in play with my mother and me.  I was suddenly able to forgive my friend and resume the story.

But images of my mother remained in my mind: how she often wanted, took, and held the floor.  Why did she do that?  I wondered.  And then I thought perhaps I knew.  She did that because of her own parenting: her father, like my mother, was a dominant, clever, articulate, big but insecure presence.  I suspect that although loving, he often cut her off, seized her time, made her feel unheard and invisible.  And her mother, who was hard of hearing, was sometimes inaccessible, and also needed time to be seen and heard.  My construction of her childhood experience helped explain my own. 

When I realized that, I had two thoughts: first, poor Mom, who never overcame that childhood need to be acknowledged. And second, I don’t want to be poor Elizabeth! I’m not invisible; I’m not unheard. I can let go of the resentment and anger that my childhood insecurity continued to give rise to when my mother was alive. 

That realization, like others I have had since Mom’s death, has made me more compassionate.   I am able to remember my mother with love and understanding, and to feel grateful for her sometimes-competitive presence in my life.  And to feel close to her because we shared a powerful, difficult need for attention in order to feel safe and secure. 

Source: Thomas H. Ince, Corp/wikimedia commons

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