Dealing with Unexpected Death
June 21, 2016 6:18 PM   Subscribe

Last week my Mom died very unexpectedly. It doesn't feel real. How can I start believing it so it doesn't crash in on me later?

My mom died of a brain aneurysm last week at 67 years old. She was my only parent and honestly my best friend. I have three siblings but it's just not the same.

The problem? I feel too normal. I feel like she's just out for a long smoke break. The funeral has happened and I cried and I intellectually know she's gone, but it's not affecting me the way I expected.

Does anyone have experience with this? How long did it take you to grieve? Am I weirdly cold? I loved my mother so much. I always thought I'd be a wreck when she died and I'm not. Is there anything I can do/read/whatever to accept this?
posted by aclevername to Human Relations (21 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I'm so sorry for your loss. It is normal. If you want a deep read about it I recommend A Year Of Magical Thinking. A few things:

It's not disrespectful to be numb
It will almost certainly wear off but not necessarily in a linear way
It is fine to work to connect to those feelings but grief has its own timing and it tends not to rush
Look for support for when you need it
You are in very early days still
posted by warriorqueen at 6:27 PM on June 21, 2016 [8 favorites]

Many (most?) people who are grieving go through the same five stages as people who are dying; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. "Five stages of grief" is a search term that might lead you to some useful resources.
posted by Bruce H. at 6:35 PM on June 21, 2016

I'm sorry for your loss. We all process grief in different ways. I was oddly composed after my father died, but the grief broke through in fits and starts for months—years, really. It seemed worst after the immediate impact had passed, and then I would think about something I should tell my dad, or something I wanted to ask him, and it would strike me that it was too late, that he was gone. Those were among the toughest moments.

You'll have really bad days, and you'll have days when you think back on your mother fondly, and you'll have days when those two moods collide. Be kind to yourself, and when the deep grief comes, don't resist it; ride it out. You'll probably come through it well. But if not, don't be ashamed to seek professional guidance.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:36 PM on June 21, 2016 [10 favorites]

I don't think there are any tricks to grief. You feel what you feel when you feel it. Second guessing your feelings usually hurts more than it helps, I think.

If there are things you can set up for yourself to make your life easier, take advantage of the numbness to do it. But if you can avoid making any major, high stakes decisions for a little while, that's probably wise.

My mom died 16 years ago and there are still mornings when I wake up expecting to be able to talk to her, and I have to remember/remind myself all over again that she's gone. It's not ok, but I'm ok. You'll have your own ride, and it's not ok, you will be okay.

I'm so sorry.

(I did/do find the Motherless Daughters books and Facebook Community helpful).
posted by Salamandrous at 6:44 PM on June 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

You're OK. You will be not OK. Nothing will be OK because your mother has died. You will be laughing at something, months or years from now, and suddenly remember that she's dead, and be overwhelmed by how much you miss her. You are now in the sea of grief, in the waves. Whatever you thought this sea would be, it isn't--and that's the part that no one can tell you about, because they are your waves, strong, deep, gentle, frequent, stormy, coming, eventually, with larger spans of time between them. You will find a way to reach an equilibrium with these waves in your own manner, in your own time. Be kind to yourself, please.

"Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it."
Yes, absolutely Didion, as warriorqueen suggests. I am so very sorry for your loss.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:56 PM on June 21, 2016 [10 favorites]

Please accept my sympathy for your loss. My mother died unexpectedly as well, although it's been 18 years since she passed away.

My own experience was that I loved her so much, but seemed quite unaffected by her death. People around me kept waiting for me to "crash" and I didn't. There was *stuff* to do: I had two young children, my mother's last days included buying and moving to a new house, I was working, and my sibs, both older than I, were not helpful, and I was the executrix of her will. One sib was practically catatonic. My husband was supportive, but many people saw me going about my days and thought I was unfeeling. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

My grief didn't show in deep sadness evidenced by tears, but I just *missed* her so much. My kids would do something and I'd think, "Must call Mum and tell her; she'll get a giggle out of this," and then remember that I couldn't call her. Everyone grieves differently and there's no right way to do it. I would go so far as to say that not grieving--at least in some prescribed, preconceived way--inwardly or outwardly, is as valid a response as any other. I found that reminiscing about my mum, either privately or with others, was helpful and bittersweet, with passing time making it more sweet and less bitter. Early on I couldn't do it with my sibs because they just became overwhelmed and I would end up taking care of them instead of finding care for myself.

I found myself remembering my mother with joy, more often than not. I was sad she was gone, but I was way more grateful and happy that I had enjoyed as much of her life as I had. Maybe it wasn't the "correct" or "usual" way to react, but as the years have passed, I care even less what people think about it. By the way, my dad died about 18 months ago, and I went through the same sort of process. If I'm weird, well, I guess I'm weird.

In Canada, most major hospitals have bereavement counselors who have helped all kinds of people deal with all manifestations of grief. That might be a resource for you.

I'm so sorry for your loss.
posted by angiep at 6:57 PM on June 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

I am so, so sorry. My mom was sick for about six months before she died, and the world still collapsed under me (fell on top of me? Both?). I don't think there's a way to avoid The Crashes. In my experience, it won't be a single crash, anyway, but waves of crashes (sorry). For instance, because I adopted her cats after she died, I spent more time than I'd like crying in cat food aisles at the grocery store - it would come on very suddenly, and sometimes I could make it stop, and sometimes I couldn't.

I spent the first year, easily, still reaching for the phone to let her know about some random thing - this was especially weird, because while we didn't have a terrible relationship by any stretch, we also didn't have the kind of relationship when she was alive where I'd call her whenever for whatever. But after she died, I kept experiencing things that I'd think "Oh, gotta tell Mom about that!" and it would take me a minute to remember I couldn't. That sucked. Still does, really, and it's been 20 years (sorry).

Depending on how old you are, you may be the only or one of the very few in your friend group with a dead parent. That's hard, in my experience. Friends don't always know what to say or how to act.

I'm betting you're still kind of in shock. However you're responding is normal (for you), considering there is no "normal" for something that only happens once in your life. I'm very sorry for your loss. I wish I had more actual help or decent advice to offer.
posted by rtha at 7:01 PM on June 21, 2016 [7 favorites]

My mother died not quite two months ago, unexpectedly-expectedly (she'd been sick for quite some time, but we went from "let's start scheduling home health aides and setting up the meal schedule" to "it's time to call Hospice" in 48 hours), and at least from here, what you're feeling is absolutely normal. Yesterday it was "I bet mom wants Chinese buffet for her birthday... oh, yea. Shit." It doesn't feel real a lot of the time - her visitation was on April Fools, and we kept saying that we expected her to walk in and tell us it was all some colossal joke. It may never feel real. I'm not really sure yet.

I intellectually know she's gone, but it's not affecting me the way I expected.

This is totally normal too. I had years to contemplate my mother's death (we had so many scares), and what I'm feeling is totally not what I thought I'd feel.

There is absolutely no one way to grieve; while there are some fairly standard trajectories, grief isn't linear and there's no right way to do it, as long as you're not harming yourself, and it doesn't sound like you are. Like everyone else has said, it's going to come and go on you and sneak up on you.

I know everyone has book recommendations right now, but I really favor Here If You Need Me, by a warden from the Maine game service who lost her husband. It will have you laughing and crying, all at once, which is pretty apt.

I really recommend seeking out your local bereavement services and getting a counselor recommendation... I only went twice (it was free through my local Hospice), but it was nice to hear that 1) there is no doing this right and 2) I'm doing it as right as I can.

Hang in there.
posted by joycehealy at 7:37 PM on June 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

If you would like a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking, I would be happy to mail one to you (at no cost to you). I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by netsirk at 7:59 PM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

My condolences for the loss of your mother.

I would see this as a sign of her strength and love for you. She helped you grow so strong that you are able to bear great losses and still make sure the bills get paid on time. You are doing everything fine; give yourself the space to have your own reactions and emotions.
posted by samthemander at 8:00 PM on June 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm so sorry for your loss. You are not being cold; I will guess that, because the loss was so sudden, it will take some time to feel, accept, and grieve. My mother died very suddenly (septic shock) and something happened at her funeral that still distresses me six years later. Her pastor evidently thought that our family (my dad, my two adult brothers, and myself) were not showing enough emotion--so from the pulpit he made a great show of sobbing and blowing his nose. (I still cringe when I recall it.) And he didn't even know my mother that well. I think he thought that we'd show more emotion if *he* did. Now, we are all stoic Germanic types in my family anyway--and we were all in shock because it happened so quickly--but our not showing our grief at that moment didn't mean we didn't feel it. Each of us mourned differently. It was later, when I cried and cried: the first year was pretty tough. My father didn't cry like I did, but he withdrew. I recall from Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist how the very different ways that Macon and his wife grieve a terrible loss ends up being a wedge between them. There is no one way to grieve and we all do it in our own way. I did not go to a grief support group but perhaps it would have helped if I did.
posted by apartment dweller at 8:42 PM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Another here chiming in to send condolences for your loss and hug as well.

I lost my dad two days ago. While it wasn't exactly unexpected -- he was diagnosed with a terminal illness just under a year ago -- we also didn't expect it to happen when it did. Honestly, I feel exactly the same way you do. I know it's happened. I know my life has permanently changed. It's weird that I'm in my parents' house and he's not here. But otherwise, life feels strangely, disconcertingly, disturbingly normal in a way that makes me feel guilty, makes me feel like I must be missing a step.

For me and my family, I think we're in survival mode. I think something kicks in that makes your brain and your heart and your body carry you through the first few days and weeks when sympathy is flying at you like buckshot and you feel like you just need to hold it all together -- for yourself, but also for everyone who wants to be there for you.

For me, like you, it feels easier right now than I expected it to feel. At the same time, I'm not operating under the (dis)illusion that it's going to stay this way. I expect it to get harder, and easier, and harder, and easier, and that it will be a process that will continue like that, up and down, until the wound has well scabbed over.

I would like to encourage you not to be too hard on yourself right now. You're doing what you need to do to get through the initial loss, which is hardest only in the sense that you feel like you and your grief are on display and you assume that people will be judging how well you do it or don't do it. But you (and I) will end up processing grief in the way we need to process it. Maybe later, maybe more privately than people expect. We will do it, though, because we loved our parents, and we will miss them, and we appreciate the time we had with them. We were lucky. And with those factors in place right there, there really isn't any way to fuck it up. Any way you grieve is the right way to grieve, for you.

I'm very sorry for your loss and your pain. And, I send you a triumphant raised fist because, dammit, you'll get through it, and any way you get through it is just fine.
posted by mudpuppie at 8:50 PM on June 21, 2016 [8 favorites]

There's no wrong way to grieve. Whatever you're feeling right now is what you should be feeling. When my dad died, I was surprised to discover that the typical five stages of grief aren't experienced the same way for everyone. I skipped anger entirely; my sibling lingered on that one for a very long time. I cried so much before he died (he had an inoperable medical condition and things went downhill quickly) but I stopped crying completely once he was gone. Everyone's different.

It's coming up on three years and I'm still grieving, in a way. My dad was a huge source of friendship and guidance and stability for me, so I still talk to him pretty much every day. Which sounds weird to some people.

I guess I just wanted to comment to say if you feel like talking to your mom, that can be a very real and helpful and nourishing thing.

I'm so sorry you're going through this. Feel free to memail if I can help.
posted by mochapickle at 9:32 PM on June 21, 2016

I'm so sorry. When my mother died, it was unexpected-expected (she had been fighting cancer for years, but it was a brain aneurysm that did it). I imagine the out-of-the-blue aspect makes it harder.

As others have said above, there's no right way to grieve. How you feel is how you feel, and it often won't be how you expect to feel. A sense of numbness is normal (and if you have other life demands and can't just collapse and take to your bed to recover, can be useful for getting through the logistics and paperwork of the first weeks after the death). When things start popping up and breaking through that numbness, it's painful.

When I contacted the Motherless Daughters folks after my mother's death, I did not find them helpful. They were nice enough, but their attitude, as expressed in their email response to me, was that their target audience was teenage girls and younger, and because I was 24 when my mother died, in their eyes I was an adult and capable of dealing with it on my own. They were polite about it, but it really wasn't what I was hoping for when I reached out. (This was back in 1994; I don't know whether they've expanded their range since then.)

A note for your ongoing self-care: "Firsts" after a death are difficult. The first birthday afterwards and… oh, right. The first Thanksgiving or Hanukkah… or Fourth of July, even. If you take in their pet, it's hard when that pet dies. Please be extra kind and compassionate towards yourself around such milestones. (Anecdote: I used to put a cryptic symbol on the calendar to remind me when the anniversary was, but I kept forgetting what it meant and then getting sandbagged by sadness on the day. Now the note on the calendar is "anniversary of Mom's death", and I remember to be extra gentle with myself in the weeks surrounding it.)

Again, I'm very sorry. Virtual hug, if it would be welcome; respectful and sympathetic glance if it wouldn't.
posted by Lexica at 9:44 PM on June 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you are part of the Facebook universe, there is a FB group called Grief Beyond Belief that might be helpful to you. 'Faith-free support for non-religious people grieving the death of a loved one.'

My parent is actively dying and I have found the support there has really helped me put regular words to my feelings and process it all in bearable pieces, with nothing preachy and absolutely no 'This was God's plan'ness.

I'm so sorry for your loss.
posted by mcbeth at 5:33 AM on June 22, 2016

Thanks everyone for your answers and support. While I've always known that everyone grieves differently, there's something very reassuring about hearing it from all of you at this time.

Mudpuppie, I'm sorry for your loss as well.
posted by aclevername at 6:52 AM on June 22, 2016

My mother died suddenly of an aneurysm at 50 and it took me a while to process as well, especially because I had to hold it together to help my dad + younger sisters. I didn't really grieve until a month or so later, and even then it was hard to understand my own feelings. I started feeling normal again by about a year later. Now, 22 years later, I still get sad about it sometimes, especially around holidays. My remaining family and I are close and they have reported similar experiences.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:29 AM on June 22, 2016

My mother died almost 4 months ago. We found out she was dying January 14th and she died March 3rd. It still doesn't feel real. I had a short time to 'process' it, but it didn't make a difference. I was there when she died, I watched them put her in a bodybag and take her away, I carried her coffin into the church and out, into the crematorium. I didn't cry when she died, I didn't cry when I watched them take her away, I didn't really cry at the funeral. And I am the biggest crier. I cry at commercials, movies, TV shows.
The things people say are true, they seemed like cliches when it happened. Grieving is different for everyone. It comes in bursts. Every time something good happens I think of her, every time something bad happens I think of her. Someone will be rude to me and I immediately think of my mother and cry. I seem crazy to people who don't know me.
I am so sorry this happened to you. I regularly feel so angry and bitter. My feelings change all the time. From what I've read, and what people have told me, it's probably always going to be that way.
I did buy two books that I'd like to suggest to you. Motherless Daughters and Letters from Motherless Daughters. Losing a mother, as a woman, is different in my opinion. I have part of me missing now. She's gone and I'm not the same.
Someone above also said, you're probably one of few people in your age group to lose a parent. That's exactly the case for me. It feels isolating and I can feel pretty bitter and envious at times. That's just the way it is I guess.

If you'd like to talk, please me mail me. I'd love to be there for you.
Once again, I'm so sorry. The world is a cruel place.
posted by shesbenevolent at 9:10 AM on June 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

Man, this sucks so bad. I'm really sorry for your loss.

For me, even though I was by her side for almost a week between her stroke/heart attack and her death, what made it come home for me was when I got my phone bill and saw the charges for my last telephone conversation with her. I fell apart.

I often recommend this book, because I have found it super helpful. The Grief Recovery Handbook. One of the things they say is that you don't need to wait before starting to work through your emotions. It's not like it's ever "too soon." I found it very helpful for me at several times in my life.

Take good care.
posted by janey47 at 1:06 PM on June 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

The problem? I feel too normal. I feel like she's just out for a long smoke break. The funeral has happened and I cried and I intellectually know she's gone, but it's not affecting me the way I expected.

Nothing wrong with that at all.

Does anyone have experience with this? How long did it take you to grieve? Am I weirdly cold? I loved my mother so much. I always thought I'd be a wreck when she died and I'm not.

I was once told that grief is a roller-coaster ride. You'll go through all sorts of emotions, and not just once.

I dont have experience with this situation because I was an utter train-wreck. But then I also thought I'd cope more "gracefully". So, there's that data-point.

There is no time limit. And there may never be. You'll feel "better"? more functional? as time goes on but for some, and its important to know, its just never the same. Some seem to get back up and going more easily. Its a struggle but it enriches life the way only grief can.

Is there anything I can do/read/whatever to accept this?

There are a lot of books, and I think I have recommended some previously. But, I don't recall any that help you "accept it". Have you tried a grief support group? Keep seeking and trying, everything that you normally wouldn't and see what surprises you about yourself. I have a feeling that may be more helpful to you than following a recommendation like a protocol. (And no, you are not cold!)

All that said, I am very sorry for your loss. Please feel free to MeMail if you wish to. Peace!
posted by xm at 5:50 AM on June 23, 2016

Thank you all, you've all been so wonderful. I appreciate every response.
posted by aclevername at 6:50 PM on September 22, 2016

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