My world came crashing down on May 13th 2002. The night before my eighteenth birthday was the night my mom passed away. Eighteen is considered the symbol of adulthood, but I literally grew up over night. The only birthday present I got that year was the realization that life is short and the ones you love won’t be around forever. To make matters worse she died the day after Mother’s day. I didn’t get her anything. I didn’t even take her out to dinner. I spent the entire day asking if it was okay to do something with my friends. I made three different phone calls: the first to see if I could play some Frisbee after church; the second to get some pizza with the guys; and the third to catch a movie. Every call ended with an “I love you” and a “have fun dear.”
I got home some time after midnight and went straight to bed. The next morning my mom caught me in a hug as I was heading out the door. I was running late for school so I tried to make it quick but my mom insisted on this one. She told me that she missed me. I hadn’t been around much and she wanted to have a “just the two of us date.” I agreed, kissed her on the cheek and told her I had to go. This was the last time I talked to my mother. She died later that night.
I celebrated my birthday in a vain attempt not to show other’s my pain. I put on a fake smile as the Red Robin work crew sang me a happy birthday. I told myself, “If they only knew they wouldn’t bother with the false sincerity.” I skipped a week of school only to spend most of my days in bed. I ate nothing but the frozen lasagna that stuffed the freezer as friends and family offered condolences. A bittersweet meal, lasagna had always been my favorite. But no one’s lasagna was as good as my mom’s. Dinner became a symbol of my loss as I choked down the frozen counterfeit. I would never eat my mom’s lasagna again.
I greeted family at the memorial service and tried not to look crushed in front of my friends. I went through the motions until graduation. Prom. The SAT’s. College Applications. I really didn’t care about any of it. My grief turned into guilt as I recalled my mom’s last Mother’s Day and everything I failed to give her. Soon days became weeks and the pain wasn’t leaving. I blamed myself for anything I could think of. Maybe if I had acted differently she might still be alive. Reports came back that her death was ruled an accident. It wasn’t suicide. She couldn’t have known the low dosage of pain meds would mix poorly with her prescriptions. But it still felt like suicide. It felt like I was the one to blame.
I had prided myself on my ability not to blame God. An achievement made less impressive once I realized my anger was directed at myself. This realization didn’t free my shame. It took an entire year for the grief to turn to anything other than guilt. I understood that the blame was irrational, but I still experienced it. Every new day introduced me to another decision not to sit in self pity. Eventually, I learned to experience my grief guilt free. I didn’t have to make the effort not to blame myself, but turning back to the accusations is a temptation I still face today.