A Mother, Depression and Grief

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When my mother died, I didn’t know what I felt. Throughout my life, I had been struggling to shed the influence of her searing and shaming words, her anger, at times rage, above all, her depression during my childhood. How many of us spend adult years still trying to get the attention and love that we never got from a distant parent? We know it’s not going to happen, but still we play over and over again the same roles we played as children. Once I was part of a therapy group that helped people reenact painful scenes from their family past in order to help rid those events of their power. The therapist at one point walked up to one fellow and said to him, face to face, “Your mother doesn’t love you!” – over and over again until the message really sank in. The guy looked so stricken, but the therapist went on to remind him that he was a splendid man in spite of his mother’s inability to connect with him. He didn’t have to look for the love that was never going to come. His mother had done what she could, but that was all in the past. His present was his own, and he was getting along just fine. The therapist might have been talking directly to me too, but I can’t say I ever stopped trying to win the love and approval of my mother. When she died, she was a different person in many ways than she had been when I was growing up, but, sadly for her, she never got over a fundamental hurt and disappointment that rooted itself deeply in her, probably when she was a kid looking for approval and love from her distant father. These things seem to go on and on through generations.

Several scenes came to mind in the days following my mother’s death:

  • There were many times in her last years when our phone would ring, and she would be calling in a panic, saying something like, “John, I have no pulse – you have to come right over!” I would have to remind her that if her heart was no longer beating, she wouldn’t be talking to me on the phone. Or she’d be calling from a hospital where she was being treated for one or another of her ailments. “I’m dying – you both have to come right away!” I’d hang up and report to L that my mother was dying again, and then we would go see her. Invariably, the baffled nurses would report that her vital signs were fine, and she was rapidly recovering from a setback in her diabetes, or whatever it was. We’d step into her room and find her calm and smiling. She’d beckon us to sit on either side of her bed, grasp our hands, and then she’d talk about being near death and wanting to say good-by. Her face would be radiant with love and peacefulness, her mind quick to see the humor of everything, her soul resonant with ours. These moments of real joy were so rare in her life of much anger and depression that she could only interpret them as a sign that death was imminent. Soon she’d be out of the hospital, back home and as grim as ever.
  • She told me a dream once in which she was visited by the spirit of a girl she had known slightly as a teenager. She had seen her, the older sister of a friend, only once when she was visiting that family’s house. The sister said nothing but stared at my mom as she was going upstairs to leave the two girls alone. Mom thought the girl didn’t like her, yet in this vision she seemed a kind of ministering angel, kindly and lovingly showing her something about the approach of death. She also told me of a series of dreams in which the walls around her were crumbling to dust, and she felt those were signs that death was not far away. There were many dreams like these in the years before she died, from her late eighties to her mid-nineties, all of them before she began to show signs of dementia.
  • She had a way of trying to wander off after the dementia set in and would also fly into furious rages if her desire to leave was frustrated, even though she might have nowhere to go. It was after this sort of behavior had started that she lost a leg to diabetes and spent time in a rehab center. Visiting there one day, I was talking to the director of the facility about her condition when she managed to propel her wheelchair down the longest hallway she could find and then to push her way out of an emergency exit. A staff member stopped her, but she started fighting with him from her chair. Despite her 94 years, she was still strong! She seized the wheels in rigid arms and wouldn’t be pushed away from the door. As soon as the attendant started to push her a little, she would quickly wheel the chair in a 180 and try to ram the man down. He called for help, and the director, a woman accustomed to balancing her psychology training with direct action, left me to deal with her. The two of them got the chair moving back down the hallway toward the front desk where I was standing. My mother kept resisting all the way, occasionally succeeding in turning the chair back, but she was losing this battle. So she started shouting, and when she got close to me she raged in a powerful yell: “Why don’t you get me out of here? What kind of a man are you? You’re a bastard, you’re not a man at all! A real man would get me out of here! You bastard!” The manager tried to sound reassuring as she struggled to control the chair. “Please…(yanking the chair back in the right direction)…please don’t take it personally! It’s not …(more struggle).. about you!” I left as they were getting her close to her room, her furious invective echoing in the halls – and also in my mind down many decades of shaming words that had been all too personal and aimed at nobody else but me.
  • Another moment came back to me from childhood, as it often does. One time, she responded to me with real love and feeling when as a boy, I was swinging a wooden mallet in our playroom – alone, of course – imitating the exploits of Prince Valiant, and the head flew off, crashing through a window pane. I was mortified and went to confess in deep shame, in tears, and she hugged me with gentle humor, imagining what I must have been doing. Quietly, she held and rocked me as we both sat on the living room sofa until my crying was done. That one and only time.

My mother was a beautiful person, though the beauty within her shone out to her friends and acquaintances far more than to her family. While it’s easy now to see how depression affected her, and through her the rest of us, to my mother such a thing did not exist. There was plenty of emotional pain and hurt, but she saw those as injuries caused by what others did to her. She spent a life in motion, getting away from those people, always looking for the person who would change all that, someone she could rely on. It was only at the end of her long life that she found an acceptance that allowed her to let go of that search and die with peace in her heart. And it took me a couple of years before I could really feel the love that had always been there and the grief that flowed from losing her, so long before her death.

9 Responses to “A Mother, Depression and Grief”

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  1. Hill says:

    Keep on blogging, we need you. I’ve got so much useful stuff from your blog and really value you opinion in this stuff.

  2. Anon for now says:

    JohnD, thank you for your response.

    My decision not to have kids was more of a recognition that being a mother would make my life too difficult to handle. It was only in later years, as I started recognizing I have more psychological issues to deal with than most people, that I realized how bad it would have been for any children I had had. I don’t feel any loss from not having children.

    My question about chronological order was about the order in which you write your entries. Some blogs have a list of months and each month is linked to a list of that month’s entries. I do find the Categories helpful; I haven’tyet explored the Tags. I suspect that, as I spend more time here, it’ll be easier to find my way around.

  3. Anon for Now –

    I think the key thing about children is the need for parents to struggle with awareness that something is wrong inside them and to be open about it with kids. That openness can make such a difference. I can sympathize with you about having had to make that hard decision.

    As to reading this blog in chronological order, I’m not sure this can be arranged in that way – if you mean according to the chronology of a life. I’m often pulling together what I’ve learned from different periods. That’s why the categories are useful in regrouping things thematically. Your ideas on changing things are welcome. I’m trying to figure out ways of helping people find what they’re looking for more directly.


  4. stephany says:

    I’ve had to train myself to “be a man” meaning no emotions in public, mental health court, board room meetings. If a woman cries when making a major point, all attention is toward the tears and the battle is lost. Even in recent events, I know what I feel inside, but have to remain stoic. I’ve often told people I advocate by day and cry at night. Because my emotionless appearance is often confused with “you are a strong woman”. Well, yes I guess I am, but what happens when I cry at night so to speak, or have a tear shed at a meeting, is “look out she’s having a meltdown”.

    I hope this makes sense, but it’s something I observed from being in the arena I’ve been in for 2 years, where the dominant key players are men. [Psychiatrists, police,etc.] I’ve watched them have no reaction to very horrible stories, and maintain “business” appearance.

    I was able to advocate quite a lot, by not appearing as an emotional mother, this can also be observed with women running for government positions.

    Though men and women have emotions and feelings, both are considered by society as less than a leader or strong, and weak, if expressed openly.

    Though the day Nixon resigned, I remember thinking he appeared human by becoming emotional.

    Introspection, finding out what the void inside is and how to not fill or fill it, is a personal journey, and in person most people wouldn’t have a clue as to what journey I’ve been on.

    My self-taught advocacy and ability to not be a crying fool when it is necessary, is why I am receiving more calls on behalf of my mother in recent days from agencies dealing with the plane crash.

    I told them they can tell me what they need to, in detail, because I will cry later. That reassures the men I speak to, I know because the last thing they need is a disaster on the other end of the line.

    It’s a hard balancing act, and I am sure for men, even a more difficult one, then not wanting to appear weak to spouses or friends.

    I think some men never allow themselves to explore their feelings, for fear of breaking the cycle of “be a man”. Or fearing what both men and women often do; avoid feelings, because it leaves us raw and exposed.

    Myself, I have learned to gauge when I can handle truly feeling what I am, because I have also become so tired of crying at night. I had to give myself my own limits. It has helped, yet it’s also avoidance, that if not addressed will come hit at some point.

    This is probably far too long, but what I am tapping into here is how I am a mother, and am able to find this balance by learning, and allowing pain to surface; whereas my own mother admittedly hates emotions. When I was in California for that week, I was demanded to never cry, or show emotion in front of her. We all got that lecture. She also asked me, [this was sad, her pain is so deep]if there are pills that make people stop crying. I assured her, that she can wail, and feel the loss, and she will be ok, like myself. She was stunned to know I’ve felt so much agony, because I am always on top of everything, you know, that “strong woman” by day.

    She is afraid to feel, those deep feelings of loss, and her way of coping so far, is by throwing everything away that could cause tears.

    It’s easier to feel, embrace and let go, but that’s just me. I also cannot look at my Dad’s photo of him in his airplane smiling. I’ve tried, and that’s something I may not be able to do for a long time. I feel some women’s pain is so great, large, enormous, from being mothers and/or caregivers of others, that they close up and never reveal their true self.Even to themselves. Trapped in a way, and yes, it takes a lot of energy to live like that. Peace comes, when negative emotions are released, and embraced. Like paying a debt in a way. Paid in full is a much less stressful way to live, and I mean that with regard to living in the moment, feeling the moment, whether it’s with writing, or talking or just crying sitting outside in nature.

  5. Anon for now says:

    First, JohnD, thank you so much for this blog. And thank you, too, to those who add their comments.

    Second, I’m glad you were able to finally feel your mom’s love. It’s amazing how much healing can occur after the other person has died.

    Third, this essay reinforces my decision, long ago, to not have children. People have always seemed to think I’m joking when I tell them the reason is that I would be a horrible mom. But it’s true, and with age and the intensifying of my depressive symptoms, I look back and *know* how horrid it would have been to be my child, when I just had a vague sense of it in earlier decades.

    Although I’m still doing without meds, I’m sure that if I had insurance and therefore a doctor, they would have been prescribed several major episodes ago. (Things aren’t so bad now that the sunshine is returning, and I seem to be doing okay be using Rescue Remedy every week or so.)

    And then a question. Is there a way to read the posts in chronological order?

  6. Stephany –

    That’s beautiful – and sad. Hovering on the sidelines while your mother enjoys the company of other young people – a haunting image and one that hits home.

    I agree it’s hard to feel, though what I sense in myself is a great expense of energy to keep feelings hidden. That can be exhausting. There are times when I get nervous, like many men I know, at being in the presence of someone who is letting all the feeling roll through them and out into the world. The impulse is to contain that, to bark “be a man!” That conditioning complicates trying to get into the void, take its measurements, find out how that curious emptiness came to be there.


  7. stephany says:

    When I was 18, I lamented to someone about family struggles like these; and this is one thing I’ve never forgotten, which helped me stop searching in that respect: ” You have a void in your life, that nothing, no one, or any material thing can fill.”

    It was a wise statement to give to a young teenager, and I learned at a young age what some people don’t for years. I embraced the void, that space and have made sure I haven’t attempted to fill it. Because, it’s easy to fall into that search to fill such pain isn’t it?

    When I notice a bit more Robert Mondavi in the house, I then remind myself, the void is not able to be filled, just numbed.

    I also feel it is important for us to attempt to understand how intricate this is, understanding where others come from in their reaction to life.

    My mother, being a Professor, always had students over, groups, trips, etc. I always felt replaced. I remember thinking did they notice? that I seemed to be off in the sidelines?

    I had to learn to let it all go, and even still, in my recent trip home for the funeral, there was the same “place” I held; she had one of the students be her personal assistant.

    I felt it surge back. Not feeling important or part of my mom’s life. But I know I am an important part. She doesn’t like to feel emotions. So she ends up cutting relatives out of her life. Feeling–is hard to do isn’t it?

    I think if we feel our emotions, and not fear them, we can live a healthy life, at least a more carefree one.

  8. Zathyn – I know how hard that is, not to have close relationships with family. What I’m still finding is that, with some distance from the anger and frustration I’ve felt about each family member, the love that I’ve always had for them comes through. And there is a great grief about the loss of that love, the inability to express it or even feel it over long periods of my life, and the inability on their part to receive it.


  9. http://zathynpriest.com/blog says:

    This post sent the cogs of my mind into motion. I have a strained relationship with my mother and no relationship at all with any other family member. It’s true – as adults we still look for what lacked in our childhood. Even if we know, deep down, we’ll never get it and that alone causes more frustration.