I have been reading Cheryl Strayed’s acclaimed best seller, Wild. In painstaking detail, Cheryl chronicles the grief following her mother’s death. She recounts the heroin use, the seedy men, and the dissolution of her marriage–in deeply personal terms. On a whim–and attempting to make sense of her broken world, Cheryl makes the spontaneous decision to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. The book details her painful hike–both literally and figuratively–and how it, ultimately, precipitates her healing.
My story mirrors Cheryl–of course without her beautiful prose. When my mother passed away over six years ago, I was inconsolable. Her funeral was a blur–a procession of hugs and well wishes from family acquaintances. “Let us know if you need anything,” they murmured. I solemnly nodded–a shell shocked daze gripping my every fiber.
Following my mother’s funeral, I returned to the New Orleans law firm. I tried to put on a cheerful facade and meet the billable hour requirement. But, truthfully, I didn’t give a damn; I had checked out. My mother’s loss had gutted me.
“What am I doing here? I can’t do this,” I thought. Within the month, I had quit the law firm. My tentative plan: return home to Iowa. By returning home, there would be an opportunity to further my mother’s legacy. There would also be an opportunity to re-establish a relationship with my distant father.
Or so I thought–perhaps naively so.
Moving into an empty Des Moines apartment, the enormity hit me: I really am on my own. For my entire life, my mother had been my bulwark. She had been my sounding board; my trusted confidante; my keeper of secrets.
Reeling from my mother’s death, I bounced between jobs, battled anxiety and depression, and retreated into a cocoon of unhealthy habits (how about watching every Mad Men episode during a weekend sitting? Simultaneously impressive and disturbing). And without our irrepressible matriarch holding us together, my family and I splintered. The extent of our familial communication: a deeply personal (please note my sarcastic humor) “happy birthday” text from my brothers and father every May 31st.
Cheryl–in other words, I understand the aloneness; the familial estrangement; the aimless drifting. I have lived it–and, even today, am still coming to grips with the newfound reality. Yes, I really am on my own.
I am writing this article because burying a loved one is one of the toughest challenges we–supposedly able, self-equipped adults–face. And, in hindsight, I wasn’t prepared for the challenge. My mother’s death upended my once stable world and threw it into disarray.
One of the many lessons I have learned since: Grief–and coming to terms with a loved one’s passing–doesn’t have a timeline. There is no DIY self-improvement kit. Cheryl hiked the Pacific Coast Trail to seek closure from her mother’s passing; I wrote (and am still writing) for Psych Central to assuage my own vulnerabilities and familial estrangement.
But an even more important lesson: You can heal from a loved one’s death. For Cheryl, it required a murderous hike (and a stubborn insistence to move forward). For me, it has taken years of counseling, the sturdy support of aunts/uncles/friends, and a part-time writing gig (and, yes, a therapeutic hike or two in the Puget Sound wilderness).