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Why the Death of Your Mother Is a Life-Changing Event

Shock, relief, loneliness, and gratitude, perhaps all at once.

Regardless of the quality of the relationship, losing your mother is a major life event. Many people fear the grieving process; grieving your mother’s death will turn that process on its head. The known becomes unknown, the predictable becomes uncertain, and warring emotions compete–starting immediately with the shock that someone so integral to your presence can suddenly just be gone.

Though our brains are astounding in their ability to adapt to changing circumstances, that skill can complicate the grieving process. The thread of a mother’s existence runs throughout your life, humming in the background from childhood through adulthood. It doesn’t matter if you struggled to get along or found her to be your best friend; even for those who never knew their biological mother, her death will be momentous.

Coping With Shock

If your mother was a significant part of your life, her death will somehow bring everything to a screeching halt while life continues to march forward. The world around you will change, seasons will pass, and holidays will fly by, but your world may seem to stop. Your brain will be forced to grasp how someone can be present in every way but also physically gone forever – a dissonance that creates significant stress and anxiety.

The first days after the death of your mother are filled with the mechanisms of survival mode: finding the will to shower, making the plans that accompany death, remembering to eat, and reminding yourself to keep breathing. Those days will pass in a blur, and later you may look back at them with little to no memory of what happened – a completely normal reaction to your body's shock.

As you progress through waves of shock and sadness, you may be in awe at the depth of your grief. It can come on gradually and suddenly. There will be triggers you are aware of and may even seek out, just to get a release on the emotions building up in your chest. There will also be triggers that come out of nowhere and stun you into instant sorrow. You will be surprised at how quickly tears form, with no warning.

Physiological Reactions

Physiological reactions like crying, rapid breathing, digestive issues, and more are the body’s natural way of coming to terms with enormous change. Without these reactions, there would be no outlet for emotions that are too intense to handle otherwise. The process of shock is intimately wrapped up in these reactions: Your body is a pro at connecting the logical dots and making things work, but when it’s trying to navigate the abstract nature of powerful grief, it becomes symptomatic.

Your body will do its best to protect you from the immediate, terrorizing pain of your mother’s loss. As part of its shock reaction, you may find yourself behaving normally and wondering why you don’t feel more sadness, anger, or really anything at all. You may be swimming in the depths of numbness and brain fog. You will likely find sleep to be suddenly unpredictable, and your thoughts may become strangers.

When the Numbness Wears Off

The initial numbness of your mother’s death will eventually wear off. It happens in pieces, one wave at a time, and the feelings that follow will be some of the most extreme you'll ever experience. Anger, guilt, resentment, relief, misery, despair — there are no limits to the emotions that will flood your body and mind. Many people wander in and out of shock for months (and sometimes years) as their minds try to work through these emotions while still going through the motions of living.

Once the loss sinks in, you may feel breathtaking loneliness. You may now be the first of the line, staring your own mortality in the face. You are not as removed from death as the presence of your mother led you to believe, and her absence will be glimmering behind every object, every action, and every thought.

You will feel suddenly and irrevocably responsible for the future. You may experience a crushing weight of “what if” that leaves you almost breathless. There is no longer a mother to bounce ideas off of, call when you’re upset, or get affirmation from. You’re on your own now. You have to be your own cheerleader, support, and shoulder to cry on — and you have to do it all while continuing to live your best life. The responsibility can be grueling.

While adjusting to your foundation crumbling, your emotions will often turn against you. You will suddenly remember every argument, every wasted moment, and every missed opportunity, and you may experience paralyzing regret.

Just as your mind recognizes there is no going back, your emotions may urge you to take up residence in the past. Despite their futility, guilt and condemnation often become a way to cope with the intense pain of your mother’s death.

Moments of Hope

Though it’s nearly impossible to believe, all will not be negative. You may feel relief, particularly if your mother struggled with chronic conditions that will no longer plague her. You may feel released from the conflict or pressure that came with a caregiving relationship. You may even feel a renewed sense of gratitude for your own life and a sharpened ambition to soak up every minute available to you and your remaining loved ones. Death can knit together as much as it can tear apart.

Your mother’s death will change you. That change is likely the only predictable part of the entire process – a process that will break, overwhelm, and rebuild you. The only way out is through, riding each wave as it comes and, through it all, remembering to breathe and keep moving forward.

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