My Mom Died After I Was 7. I’m Grieving 37 Years Later.

February 17, 2021

Delayed grief is sometimes triggered by an event later in life, experts say.

I’m in my basement looking for a file when I come across the cards and pictures – a small Manila envelope with my mother’s remains. She died in April 1983 at the age of 30 in an apartment in Van Nuys, California. I don’t even know the exact date.

My brother and I were told that her biker friend, a guy named Eddie, found her dead in the shower. I was 7

I lived with my grandparents, my federal guardians in my mother’s absence, in a town 15 minutes outside of Boston. After school and on many weekends I was also looked after by my foster mother Esther. The state paid to help my grandparents. It was also the state that had removed my brother and me from the apartment we shared with my mother Denise just before my first birthday. Denise was addicted.

As I later learned, her fall in the shower actually happened during a seizure caused by constant drug use. She died of an overdose.

Back in the present, I pondered the relics: a letter my mother wrote to me and my brother, another to my grandmother just before my mother was about to enter the rehab she never made it to, a picture of her on her 21st birthday and some things from high school. The pieces of my mother’s life are spread out in front of me like a jumbled puzzle. I wipe my eyes and am surprised to find tears. I never cry for my mom so I wonder why now? I am a 44 year old woman, mother of four children. The woman, whom I never actually called “Mama”, has been dead for more than 37 years. That is longer than she was alive.

A few days later, while reading an article online, I come across a term that is new to me: delayed grief. It is a grief response that occurs later, not at the time of loss, and is sometimes triggered by an event where I discover the artifacts in my mother’s life.

Hope Edelman, author of The AfterGrief: Finding Your Way Down the Arc of Loss, said it was not surprising that meeting my mother as an adult elicited a grief response through her belongings. Ms. Edelman has been writing about grief for over 20 years after losing her own mother at 17.

I read these letters when my mother first sent them to me in 1983 and have seen the pictures before. But the loss feels different now. I understand her death as a mother and not as her daughter. I understand the grief she must have felt without her children. The Strawberry Shortcake card, which arrived shortly before my birthday, said, “I love you very much.” She signed the card with two more declarations of love and X and O until she ran out of white space. I felt disappointed when I read it.

“You mourned all that you could then,” said Ms. Edelman. “We rethink loss and understand it differently at different times in our lives.”

Ms. Edelman said that certain milestones or life events cause complicated heartaches to reappear. Andrea Warnick, a Toronto and Guelph, Ontario-based psychotherapist who specializes in grief therapy, refers to it as outbursts of grief.

Nadine Melhem, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, has studied childhood grief related to the sudden death of parents. She said the nature of the relationship with the person who died has proven to be an important factor in people’s grief. Additional losses and prolonged stressors could trigger grief, she said, which could certainly have been a reason for my most recent grief reaction.

As the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are losing loved ones without being able to be with them at the end of their lives, or in some cases even seeing their bodies for a while after death. The pandemic also affects funeral and memorial rituals, which usually celebrate a person’s life.

Dr. Melhem said she expected complicated or prolonged grief responses from a subset of those grieving over a loss from the pandemic. She is conducting an online study that looks at stress and grief responses in people who have lost someone to Covid-19. Among the sample of 7,353 respondents, she found that 55 percent of those who lost someone to the coronavirus reported intense grief responses that could predict continued, relentless grief in the future. Interestingly, similar rates have been reported for both adolescents and adults.

Ms. Edelman said that children’s initial grieving process is influenced by the way people around them deal with their grief. When my mother died, my grandmother plowed her loss by checking boxes on her to-do list. Hull on delta flight. Funeral mass. Thank you cards. She believed overcoming loss meant being strong.

Dr. Melhem agreed, saying that her research found that the grief of surviving parents or caregivers is an important factor in predicting children’s grief responses, as it can affect “whether there is an environment that eases grief”.

Mrs. Warnick said my grandmother might have tried to protect me from grief. What I remember in the days and months after my mother passed away was my own guilt for grieving for her. Whenever I cried for the woman who attacked me, I was afraid that the women who stayed behind to raise me, my grandmother and foster mother, would feel hurt. I also didn’t feel I had the right to mourn a woman I didn’t know.

My grief lacked validity. In fact, there was typically even less support for the grieving process in the early 1980s than there is today, especially for children.

Dr. Melhem said when I was a kid, research didn’t pay much attention to grief in research. When she and her colleagues published a study on survivors in 2011, she said she had not only filled a gap in grief research, but also how grief in children presented itself and progressed over time. Additionally, a study she and her colleagues published in 2018 shed light on the impact childhood grief can have on a child’s mental health.

We have come a long way in understanding and processing grief for many types of loss. I finally understand the relevance of my grief, past and present. I took the liberty of mourning.

“Grief is a very healthy experience and we have every right to it,” said Ms. Warnick.

Nicole Johnson is a freelance writer working on a memoir about addiction, abandonment, and the pop culture that shaped her GenX childhood.

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