“Good night. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
The dim light of Mom’s hospital room couldn’t hide our smiles as we recognized one of her many popular bedtime catchphrases. But tears quickly welled up behind my grin. I desperately racked my brain for something lighthearted to say — the only distraction standing between myself and a complete, emotional breakdown.
And honestly, how could I not? A big white bandage stained with smears of dried blood was wrapped around her head, a constant reminder to me and the rest of the world that a four centimeter cancerous tumor had just been removed from her brain – not to mention I was still grieving the passing of my dad only a month earlier. My world was falling apart before my eyes, and on that particular night all I could do was pray, hold on for dear life, and rely on a simple bedtime mantra as a buffer between me and my heartache.
“Good night, Mom.” I choked back tears.
“Good night, Honey,” she answered, oblivious to my anguish.
“Muuaahh.” Comforted by our trademark peck on the lips, we both drifted off into la-la land — Mom in her sterile hospital bed and me in my less-than-cozy fold out cot. I was overwhelmed with pure exhaustion, and was fading fast.
While drifting off to sleep, I was startled awake by an amplified sound. Instantly, the silence and stillness was broken,reminiscent of that proverbial moment in a movie theater when the THX surround sound intro plays, just as the film is about to start.
“Am I grieving right?” It was Mom’s voice.
“What?” I asked, confused.
She repeated patiently: “Am I grieving right?”
At first, I thought her question was the symptom of a dream state or hallucinations from pain meds and brain trauma. But I tuned in to the tone of her voice, the clarity of her words and the soft cry that followed, and I understood that she was alert and oriented enough to feel her reality.
“What makes you ask?” I gently responded.
“I’m not sure. I just feel bad that I’m not crying as much as I thought I would since your daddy died. I don’t want him to think that I don’t care.”
God guided my words of reassurance, and I answered without hesitation: “Mom. Remember what the hospice nurse told us a few months before Daddy died? She said that sometimes the grieving process starts way before a loved one actually dies. That was you! All those days and nights you cried over Dad’s declining health – your mourning started a long time ago.”
“Oh yeah, I guess you’re right,” she nodded.
“Plus, you’ve been so sick since he died. All the headaches, throwing up, weakness, back and forth to doctor’s appointments, going through scans and tests, your gallbladder surgery and now this! You haven’t had a lot of time to grieve!”
By this point, the floodgates had opened:”See Mom, we’re grieving now. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Everyone deals with grief differently. Don’t worry. Just do it your own way. Daddy understands. Okay?”
“Okay, Honey.” Wiping tears from our eyes, we made a second round of goodnight kisses and settled back into our beds.
Tossing and turning in my cot, I couldn’t stop rehashing our conversation. It struck me how Mom’s history of worry and perfectionism crept in through the trauma of brain surgery, through the effects of pain medication, and even through grief. Little did I know that in fourteen short months, Mom would pass too, and in the years that would follow, I’d be asking myself that same question: Am I grieving right?
And why am I still asking these questions? I already knew the answers, yet there I was analyzing my most intimate emotions and evaluating my every move.
Is it wrong to take three showers a day so my kids don’t have to see me cry?
Should I stay in bed all day, again? I’d better get out of this funk. My family and friends need me.
What must my co-workers and patients think of me for crying at the drop of a hat? I must be a burden to them.
I shouldn’t be so sad. After all, I have my faith.
Maybe I should go to more grief counseling sessions or read more books about grief.
There’s no denying the fact that the anxiety/perfectionism gene was passed on to me. But the overwhelming task of trying to answer those questions correctly was relieved once I learned to accept myself for who I am and where I am in the grief process, and to stop lamenting over unfair comparisons I made between myself and others. I am a sensitive person. I cry, over think, pray, and share my emotions – and I’m okay with that.
Three weeks ago marked the six year anniversary of Mom’s passing. Of course, in my mind, I thought it was necessary to write a blog entry and a Facebook post commemorating the date, but I just didn’t feel like it. Grief and perfectionism kicked in, leaving me in an emotional funk. I was so caught up in worrying about whether I was justified in experiencing those feelings that I just cancelled my writing routine altogether.
A few times during the week of November 30th, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Am I grieving right by not writing anything? Each time, I imagined Mom answering me back: Remember what you told me. There is no right or wrong to grieve. Everybody’s different. Just do it your way, Honey.
So I did. I cried. I over thought. I prayed. I shared. I even shopped. And that’s okay.