Tell me about the person who died:
My mother’s name was Lynn. She died January 15, 2015 from Hepatitis C due to drug use. Our relationship was a violent and unhealthy one, as she was an abusive parent from my earliest memories. During her last few years of life, we did not have a relationship because I had finally grown to a place where I didn't feel guilty about it anymore. There was no obligation on my part. There was only self-preservation.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
The object that reminds me of my mother is her belt. This is not just any belt. As a child, when I was 'bad', she would make me go and get the belt and bring it to her, so she could punish me. I was not hit with it in a standard way, as children in the past have been; I was whipped with it. She didn't just whip my bottom, she also whipped my back, and especially the back of my knees, while holding onto my head. Once it even wrapped around me and hit my crotch. I also recall, that as a young child, I would go get the belt and practice whipping my stuffed animals, so I could make sure that I did it right when I became an adult, because I thought that was part of being a parent.
I moved out and moved on when I was 15, and I hadn't thought about that belt again until the day after she died, when I found it while cleaning out her home. I was instantly in shock upon seeing it and grabbed it and took possession of it because it was mine...because it was ours together. I didn't know what to do with it. I brought it home and showed it to my wife and told her the story of the belt. The second night, I got completely drunk, overwhelmed with confusion and questions. All I could think was, she hasn't fit in this belt, or worn this belt for years–why did she keep it? It was in a drawer of keepsakes. There were birthday cards from her grandchildren…and this belt. A memento, like she wanted to remember what I couldn't forget.
What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?
I was told about her imminent death and I didn't want any part of it. I didn't want to make amends. I didn't want her to apologize. I didn't want to apologize. So I ignored it. I love my sister and my grandmother though, so when I was told that my mother could no longer speak and she was on her death bed, I went to the hospital. Trying to be a better person than my mother, I decided to go there for my sister because she was having to deal with the loss of her relationship with her mother, which had always been far different from mine. My sister said that she would give me a few minutes alone with our mother, so I could tell her what I needed to tell her, and left the room. I didn't say a word. Not one. I didn't think she deserved it.
A few hours later, as we knew that our mother was in her final moments, my sister sat on her left side and I sat on her right, each holding her respective hand. As I held her right hand in mine, I realized the irony that I was holding and comforting the very hand that had hit me and brought me so much pain.
The moment she died, I was instantly relieved that it was over, that she was gone. But then I felt that I had to fall into some sort of an acting role for my sister because she was devastated. It was a difficult situation because I wanted to dance a jig, but I couldn't because I felt I had to be somber. So I didn't give anything away. I was robot-like.
The first night after Lynn died, I had guilt because I wasn't feeling grief, and that perhaps I should have been. Everyone was saying that she was the “only mother I will ever have,” so I kept trying to stir things up for myself, but nothing came. I felt like something was wrong with me.
The second day, I was feeling something, but I didn't know what it was. Upon exploring this with my wife, I realized that I was feeling a loss of some sort, but rather than grieving the mother I had, I was grieving the mother that I should have had, the mother that I deserved to have and would never have.
I no longer feel guilty. Something was telling me that I needed to feel grief, but I don't. I have a much better quality of life now. I can go out in public without worrying about bumping into her. I can be with the rest of my family at holidays because I don't have to worry about her showing up. I have my family back because she is dead. Most importantly, I have been able to reestablish a relationship with my 91-year-old grandmother, which had been impossible for years because of her daughter.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape, what would it look like and feel like at different points since your loss?
It would look like a hurricane was just clearing, with all the wreckage and fallout barely visible, and with the sun and a bright blue sky following soon after. Chirping birds, water flowing, everything that represents life after a storm. Light after being in the dark. New life.
How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
My wife helped me to understand that for my own sake, I needed to make amends with my past. That absolutely did not mean that I had to forgive my mother for all of the abuse and pain she had inflicted upon me for so many years, but perhaps I could forgive her for not being able to be the mother that I needed and deserved. That helped to shift my pain immensely, to a place that made more sense to me.
My sister and grandmother were both consistently trying to see if I was okay. They had the best intentions. But again, I felt as if I was acting, trying to be sad because they were or felt that I should be, or both. It wasn't helpful nor harmful, it was just very weird. I have always allowed my sister to talk about her grief, and I nod and give her space to grieve, but I cannot relate to her feelings.
When others tried to comfort me, that was annoying. I have lived a life of lies. By giving up my relationship with Lynn many years ago, I stopped lying, so I didn't want people to feel sorry for me because I wasn't sorry. It was a bad relationship and it is over.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
My mother’s relationship with other people changed over the years and she did become a better person towards those people. Therefore, they grieved far differently from me.
Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?
There was no formal funeral or memorial service for Lynn. From the time I was 5 years old, her wishes were to have her ashes scattered in the Niagara Gorge. Last summer, me, my wife, my sister and her kids hiked down to the gorge, found a private spot, and did exactly that. I did it for my sister, and for myself I guess because I had made a promise to my mother when I was a young boy that we would do that.
As a child, even being beaten by her, I loved my mother. I didn't know that what she was doing was wrong. When you are a child, there is no distinguishing between good and evil, you just love. When you are told that you are bad, you just think that you are bad, but you still love. It's not until you're an adult that you have the ability to quantify and qualify what went on.
How did your loss change you?
It freed me. It freed me from being a scared 42-year-old man, from going out, from doing anything. The end of her life was a new beginning for mine.
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an evolving art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I then photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story. I’m accepting submissions until June 15th, 2016. Learn more about the project, share widely, and submit your story.