Name: Ali Miller
Tell me about the person who died:
My mother died on the morning of March 3, 2013, in bed at her home in White Plains, New York. She was 66 years old. She’d been diagnosed with metastatic melanoma about two years earlier, and nine weeks prior to her passing she’d had a brain hemorrhage while flying home from India, where she was vacationing with my father. She’d been doing fine, mostly symptom-free, until she started vomiting violently on the plane. We assumed it was food poisoning at first, but soon discovered through a scan in a London Emergency Room that it was much worse: the cancer had spread to her brain. This was the diagnosis we’d all been dreading since learning about the typical course melanoma takes. She was medevaced over the Atlantic Ocean, from London to Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut. Thankfully she arrived alive and conscious, but she was, in many ways, a completely different person, unable to walk and hardly able to talk. Permanently altered, but still here.
I flew from San Francisco to meet her, my dad, and my sister at the hospital, spent that night alone in the ICU with her, and then, along with my father and sister and the hospice team, took care of her in our family home. Her prognosis was three weeks to three months. Putting my life and work in California on hold, I took up residence in the house where I had spent my high school years, devoting myself to spending this precious time with my mom and to doing everything I could to make her comfortable. I bore witness to her dying process and, after she’d been bed-ridden, brain-damaged, and in and out of lucidity for nine weeks, watched her take her final breath. Watching my mother gradually die before my eyes was both the most meaningful and most traumatic experience of my life. I’ve yet to experience anything as challenging or profound. I consider it the greatest blessing of my life that I got to have that time with her and to be with her so intimately in her final months, weeks, days, hours, and, most importantly to me at the time, her final moment.
What has your experience of grief been like since your loss? How did it change over time?
In a word: complicated. Since my mom died I’ve also been through two very intense breakups, so it’s hard to separate out which feelings are tied to which events. What stands out the most to me is how, on a very core level, I feel much more alone than I think I ever have.
When I came back to Berkeley a couple of weeks after her funeral, I moved in with my boyfriend at the time. He took care of me as I gradually adjusted to being back in California, back at work, back “in the world,” after having spent nine weeks hardly leaving my parents' house. The primary way he took care of me was by feeding me: planning meals, cooking them, and literally handing the bowl or plate to me as I sat curled up on the couch or on the patio in the sun. When we broke up five months later and I moved into my own apartment, feeding myself became a huge struggle. I often felt like an infant longing for her mother’s breast, longing to be effortlessly nurtured, held, and cared for. The emotional pain of not having a mother anymore, but also of not having the support I’d been getting from my boyfriend, was excruciating at times. I spent many moments feeling extremely hungry but not being able to get out of my bed to feed myself, full of resentment that my body needed to be fed and that it was my responsibility to feed it. I ached for someone to take care of me. I still struggle with feeding myself sometimes, but not nearly as much, because I got professional help from an Ayurvedic Health Coach who has helped me take better care of myself. It’s not easy.
Every night before I turn my light out to go to sleep, I look at a photograph of my mother, and every night I shake my head in disbelief. Over three years have passed, and I still am dumbfounded every time I look at that picture and contemplate the reality of her being gone. Since I live in California and she lived in New York, I’d been used to not seeing her regularly, so it’s still really hard to believe that I’ll never see her again (at least not unless I get to see her when I die, which is what I wish more than anything).
In the first six months or so after my mom died, I often dreamt about her. In the dreams she would be alive again, but it would be clear that she was going to die again, so I’d always feel this mixture of joy that she was back, and dread that I’d have to go through losing her again. About a year ago I had my first dream of her where she wasn’t dying, and I was so happy, but then I realized that I was dreaming, and I woke up sobbing.
For the first six months or more, it was hard for me to be with other people and not have my focus be on the fact that my mother had just died. Wednesday was my favorite day because that’s the day my grief group met. I liked being with other people who “got it” and where the intention of our gathering was to talk about what was in the foreground for all of us. It was such a relief to not have to put it aside. Nothing was interesting to me for awhile, other than death and grief. Everything else seemed insignificant. Now it’s more in the background. In fact, a few months ago, at my 20th high school reunion, an old friend greeted me and said, “I’m so sorry,” and it took me a few moments to even know what he was referring to.
About two-and-a-half years after my mom died I got a dog, and she has been the best thing for my grief. After dealing with so much loss, it has been such a joy to gain a new love in my life, someone to take care of, to keep me company. The “Who rescued who?” bumper sticker says it well. She follows me around, always has her eyes on me, and clings to me in a way that gives me a deep sense of mattering. She’s my family. She’s about one-and-a-half years old, and sometimes I find myself believing that she’s my mom reincarnated. I find comfort in that thought, that my mom wanted to come back as a creature with whom I could share such an intimate, uncomplicated, loving bond. My mom and I, like most mothers and daughters, certainly had our fair share of complicated dynamics. But underneath any conflicts we had, there was always a bone-deep sense of closeness, mutual admiration, and unconditional love. I especially miss her hugs and the physical affection we shared.
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?
Cold. Lonely. I feel helpless. I’m a baby calling out for her mama and her mama’s not there. A desert. Thirsty, hungry.
Tell me about an object that I can photograph that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
A roasted marshmallow. When my mom was in hospice, she was on a steroid to keep the swelling in her brain down, which gave her a massive appetite (plus, after a lifetime of worrying about her weight, I think she was like, “Fuck it! I’m eating whatever I want now!”). She would “place orders” with me, my father, and my sister, and we’d serve her whatever she wanted. I remember one time she asked me softly but anxiously (her memory functioning was severely disabled), “Did I order my food already?” I couldn’t tell if she was confused and thought she was actually in a restaurant, or if she was being playful. In any case, one of her favorite foods to “order” was a roasted marshmallow. My dad had mastered the art of making the perfect roasted marshmallow by putting the marshmallow on a chopstick and holding the marshmallow over the electric burner on the kitchen stove, just the right distance from the burner so that the heat could create a flame on the marshmallow. He taught the method to all of us, and you’d often see us going back and forth from her bedroom to the kitchen for “one more” marshmallow. She kept asking for “one more,” not with words, because she could hardly speak and did so very sparingly, but by holding up her pointer finger and conveying desire through her eyes as soon as she finished the one she was eating.
This marshmallow image is joyful for me because I loved watching her enjoy herself, and the roasted marshmallows seemed to give her so much pleasure. The juxtaposition of all the suffering with the joy of a dying woman delighting in eating a roasted marshmallow, made by her devoted family members, in a hospital bed in her home… kinda says it all.
How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
My boyfriend at the time was very helpful. He was in California while I was taking care of my mom, so I would call him most nights and fill him in on what was going on. He was a touchstone to my Berkeley life, and helped me remember life beyond the walls of my parents’ house-turned-hospice. He and some of my friends generously moved all of my stuff into his apartment so that when I returned I could live with him, rather than in the house I’d been living in with housemates with whom I was in conflict.
Two of my closest friends, both of whom knew my mom, have also been hugely supportive to me in my grief. Their loving presence in my life over many years, their interest in the details of my inner world, along with their love for my mom, has made a huge difference in my grief process. I feel less alone because of them and the love of other friends and family members as well.
Another big source of support has been connecting with my mom’s friends, some of whom I’d never met until they came to visit her. These were people who knew sides of her that I didn’t have access to, and who loved and cared about her very much. After she died, staying in touch with them has helped all of us keep her alive, in a way.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
My parents met when they were 12 years old and became childhood sweethearts. They celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary on January 18th while my mom was at home in hospice care. I was worried about my dad losing his lifelong partner, and I was both shocked and relieved by how he handled it. He started going on dates with various women shortly after my mom died, and became much more social. Before I knew it, he had a girlfriend. He was really happy and full of energy.
While I wanted to go to grief counseling, write about the experience, and really focus on my feelings, he wanted to move on and focus on creating a new life. While I was clinging to my mom’s clothes and anything I could find that would remind me of her, he was donating and consigning her wardrobe. While I was trying to hold on to her in every way I could (reading her notes in the margins of her books, trying to figure out which passage in a book was meaningful to her on a dog-eared page, memorizing the lyrics to her favorite song, reaching out to her friends, taking dance classes, writing classes, and singing lessons to feel more connected to her since she was a writer, dancer, and music lover), it seemed like he was trying to let her go.
While I’ll only ever have one mom, he’ll have other partners. At times this has been hard for me, especially when I start to think his moving on means he doesn’t miss, love, or respect my mom, but then he’ll say things like, “She was the love of my life,” or I’ll visit and see that he still has pictures of the two of them together, and I feel relieved. It’s strange but also sweetly connecting when he tells me about his love life, his dating adventures. I’m getting to know a side of him he’d never shared with me before.
How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?
Being public about my grief has been very helpful for me. Right after I returned to Berkeley, I joined a writing class that my boyfriend was teaching, so that I could begin to write about my experience, hoping to share it somehow. When the class ended, I joined a writing group. I had visions of doing a one-woman show to tell the story, but that hasn’t come to fruition yet. About a year after my mom died, I spoke at a Service of Remembrance put on by the hospice where I received grief counseling. I had written a few pages about my “grief journey,” and I found it very gratifying, though nerve-wracking, to share it with other grievers.
Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?
My family is Jewish, and my mom considered herself agnostic. I would say I’m agnostic, too. So I often find myself wondering where she went after she died. A lot of people have convictions or even certainty about what happens after death, but I just have a deep curiosity. The questions “Where did she go?” and “Where is she now?” have been with me continuously since I watched her stop breathing that Sunday morning. The other question that comes up a lot is, “Will I ever see her again?” I hope I will. It seems curiosity and hope are all I’ve got—no beliefs or faith.
Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?
One of the things that has been most helpful is connecting to my mom through physical objects. I wear her wedding ring and diamond studs nearly every day, and on most days I’m wearing at least one article of her clothing and/or shoes. I like to feel her close, and this is one way that works for me.
As the three-year anniversary of her death approached this year, my goal was to memorize all of the words to Waters of March, which was one of her favorite songs. Two of her musician friends sang it at the funeral, and it has since become one of my favorite songs as well. The version by Susannah McCorkle is my favorite, and the beautiful lyrics capture for me the bittersweetness of life, which includes the mundane, the profound, the joy, the sorrow, and everything in between: from “a sliver of glass” to the “joy in your heart.” On her anniversary, I sang the song and made a little video that I shared with my best friend. I think it was the start of a yearly ritual.
How did your loss and your grief change you?
I think it’s made me more compassionate towards other grievers, and also towards myself for the many losses I’ve experienced in my life. For a while after my mom died, I was way more accepting of others, way less judgmental. I remember thinking often, “Judging others doesn’t even make any sense anymore. Our time here together is so short, why waste it being critical of others?” Unfortunately, that sense of acceptance didn’t totally stick!
Ali Miller lives and works in Berkeley, CA. When she’s not out frolicking with her little dog, Bella, she’s most commonly holding space for people in her therapy office as they grapple courageously with their own unique versions of this challenging human condition. She wants everyone to have the inner and outer resources to unabashedly enjoy the roasted marshmallows of life, and is doing her small part to contribute to that being a reality. BefriendingOurselves.com
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story.