It is November 2014. My mom died almost two years ago. I kind of held my breath thinking that at the one-year mark I would have the strength to “be okay and be ready to move on,” but after two years, I know now that it is truly a much longer journey of healing. You see, she and I had this unique bond. We had a friendship that surpassed a mother/daughter bond. She was my connection to this world. She grounded me in every sense. I talked to her almost every day, or at least felt the need to. She was the only person that I felt would, should, and did listen to anything and everything I had to say—no matter how long it took to say it. I could and did call her about everything. Celebrations – check. Frustrations – check. Fears – check. Problems – check. I loved how she made me feel better, every time. She had a way of listening and helping like no other person, and she shared that gift with more than just me.
I had thought about dying myself. I had thought about what if my husband would die. My dad. My daughter. But, I had never considered what if my mom would die. It seemed impossible. I was knocked off my feet. These other losses would have been horrifying, but Mom would have helped me through them. She was supposed to be here to help me.
Leading up to the time of her unexpected and untimely death, an interesting timeline developed. Here is how it unraveled.
Oct. 18, 2013 – Surprise and Last Visit to My House
Mom and Dad got mixed up and showed up a day early to my house. This was strange. They were supposed to come on Friday, but they came a day early. Ironically, my daughter, Darby, was not feeling well and needed to go to school late the next morning. Had Mom not been here, I would not have had her help. It was almost like she knew. They took Darby home with them to Indiana after school on that Friday. I worked that weekend on a big project – so busy on this. They watched Darby a bunch for me. On that Saturday, a family member died – this was a hard loss for us.
October 28, 2013 – Last Visit
It amazes me how I can now look back and notice how I truly believe Mom knew her life was soon coming to an end. I don’t believe she knew how and when, but she knew to cherish the moments. I had gone home to Stendal, Indiana, for the Halloween party. Mom had helped Darby with her costume as usual, sewing an Anime outfit out of some existing clothes and searching for hair pieces all week—actually buying “real” hair! On that Sunday after church, Darby, my sister, Lori, and I stayed for lunch at my parents’ house. Mom asked us if she could share the eulogies from a couple of family members’ (Norma Jean and Andrew) services that were written by their children. Lori and I were unable to attend both of these services and really wanted to hear what had been written. It was interesting how important it was to Mom that she share these with us. Granted, we did want to hear these read by her to us, but it was more than that. She “needed” to do this—on this day. There was a sense of urgency. Many tears were shed and a few laughs were shared as we remembered our relatives and their children.
As I left that day, Mom followed me out to the car, even though I had already said goodbye. I thought at the time it was a bit odd. But, I always find it a little difficult to leave “home” and welcomed the extra time with Mom. She told me to have a safe drive, to stay awake, and to have a good week. I gave her another hug, unknowingly the last “real” hug I would ever share with her.
November 1, 2013 – Last Phone Conversation
Of course I probably spoke with my mom several times leading up to the last conversation, but the last time is so memorable. I was leaving town with Brad and Darby to go to Mishawaka, Indiana, to then go to a conference in Michigan to present at a mathematics conference for the weekend. I had had a really bad day. Some frustrating things were happening at work with a student, and I was stressed beyond belief. Brad had had his share of hearing about it and suggested I call my mother as we were making our drive. So, I gave her a call. She answered her consistently enthusiastic “Hello!” I immediately broke into tears. This was such an unusual reaction for me. I look back on this again to find this as another sign of possibly knowing time was fading. She asked if I was okay, and I told her it was just so nice to hear her voice. I updated her quickly on the situation, not knowing that Brad had already filled her in. She was so kind and supportive, offering her and Dad to come down and help me (as usual).
November 3, 2013 – Flea Market
Mom worked all day at the Community Club Flea Market. To the tune of 4 a.m. until 6 p.m. I was eight hours away at a conference in Michigan.
November 4, 2013 – All Saint’s Day and Church Celebration – Mom’s Day to March in to Heaven
In Mishawaka, my mother-in-law’s neighbor sat on her porch and sang an eerie song all night long. Brad and I could not sleep. The little that I did sleep, I was sleepwalking and talking, out of control. Brad said I was the worst I had been in ages, even crying. Maybe a premonition? We woke up in the morning and decided to stay in Mishawaka for breakfast with Brad’s family as we see them so little, rather than driving home to the church celebration that we would be late for anyway. Mom already knew that we were not planning to attend and was fine with this.
Two hours in to the trip, Brad received a call on his cell phone from my brother-in-law that Mom had been in an accident in her van, and that it didn’t look good. A little bit later, he called to say she had died. We still had over 4 hours to drive. It was grueling. I made arrangements for my class to be covered the next day at the university. I was out of my mind otherwise – trying to think what to do, who to contact, how to cope.
Mom had been delivering some food to a couple that was too sick to attend the church celebration. In our small town of Stendal, a mere 200 people, she turned the corner onto a side street just after our childhood neighbor and family were turning from the other direction, and had a massive heart attack just after the turn. They saw her then pass their house slumped over behind the wheel, chased the van down, stopped it, and ironically being an EMT and a future doctor, did CPR until the ambulance came an hour later. We never had a doubt that our mother had not suffered—just seemingly died instantly. We never had to wonder if she would have lived. We knew she was supposed to die this day just as she did.
The church congregation made up of Mom’s family and life-long friends were at the celebration, and some of them went to the scene. My dad, sister, and brother-in-law were there too. I was spared the actual vivid experience of being there. I do wonder that perhaps not being there leaves me unbelieving. Is Mom really gone? I did not have closure. I am not sure which is worse. My sister still struggles with reliving the sprint to the scene from the community center to the site. I, on the other hand, make up the movie in my mind, and still have dreams about not being there to save Mom.
Mom died on All Saint’s Day. Her childhood best friend told me that she hoped Mom listened to the words of the sermon that day: “There is a big family photo and we all have a place…” were part of the words. Mom entered heaven “marching in” to join the saints in the family photo. Many have since said that she was needed there more in heaven than here, probably to organize and encourage others on! Some say with a smile that she is certainly organizing and cleaning heaven as well!
Mom had visited one of her best friends the day before the Flea Market. Her friend told us that Mom came over and stayed for a “good quality” visit. As she left, Mom turned to her and said: “When I get my final call, if you can’t remember me with a smile, don’t remember me at all.” Mom’s friend said she thought it was a bit odd at the time, until Sunday came and Mom died. She then felt like Mom knew her death was imminent.
Mom told a couple of people that she should not be working at the Flea Market--that if her girls knew what the doctor had told her, they would not be letting her work. However, we knew she was doing what she wanted. I believe she was slowly dying of an overworked heart from diabetes. Heart failure with a bad valve? Not quite sure–no autopsy.
My sister and I, along with all of our children, husbands, Dad, and cousins, wrote Mom’s eulogy. Pastor read it. It was very similar to Norma Jean and Andrew’s. Ironic, huh? This was stressful AND very therapeutic. We were very thankful to have the opportunity and responsibility to remember the many wonderful stories and aspects of Mom. The service was beautiful. We even had the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, her favorite song.
I am fortunate in this wonderful life to have special dreams.
Right after Mom died, I felt her presence in her house. The first night she was gone, I heard her trying to turn on the lamp.
• One morning, Mom awoke me from sleep. She was standing next to me by my bed, in pajamas, asking me if I was taking Darby to school. I answered that I was. She said that this was good because “they were having trouble waking John Sickman this morning” (a friend of ours at church). A couple minutes later, I awoke and realized that Mom was not here, but had all but been standing next to me with the light streaming through her hair! (I checked on John Sickman. He was fine. Still suspicious!)
• After my sister and I had been doing a great amount of cleaning, I had my best dream. She joined me for a day in the basement. Lori was busy for the day, so it was just Mom and me for the day! I hugged her and told her how much I had missed her and showed her around the basement.
• Another dream involved her showing up at church not realizing she had died. She was working on the pulpit microphone for pastor before church. Everyone was staring at her. My family went up to her and asked her what she was doing and she said she was confused. I asked her if she remembered what happened and she said no. So we took her down to her house. She wanted to change clothes, but we had gotten rid of all of her clothes! Then Lori and I took her and Dad on an outing to a creek where they spent the day. We were thinking, well, she is back! And, well, do we still need the heart surgery?
• Another dream is one where Dad just brings Mom to me to give me a hug because he knows I am sad and needing to see her.
• My favorite dream is when she showed up at a dinner party where a bunch of my friends were in attendance. My friends were startled to see her as they all thought she was deceased. I looked at her and asked why she was here. She said, “I will be here until you no longer need me.”
• While a Visiting Professor at Harlaxton College this fall in England, I am dreaming about Mom more than ever! Perhaps it is that this is such a magical place? My most surreal dream was being with her to whisper in her ear to save her when she was being given CPR. In this dream, she survives.
Overall, my dreams keep showing me she is still with me. I feel her presence every week. It is wonderful. I feel very fortunate and close to Mom. I am not sure why I have been given this gift. Perhaps it is my way of coping with this huge and devastating loss? Whatever the case, she lives on in my dreams.
1. This is what I learned about grief with help from my therapist and what I worked out for myself:
2. It is okay to do “nothing” for awhile. Maybe even go away alone for a few days on a retreat.
3. Watch Netflix, Hulu – shows with many episodes to a series – that you can get lost in for awhile. It also helps to fill the house with sound and have a distraction of shows to keep your mind off pain.
4. Get as much rest/sleep as possible.
5. Turn grief and lack of appetite into healthy weight loss and diet!
6. Talk to someone about your loss – find someone that will check on you and listen.
7. Create an area that can be a spot to remember your loved one until you are ready to move on with packing the items away.
8. Take care of yourself first – even though others around you are also in pain.
9. Honor your dreams as messages of how you and your loved one are connecting on some level. Remember you will always have a connection with your loved one.
10.Give yourself extra time to do things. You will be slower and foggier after the loss and it will be very frustrating. Your memory will play tricks on you! Don’t be surprised! Be patient with yourself and let time heal.
Realize that grief can feel very much like an illness and you may feel very ill. Take care of yourself.
Always with Me
My grief therapist helped me immensely the first year. One hurdle I have had is that I would not ever see Mom again. Yet seeing her in my dreams and feeling her presence has helped. I have prayed for this. Longed for this. Thankfully, I do occasionally see her. My therapist explained that I now have my mom with me always. I no longer have to wait for a time to talk with her on the phone or visit her. She is with me always in my heart as she has departed from her earthly body.
She was blessed to be a blessing to others. Somehow I know I am supposed to carry on, but find it so challenging. She brought so much joy and light to my world that helped me do so for others. My light does not burn as brightly without hers. I am trying to figure out how to illuminate a stronger flame without her. With time and healing perhaps this will happen.
When you see the picture of Mom taking the photograph of the field of flowers, yet capturing a snapshot of herself in the mirror, you will hopefully understand the irony compounding. Mom was not a photographer in the least. Yet, this may very well be one of the best pictures, if not the last picture, she took. This picture is looking into your heart. Showing you that she is with you—always looking for you. She is the “object in mirror is closer than it appears” as she is always near. Especially now. At least that is how I am choosing to move forward to cope with this new normal. Perhaps it is more like “People in our heart are closer when they depart.” Either way, I miss her. I long for the dream where she does show up in church, and she is really back. However, we all know my life will take a turn for that to happen.
About the Author
Dr. Janet Lynne Tassell is an Associate Professor at Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Kentucky, where she teaches Elementary Math Methods, directs the Elementary Mathematics Specialist Endorsement program, and works with the Gifted Masters program. She recently taught a semester abroad at Harlaxton College in Grantham, England. She and her husband, Brad, published a children's book connecting reading and mathematics fluency, Speaking of Math — Fluency Poems for Partners: Addition. Recently, she led a team of 14 authors to design and author six books for 1st-6th grade students to delve deeper into the Common Core Mathematics Standards. Her talented 12 year-old daughter, Darby, keeps her busy with speech and academic teams competitions. Janet still often visits her hometown of Stendal, Indiana, spending time with her father, family, and church community.