Every year around this time, everything is hard. Some years some things are harder than others, but most years there’s just a general level of unnecessary difficulty to whatever I do. I can’t concentrate, I can’t communicate, and the people I love the most grind on my nerves until my sparks fly at them like daggers. I’m sometimes so disconnected from myself, it takes someone else to ask, “Isn’t her anniversary coming up?”
The question slices through me every time. Once I hear it, its answer does not come in the form of nouns and verbs, but in one forever photograph my brain will retain until its lights go out.
One foggy February morning, a friend and I sat at a busy coffee shop in the City. We’d found a quiet corner to huddle in, but I still found it hard to concentrate on what he was saying about his recent travels. I mimicked all the polite gestures we use to feign active listening: nodding, smiling, constant – almost obsessive – eye contact. My friend, a former Buddhist monk, was too wise and attentive for this farce. He stopped talking and asked, “Isn’t her anniversary coming up?”
Five year old pain rushed up like lava to my surface before I could stop it. I put my face in my hands and sobbed while my friend gently rubbed my shoulder. I don’t know how long this went on. I only remember I couldn’t stop, and no one tried to stop me. My friend just sat with me, quietly, and comforted me without words. When I finally looked up, it seemed the place had emptied. I apologized to my friend for embarrassing myself, embarrassing him, and mostly for not yet being over my mother’s death. He chuckled as he handed me his napkin.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” he said. “The truth is we never get over anything. The first person to break your heart? Not over it. The last person to break your heart? Nope. The time someone’s cruel words really cut you? Nu-uh. My father leaving when I was 10? No way. Watching your mother die? Never.” He paused and squeezed my arm.
“You will never get over that.”
My friend left to get us something sweet to eat while I replayed his words in my head. When he returned, I thanked him sarcastically for the eternal damnation.
He laughed and said, “Think of it more like freedom. Western culture has this obsessive need to move on, move up, conquer everything, get over everything. As a result, we have little empathy for one another and almost zero for ourselves. You’re allowed to release your pain whenever and however you need to – whether it be this moment or ten years from now. Whether you cry, scream, rage a little or a lot. Never feel the need to ‘get over’ your pain. Because we never get over anything. We process our pain the rest of our lives, and that’s how we should look at it: processing our pain, not feeling a need to conquer it. Should we seek help with processing that pain? Absolutely. Should we set unrealistic expectations about when and where we’ll finally be done processing it? Absolutely not.”
Since that day in the coffee shop, February is more manageable. Instead of avoiding the anniversary of my mother’s death, I set a reminder on the first of the month to give myself space to grieve an enormous loss. I tell people who question why I’m struggling that I’m processing something and need time. I ask for hugs from people who love me and let them know I won’t be myself for a few days. Instead of hating myself for not yet being over my mother’s death, which only pushes me further down into a grave of depression, I acknowledge that I will never really get over it.
And I don’t have to.