The past few days I’ve been in a bit of a funk–sometimes cranky, sometimes sad, often distracted. What is wrong with you? I chide myself, judging and chastising myself for not being able to “pull myself together and get on with it,” whatever “it” is. This past weekend, the sun was shining and it was warm enough outside to work in the yard with only a light jacket against a bit of breeze that blew up from time to time. I worked outside, preparing soil and sowing grass seed in my front yard, stuff I normally love to do. But mostly I sullenly went through the motions. I accomplished my task, but was incongruously out of sorts, given the ideal conditions. What is wrong with you? I asked again, sighing.
And then I realized what it was. No, it couldn’t be, could it? I was suffering from my annual seasonal, cyclical affliction: my “mommy cells” were once again activated as they have been each spring since 1996. You would think I would recognize them after all these years, but they have grown more subtle. My mommy cells first developed in the year after my mother died from cancer in late May of 1995. The first months after her death were acutely painful and challenging, though I put on a brave face for my two young children and worked hard to function in a world where my mother no longer existed in the physical realm. The first year was tough, as I suppose it often is after one has suffered the loss of a loved one.
Over time, the grief eased ever so slowly until it was no longer excruciating, but remained painful. Eventually, over a period of a couple of years, I managed to “move on.” Three years after her death I began a new life odyssey as a single parent, my marriage having ended. Still, in my family we “soldier on,” when things get tough, so I did. But one beautiful spring day a few years after my mother’s death, I found myself dragging emotionally. I felt inexplicably sad, completely out of keeping with the beauty blossoming around me. And then it hit me: “I am grieving. I miss my mommy.” Once I had named it and confirmed that yes, that’s totally what I was feeling, I knew I had entered a new phase in my healing. Better to know the affliction and name it in order to work with it.
Every year in the spring, my mommy cells wake up. It is not the jarring, deeply penetrating sadness I experienced in the first year or so after she died. Each early spring the seasons and cycles of grief repeat. Some years it is the more muted, subtle, background music that plays so gently it is scarcely noticeable, and others it swells to a crescendo, unmistakable and obvious. Now as I approach the 22nd anniversary of her passage from the planet, I find that it took me a bit longer to recognize the change in my emotional seasons. The mommy cells lie dormant throughout much of the year, but they begin stirring in December, the month her illness was diagnosed and gain a foothold as the short, cold winter days begin to yield to the warming, breezy, rainy days of early spring.
As much as I would like to pooh-pooh the idea that emotions can be etched into one’s DNA and triggered, awakened at a particular time, it has been my experience these 20 years. I don’t actively think about it, plan or prepare for it, guard against it or any such thing that would require precognition. It hits without my my awareness of what is happening, often occurring to me weeks after I begin to notice my moods. “Well, duh,” one might say, but I would not be so unkind. For me it’s really a more gentle, “Ahhhhh,” and a self-soothing, “It’s okay. Now I understand what’s going on, and it’s okay.”
I just realized as I’ve been writing this, that one of the last times I remember being at Mass with my mother was Easter of 1995–April 16, 1995. This year, Easter is once again on April 16. I can remember what my mother wore (I have no idea what I wore…), I remember where we sat in church, and I remember some of the music that day. As I continue these reflections of the remaining days leading up to this Easter, I will do so with a new awareness of what they mean to me (and my siblings) personally, as well as what it means spiritually.
Grief, like so many phenomena, comes in seasons and cycles. Sometimes we catch what’s happening, and sometimes we don’t. And that’s alright. When you find yourself inexplicably sad, sometimes it may be grief cells that have been activated. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a marriage, or any other type of profound loss, be gentle and kind to yourself as best you can. Know that it may come around again, and that it might even sneak up on you, but when you recognize it for what it is, welcome it and accept the opportunity for a little more healing.
For me, the journey of these 40 days offers me the opportunity for introspection, reflection, growth, healing, and deepening of my thoughts about and understanding of many things. It is a gift. And even in the midst of awakening grief cells, I am grateful for the gifts they offer. And so it goes.