My Mother Died When I Was 7. I’m Grieving 37 Years Later.

My Mother Died When I Was 7. I’m Grieving 37 Years Later.

Delayed grief is sometimes triggered by an event later in life, experts say.

I’m in my basement looking for a file when I stumble upon the cards and pictures — a small manila envelope containing what is left of my mother. She died at 30 in an apartment in Van Nuys, Calif., in April 1983. I don’t even know the exact date.

My brother and I were told that her biker boyfriend, a guy named Eddie, found her dead in the shower. I was 7.

I lived with my grandparents, my state-appointed guardians in my mother’s absence, in a city 15 minutes outside of Boston. After school and on many weekends, I was also cared for by my foster mother, Esther. The state paid for her to help my grandparents. It was also the state that had removed my brother and me from the apartment we shared with my mother, Denise, just before my first birthday. Denise was an addict.

Her fall in the shower, I later learned, actually happened during a seizure brought on by constant drug use. She died of an overdose.

One of the few images the author has of her mother.
via Nicole Johnson

Back in the present, I pour over the relics: a letter my mother wrote to me and my brother, another to my grandmother just before my mother was about to enter the rehab she never made it to, a picture of her on her 21st birthday and some things from high school. The pieces of my mother’s life are spread in front of me like a mixed-up jigsaw puzzle. I wipe at my eyes, surprised to find tears. I never cry about my mother so I wonder, why now? I am a 44-year-old woman, a mother to four children. The woman I never actually called “Mom” has been dead for more than 37 years. That is longer than she was alive.

A few days later while reading an article online, I stumble across a term that’s new to me: delayed grief. It is a grief response that does not happen at the time of loss, but at some point later and is sometimes triggered by an event, like me discovering the artifacts of my mother’s life.

Hope Edelman, author of “The AfterGrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Loss,” said that it was not surprising that meeting my mother as an adult, through her belongings, elicited a grief response. Ms. Edelman has been writing about grief for over 20 years, having lost her own mother at 17.

I read these letters when my mother initially sent them to me back in 1983 and have seen the pictures before. But the loss feels different now. I understand her death as a mother, instead of as her daughter. I understand the grief she must have felt without her children. The Strawberry Shortcake card that arrived just around the time of my birthday declared, “I love you very much.” She signed the card with two more declarations of love and X’s and O’s until she ran out of white space. I felt gutted as I read it.

via Nicole Johnson

“You grieved all that you could at the time,” Ms. Edelman said. “We revisit loss and make different meaning of it at different times in our lives.”

Ms. Edelman said certain milestones or life events cause complicated grief to bubble up again. Andrea Warnick, a psychotherapist based in Toronto and Guelph, Ontario, who specializes in grief therapy, refers to these as grief bursts.

Nadine Melhem, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, has studied childhood grief related to sudden parental death. She said that the nature of the relationship with the person who died has been shown to be an important factor in how people grieve. Additional losses and ongoing stressors may trigger grief, she said, which certainly could have been part of the reason for my recent grief response.

As the world is grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are losing their loved ones without being able to be with them at the end of their lives or in some cases, even to see their bodies for a while after death. The pandemic is also affecting funeral and memorial rituals, which usually celebrate a person’s life.

Dr. Melhem said she expects complicated, or prolonged, grief reactions in a subset of those grieving a loss in the pandemic. She is conducting an online study assessing stress and grief responses among those who lost someone to Covid-19. Among the sample of 7,353 respondents, she has found 55 percent of those who lost someone to the coronavirus reported intense grief reactions that could predict prolonged, unrelenting grief in the future. Interestingly, similar rates were reported for both adolescents and adults.

Complicating things, Ms. Edelman said, is that the initial grief process of children is colored by the way those around them handle their grief. When my mother died, my grandmother plowed through her loss by checking boxes on her to-do list. Ship body on Delta flight. Funeral mass. Thank you cards. She believed overcoming loss meant being strong.

Dr. Melhem agreed, saying that her research found the surviving parent or caregiver’s grief to be an important factor predicting children’s grief reactions as it can affect “whether there was an environment that facilitated grieving.”

Ms. Warnick said my grandmother might have been trying to protect me from grief. What I recall in the days and months following my mother’s death were my own feelings of guilt about grieving for her. If I cried for the woman who walked out on me, I was afraid the women who stayed behind to raise me, my grandmother and foster mother, would feel hurt. I also didn’t feel as though I had the right to mourn a woman I didn’t know.

My grief lacked validity. Indeed, in the early ’80s, there was typically even less support for the grieving process than there is now, especially for children.

Dr. Melhem said that when I was a child, there had not been much attention given to childhood grief in research. When she and colleagues published a study of bereaved children in 2011, she said, not only did it address a gap in grief research, but it addressed how grief presented itself and progressed in children over time. Additionally, a study she and her colleagues published in 2018 shined a light on the impact that childhood grief can have on a child’s mental health.

We’ve come a long way when it comes to understanding and processing grief, for many kinds of losses. I finally understand the relevance of my grief in the past and in the present. I’ve allowed myself permission to grieve.

“Grief is a very healthy experience and we have every right to it,” Ms. Warnick said.

Nicole Johnson is a freelance writer who is working on a memoir about addiction, abandonment, and the pop culture that colored her GenX childhood.

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