My Grieving Brain

There are many fallacies with grief and one of the big ones is that by the one-year anniversary of your loved one’s death, you are “over it.” Not true. It doesn't affect you the same way that it did in the beginning. I was a constant wreck in the beginning. Now I’m an intermittent wreck instead of an all day one.

But I am in no way shape or form “over” my Mother’s death. The grieving world knows that you never get over it. You learn to live with it. Within it. Around it. Next to it. But never over it.

My Mother’s one-year anniversary loomed large for me. I was unsure how I would feel when the time came, but I kept trying to just go with it. Follow my grief’s lead. If that meant sitting home all day, so be it. If it meant walking my neighborhood repeatedly, that was fine too. As the dates changed, and the calendar approached May, much to my surprise, I felt okay. I felt stronger than before.

I began somewhat of a better sleep schedule thanks to Dr Mary Frances O’Connor’s suggestions in her enlightening book, The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn From Love and Loss. One takeaway for me was, we can’t force ourselves to go to sleep, but we can decide what time we wake up. I began setting my alarm for the same time every morning and no matter what time I finally fell asleep; I woke up at the same time every day. That made a big difference.


Her book was so helpful to me in understanding the process our brains experience when someone we love dies. How it has to re-organize our thinking, our searching, our living in a space without that other person. It was like being dropped in a new city.

As Dr O’Connor explained in our interview, “You can’t be a caregiver without there being another person. And it turns out, a lot of words actually are like that. So the word daughter implies two people. The word spouse implies two people, even though we use it to describe an individual. So what that means is you have to learn how to be in the world with an identity that doesn’t match what your experience is. I’m a caregiver, but I can’t live in the world as a caregiver because there’s no other person or I’m a daughter, but I don’t know how to be a good daughter when there’s no mom.”

During this new journey, I have tried to restore my own life. To move forward without my Mother, my purpose, and the schedule that went with caring for her. Reading Dr O’Connor’s book made me feel validated and helped me understand even more of the grieving process. The actual way grief affects our brain.


But as the calendar changed to May 1, I felt a black cloud fall over me. All of those feelings came flooding back. Along with my current grief, I felt the past panic and anxiety that was part of that time. I found myself unable to think straight. Withdrawing from the outside world. I often imagine grief as skating around the edge of a black hole. Some days, I am far away from falling in, comfortable on my new skates, finding my way. Other days, there is a razor’s edge between me and the darkness.


It’s not like I haven’t experienced other one-year anniversaries. I have. But this was not like the others. I tried my best to not get sucked into that awful replay of days, but it was unavoidable. Every day, I remembered what happened last year. This was the day when….. This was five days before…… This was the last day….. I even tried not to look at the calendar, but my body felt it.


When that inevitable date arrived, I sat in Mom’s room, on her chair, and waited. I lit a candle, I prayed and waited some more. As the clock inched closer to that fateful time, I felt my heart rate increase, and I braced myself. The clock advanced, and while I wasn’t sure what would happen, nothing did. I realized the worst had already occurred. She would not die again.

I also realized there was no magic on that 365th day. No streamers. No award. No proclamation that you have finished grieving. One of the other many lessons I’ve learned about grief in the last year is grief is incredibly personal. No one relationship is the same for everyone. What one person feels is not what another feels, even if they are grieving the same person.


Let’s face it. Grief is uncomfortable for those who witness it. It is the great, unfixable source of pain. I wish all grievers could grieve and receive support from those around them. There should be a moratorium on cookie cutter platitudes. No “at least…” or “you should be happy that….” No comparison’s to someone else’s grief either. Things like that make the isolation and feeling misunderstood worse.

But support can be as easy as a text saying I’m thinking of you. What was true during my dementia caregiving journey remained true in my grief. My husband and children were always the buoy I could hold on to. Others told me the people who show up for me, and those who don’t, would surprise me. Boy, was I surprised.

I believe the past 365 days have given me a different perspective. The window to enjoying life. Letting go of the shoulds of life. Embracing the opportunities and being willing to take chances. Part of that comes from my having rediscovered the many videos I have of Mom dancing. Joyful and in her element. She was in life and embracing it. I’m so happy I have them and can view her in that setting. I still struggle with the more recent photos, but I’m getting there.

Whether it’s day 365, 400 or 1,242, I will never stop missing her. That is the price of love and one I gladly pay for the honor of being her daughter. Now when I feel that heaviness of grief, I don’t think of it as her absence. I view it as my carrying her with me as I move forward.