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The cruel irony of losing your mother is that right after her death is when you will need her the most. My mother died a decade ago, when she was 57 and I was 21. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 9, but, for the most part, she made a full recovery.

But after 11 years in remission, she started feeling sick and was soon diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. For a year and a half, she endured painful surgery and chemotherapy. It was during one of those grueling treatment sessions that she indirectly told me it would take five years to “get over” her death. It’s still difficult to remember my mother as she was then – in excruciating pain but fighting through like a champion. But remembering the wisdom she shared with me about the passage of time, gleaned from losing her own mother, has become a touchstone for me throughout this past decade.

My mother was the consummate sage – a certified life coach, in fact. She offered boundless wisdom to anyone who needed it, always prefacing her pearls with, “May I make a suggestion?” In the years since my mother died, many grieving women have approached me when they’re mired in pain and confusion. Sometimes they want advice or guidance. Other times, they just want to talk to someone who has lived through a similar experience.

(Courtesy of Sarah Dunton)
(Courtesy of Sarah Dunton)

Here’s what I tell them: Losing your mother is like training for a grief marathon you never signed up for. You’re best served if you start out slow and steady. With time, you will strengthen and condition your heart and mind to feel unpleasant and unwelcome emotions. Once you’re “through it,” you’ll be able to fit the the most unwieldy, foreign feelings into your brain.

Life without your mother will never be what it was, but I promise it gets easier.

Until then, here are a few suggestions:

Take care of yourself

Although it certainly feels like it, the world doesn’t stop spinning when your mother dies. The bills still arrive, the laundry piles up. Keep an open dialogue with the people around you at home, work and school. Ask for help when you need it, and don’t be afraid to scale back when you’re feeling overwhelmed. If you have trouble drawing boundaries, find someone who can help advocate for you. And if you are feeling entirely unmoored, there’s no shame in seeking support from a mental health professional.

Grief is hard work. Don’t forsake your physical and spiritual well-being in the process. Above all, follow your instincts: If that means spending the day crying under your covers and eating cookies, that’s okay. But tomorrow, take a shower, put on some fresh clothes and meet a friend for a walk.

It’s okay to fight with a ghost

The five stages of grief don’t necessarily happen in textbook order. I have admittedly spent a good deal of the past 10 years arguing with my mother when I’ve felt angry, sad, confused or heartbroken. The fights are one-sided, but these imaginary conversations – which have taken place in journals, in my head and aloud in the shower – have been vital to working through the unresolved issues I faced after my mother’s death about myself and our relationship. Guilt has been a recurring theme for me. Could I have done more when my mother was alive to be a better daughter? Would she be proud of me or disappointed in my choices? As I’ve wrestled with these complex emotions, I’ve realized the value in allowing myself to process whatever feelings bubble up, however normal or absurd they may seem.

Let it all out (and carry a pack of tissues, always)

Sadness will wash over you at unexpected and inconvenient times. I very embarrassingly started bawling at a Neiman Marcus. A helpful sales lady offered a spritz of Fracas by Robert Piguet, my mother’s favorite scent, and I welled up instantly thinking of how the smell emanated from her warm, soft body whenever she embraced me.

Crying is cathartic. I still carry a pack of tissues for these moments. Don’t worry, your feelings of sadness will become less acute over time. The sights, sounds and smells that initially made you bereft of happiness will eventually bring you joy.

Distract yourself

Pick an activity that others will rely on you to show up for. Make sure it also challenges your mind and body, taking you out of your comfort zone. Whether it’s being of service to others through volunteer work, joining a sports league or just going to a weekly movie with a friend, do something that will take you outside yourself.

Your relationships will change

Some people don’t know what to say or are scared of saying the wrong thing. Certain friends or family members might withdraw. Don’t count them out. Friendships may wane. Some friends may disappear. Know that your new support system will form in time.

Breakups will be harder

With or without a mom, breakups suck. But as a woman who has weathered through grief, you will have a surplus of lingering feelings of finality, sadness and loss. A breakup will be one of those life-altering events that will make you wish your mother was still alive. Rely heavily on your support network and be proactive in grieving your relationship. I turned to running and journaling during my last breakup. It certainly helped me imagine the terrible names my mother would have conjured up for the idiot who broke my heart.

Your sense of self will change

Who you were when your mother was alive is different than who you will be after she’s gone. You will start to see the world through a new lens, and you will undoubtedly become more vulnerable and empathetic. By the same token, you will learn how to draw hard lines and say no as you realize your own mortality and become less willing to put up with people who waste your time.

Ultimately, you will make your mother proud by realizing your strength and resilience.

No one can replace your mother, but let them try

Absolutely no one can fill the void left by your mother’s absence. But let the people who want to try. My mother’s younger sister – my fairy godmother – has been my most steadfast supporter. Her guidance, with assists from my mother’s friends, who knew my mother’s values, have lifted me up and given me the confidence – and at times the come-to-Jesus-type advice I’ve needed – to survive and thrive.

How you remember and honor your mother’s legacy is your choice

There’s no right way to honor your mother. You can go all out on her birthday or on the day she died. You can choose not to acknowledge it all. For me, there are two ways I honor my mother the most. First, I talk about her often. I want the people in my life who never knew her – my boyfriend, the friends I’ve made since she died – to learn about her. I am who I am because of how she raised me. Second, I wear her jewelry. It’s a tangible way to remember her style and good taste, but it’s also a personal reminder: For 21 years, she was with me, and her presence was a beautiful gift.

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