My mothers last words have been haunting me since the day I heard them. I came up from Nantucket to Vermont on April 7th, 2014, and barely recognized her. She was a mere shell of herself, yet seemingly so clear as called me into her room and asked, “Did you write something?” And as I shook my head, confused, she paused and said, “Don’t worry, you will.”
She passed away the next morning… four years ago today.
Below is both the hardest piece I’ve ever written and the most heartfelt truth I have ever found. So for all those who have ever lost someone, and especially to those who have lost your mother, I dedicate this to you.
After the profound death of a loved one… you are unknowingly accepted and unwillingly enrolled into a School of Hard Knocks. Like all of those before you… you arrive to this campus anxious, disoriented, angry and feeling a new sense of the word sad. And I’m sorry… but alas, you can’t harp on what happened to get you here… school is about to start and time stands still for no one.
So welcome students…. to The University of Broken Hearts.
THE YEAR OF FIRSTS
You arrive to the University of Broken Hearts, well, broken. And this place is just as awkward as it is uncomfortable. You are constantly crying at the most inopportune moments and there’s a serious disdain for people who just keep going along their days, like all is well and nothing has happened. (Don’t they realize that the most important person in your life just died!?!)
A heavy sadness has found its way inside of you and even if you tried, you cannot explain this weight to anyone. This is one thing that can only be deeply felt. Your freshman year is dedicated to going through the motions. Many freshmen choose vices over classes as numbing our pain becomes the shortcut to pass the time. Other students choose to not talk at all… hoping to blend in, affirming “I’m fine” so many times every day that even they end up believing it. Most undergrads at the University of Broken Hearts can barely show up for Grief 101. The idea of having to go through a full YEAR of firsts without their person just sounds impossible.
But the year of firsts begins before you can even realize it’s happening. First Mother’s Day without sending her a card. First birthday without her voice singing on my voicemail. First Halloween without her telling how much she hated that holiday. First Thanksgiving without being able to tell her how thankful I am for her health. Her first birthday gone quickly followed by our first Christmas without her. The first grandchild born that she doesn’t get to greet. And finally, we arrive at the first anniversary of her passing. It is only then that we take comfort in the fact that enough time has passed and we realize we are still here.
We are still alive.
And it’s a Christmas miracle.
We toast with tears as we try so hard to push forward. That excruciating year of firsts is now behind us. Life went on… and somehow, so did we.
And the best part? Is that you never have to relive that year of firsts again.
THE MERRY GO ROUND
Our sophomore year arrives and we are familiar with the University of Broken Hearts campus. There’s a large Merry-Go-Round in the center of school and we continue to just walk by and work around it. We busy ourselves to drown out the overwhelming feeling of loss we continue to find.
Our sophomore slump creeps up on us when we realize that heavy weight inside of us is the shadow of our lost one. We have survivors remorse and are so preoccupied with death that we are forgetting to live. Grief 202 focuses on how to rid yourself of that heavy weight and teaches us how grief is like a wave… you can stay put and continue to let the waves almost drown you… or you can release that weight, head to higher ground and get on the Merry-Go-Round with everyone else.
We start seeing the need to build up community around us again. We realize that living is not as fun to do all on our own. We begin to change the people we spend time with. We recognize the incoming freshman class and give them a shout that things may suck for a little while… but they’ll get passed it. (And then we feel grateful knowing that our year of firsts are long behind us.)
One spring day at the end of your second year, an upper classman sees you on the sidelines, reaches out her hand and pulls you up. All of the sudden, your view has changed and everything seems a little brighter. Before you can digest the kind act, you’re spinning round… You’re back on the Merry-Go-Round! And damn, does it feel good to be amongst the living again.
LIFE AFTER DEATH EYES
By your third year, your classes have intensified and they teach you a deeper understanding of loss and you begin to see life with more clarity. During your junior year, you start to simply be grateful for the time you had with your loved one and you being to shift your perspective on what it means to experience profound loss. Even though you still deeply miss that person everyday, in Grief 303 you are recognizing that their death was not your end. That even though they may be gone, somehow, in a crazy spiritual way, they are very much still here and have just transformed.
The University of Broken Hearts has formed some of your biggest opinions on the world… and it’s helped you become more open. So much so, that you take some of your junior year abroad. You go and see and feel and experience the world again. You can’t believe it, but while away you realize the University of Broken Hearts has now become your comfort zone. Through your Junior thesis on Time, you now recognize that life is precious and every day is a gift, not a given. You now know that growing older is a privilege denied to many and you are here and that is what counts. One morning, you wake up and everything looks different. You quite literally have new vision. Somehow you begin to see a yellow butterfly everywhere.
You’ve been granted life after death eyes and through this superpower, you can see that the one you lost is actually found…. for they live everywhere. They are listening to you. They are watching over you. They are protecting you. That’s why you get these new eyes. You learned how to change your perspective. This is your gift for completing your junior year. For sticking through it. For keeping on the path and for holding on to hope. For continuing to show up in this world. And for showing up for yourself.
And here we arrive to our senior year…. four years post a profound loss and gosh, look at ya. Still alive. Still kicking. Still keepin’ on, keepin’ on. You don’t fully realize it, but you are nearing the end of school as you can’t stay at this University forever— you’re actually beginning to outgrow it. You’ve passed all the Grief courses and could go through your Year Of Firsts with your new eyes closed. It’s time for your final exam. They ask you but one question.
How have you healed?
Hmph. That’s a doozy. Let me think. Well, there’s a lot of empathy and compassion for myself as I reflect on my Year Of Firsts. (When I used to drown my sorrows in bottomless wine glasses instead of hydrating my mind and fueling my soul.) I don’t spend nearly as much time on the Broken Hearts campus, but every once in awhile, I find it my civic duty to mentor a freshman or to give a hand to someone who needs to get back on the Merry Go Round. I’ve found joy by being of service to others — I’ve found my purpose in that. Death is still a total mystery to me… but now I’m not seeking to crack that riddle. I’m learning to love the unknown. I look back thinking what a true gift my time at Broken Hearts was — how lucky I was to love a mother so deeply that it took me four years to figure out how to wholeheartedly move on after her death.
Ah-ha! There it is.
My whole heart. I’m feeling with it again. It’s no longer broken. I took the time for life to process. That yellow butterfly that’s been chasing me this entire way was her! Letting me know, when I’m healed… I can start my new journey and fly away too.
THE BIG REVEAL
It’s graduation day at the University of Broken Hearts… and today I get to be with everyone again. I now see the world with my Life After Death Eyes and when I look up at the bright sky, I see my audience is all my loved ones who have passed on. They are beaming, so proud of me for persevering. As I look up at everyone, my mom hands down my diploma. And it reads… “I hereby declare Holly Finigan a graduate of the University of Awoken Hearts.”
And that’s when I realize… there’s no such thing as the University of Broken Hearts! In fact, after a profound loss, each and every one of us are lovingly accepted into a College of Healing. Turns out, the University of Broken Hearts was just a nickname given by some sad freshman a long time ago… a story no one truly remembers but a name that the college chooses not to shake for the way it puts the new kids at ease.
So today and from here on out… I decide it’s time to fly on… wholeheartedly.
Here’s lookin’ at you, Ruth.
And thank you… for everything.
P.S. I hear you.
You’re saying you’re scared.
You’re saying this pain is all too much.
You’re telling me that you don’t think that you’ll be able to make it through this school.
And to that, my mother and I say…