‘People kept saying, ‘You’re so strong.’ On the inside I was yelling, ‘Not strong enough to bring my mom back!’: Woman shares grief of losing mom as teen

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“‘Grief isn’t linear.’ A line I could probably be quoted saying a ton. If you’re in my circle and have lost someone close to you, you have 100% heard me say this. Right along with ‘feel all of your feelings.’ If you’re wondering if I’m a therapist, the answer is no, though I’ve considered that as a career in some alternate universe of my life. The truth is, I know these things because I’ve lived them.

In September 2005, I was 15 years old. 15 years and 11 months, to be exact. My 16th birthday was the next month and I was pumped to get my license and gain the freedom of the open road. I thought my life was about to change forever. And it was. But not in the way I expected.

On September 11, 2005, in the middle of the night, I lost my mom to a massive heart attack. That was 15 and a half years ago. What’s happened in the years since is why I understand grief isn’t linear. It’s why I encourage everyone who has experienced any sort of trauma to feel all their feels. To work through them. To understand them.

Woman hugging mom
Courtesy of Rashida

Now when I tell you my mom was my best friend, I’m not saying that because she’s gone and it makes for a good story. I was the kid who lied to her friends saying, ‘My mom said I can’t spend the night,’ because I wanted to hang out and watch a movie with her. I told her everything. I admired her deeply (except when I was being an angsty teen, that is). To lose her meant I was losing a part of my very identity.

Looking back, I can now see in the initial years following the death of my mom, I was simply in survival mode. I had never experienced such pain. I had a wonderful childhood devoid of any real drama or trauma. My parents divorced when I was 3 and got along for the most part — or at least they put on a good enough show that didn’t leave me with any real baggage. Both parents remarried and life continued. I lived primarily with my mom, stepdad, and older brother, and saw my dad and stepmom every other weekend.

Teenager taking selfie with peace sign
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Shortly following the death of my mom, my stepdad simply left. He’d gotten a new girlfriend who wasn’t very fond of my brother and me, so he just vanished. This meant my brother and I were on our own to make it work. This is when the survival mode kicked in. For the next 3 years, through what I can only imagine was unconditional love, my then-19-year-old brother did whatever he could to help me finish high school and get into college. We worked together to make it all seem fine to anyone on the outside. I kept myself extremely busy. I did all the extracurricular activities. I worked part-time at the mall. I hung out with my friends and drank badly mixed alcohol concoctions in the woods. Years later and through a lot of therapy, I have now learned ‘busy’ is my default. It’s where I naturally go to keep myself from feeling. From losing control. I busied myself right into college, where I would keep up this busy charade for another four years.

Teen graduating high school
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By 2011, I had lost not only my mom but a childhood best friend to suicide and an uncle to a car accident. That year, after successfully out to-do-listing my grief for 7 years and even picking up some new unresolved grief on the way, I had simply run out of to-dos. This is when all the pain and grief I had been out-running came crashing down. And I was angry. I was so angry at all of it. The loss of my mom. The becoming an adult at 15. The barely affording college on my own. The pity. The raw jealousy of others who still had their mom. I was just so angry. None of it was fair. People kept saying how strong I was, and while I thanked them on the outside, on the inside I was yelling: ‘Not strong enough to bring my mom back!’ Being strong was truly my only choice. All this anger came crashing down on me as a deep and dark depression.

Teen prom photos smiling
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Grief isn’t linear. Here, seven years after losing my mom, I was feeling like I’d just lost her. I was feeling like, ‘What’s the point of living?’ I was feeling like my life would always be a void because I was missing the person who meant the most to me.

I knew this feeling of despair wasn’t my normal, and by some sense of self-awareness I can only guess was my mom’s divine intervention, I decided to get help. The decision to get help was the hardest part. It felt like I was admitting I wasn’t strong enough to make it on my own. My mom had been long gone, so why couldn’t I just be over it now? I made an appointment with my university’s student wellness office, where I spent an hour bawling my eyes out to a woman I’d never even met. She told me I had depression and prescribed Zoloft. Now back in 2011, depression felt like something you should be ashamed of. Something you didn’t tell anyone. Something you tried to work through in silence. I told my closest friends, but for the most part, I kept it to myself, afraid people would think I was unstable.

Professional photo of woman in red dress
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The meds worked initially, but what I’ve learned since is meds don’t do the work for you. Zoloft is not a magical happy pill when it comes to unresolved trauma. It can take the edge off the pain to allow you to begin to unpack it, but in truth, no amount of Zoloft can help you unlock the anger that often encases grief. That work must be done within you. It’s hard, painful work but it must be done to fully overcome your grief.

I stopped taking Zoloft about a year or so later. I felt it had done a good enough job and to be honest, I was ashamed to still be on meds. I told my doctor I felt great and requested to be taken off them. This was not a good idea. I was not ‘great.’ In fact, months later I found myself exactly where I was before, quietly battling my depression and still angry at losing my mom. I didn’t even know who I was most mad at. Myself for not moving on by now, family members for not adequately filling my mom’s shoes, or her for dying.

Woman smiling in front of house
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I knew I couldn’t keep living like this. To be so angry all the time is exhausting. Not wanting to go back on Zoloft, but knowing I needed to move forward, therapy seemed like the most productive option. It seemed less scary than taking a pill every day, so I jumped into research. Should I see a psychiatrist or a therapist, and what was the difference between them? After a considerable amount of research, I found a sliding scale therapist. This was key, as I made very little money and had just begun the dreaded student loan repayment process (insert mental health reform rant here).

We worked out what I could comfortably afford, and I saw her once a week. For nearly a year, I sat on my therapist’s couch and talked through the trauma of losing my mom and the domino effect it had on the trajectory of my life. And then one day, she told me she was moving. She gave me the option to continue with another therapist, but frankly, the idea of starting over with someone new seemed daunting. I was feeling great, so I opted to stop. This was a bad idea. While I had indeed worked through my anger, I hadn’t learned any coping skills. Yes, I felt good at that moment, but I wasn’t prepared the next time life would throw me another curveball. Which it did.

Woman and husband hugging
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By 2016, I was newly married and dealing with a fresh crop of family drama. My maternal grandmother was having health problems that required all-hands-on-deck. Except we were missing some hands. We were missing the hands of my mom and it became my job to fill them. This was a whole new period and type of grief for me. Again, I was left feeling angry at my mom for dying. If she’d just taken better care of herself, she’d be here to help us deal with this. I took all this stress out on my husband and so at a point where he just couldn’t take it anymore, I decided I needed to talk to someone not a part of the situation.

For the sake of my marriage, I sought out therapy once again. Week after week, I would pour my heart out to my new therapist. My stories, like my grief, were not linear. I didn’t start from the top. I dove into whatever was in my heart that day and as the months went by, I started to see connections between the loss of my mom and my responses to everyday happenings.

Wedding photos of happy couple
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I was starting to feel truly wonderful. I was less angry and more open to what my life could be going forward. However, nine months after starting therapy again, I began having panic attacks. What I worked through in therapy is I was terrified of another loss. Things were finally going well for me, but I couldn’t stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. No matter what anyone told me, I didn’t believe this new life with my husband was mine to keep. I began attempting to over-plan for anything life could possibly throw at me. Even my backup plans had backup plans. My poor husband accepted this was simply what his wife needed to do to feel safe and so he planned right along with me.

A dozen or so panic attacks later, I talked to my doctor who prescribed Zoloft once again. Her theory was since I’d taken it before, my body would get used to it quickly. She also casually mentioned Zoloft would be safe to continue taking during pregnancy. Pregnancy? No thanks. At this point, I was certain I didn’t want kids. I had enough trauma to last a lifetime and that would surely make me an unfit mom, right? And there was no way I was going to be as great a mom as my own, so why bother?

Couple announcing first pregnancy
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5 years and two babies later, I’m carefully working through a new space of grief. The space where I became a mom without my own mom to guide the way. Thanks to the work I’ve put in, I’m no longer angry at the loss of my mom, but rather, I’ve come to accept it as one of many events that changed the course of my life to bring me to the loves of my life. I would do all of the pain and heartache again if it led me to my husband and my two kids. In a way, becoming a mom has brought me closer to my mom. I now understand her life through the lens of motherhood. I understand the intense love she had in her heart.

Family photos with two children and a dog
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I’m still on Zoloft. I’m also still seeing my therapist. I’m not sure I’ll ever stop. I hold my mental health close to my chest and I protect it at all costs because there are two little humans depending on me to be my best me. I still miss my mom like crazy, but the pain isn’t as raw. I tell my story not only to normalize the grieving process but to also normalize getting help. Getting help in whatever capacity that means for you. For me, that means attacking my mental health on three fronts: therapy, meds, and physical activity. But it also means when the moments arise where I miss my mom so much I can’t catch my breath, I honor them. I take the time to feel all my feels. To understand what they are rooted in. To honor my mom and the life she lived. To honor myself and the progress I’ve made. Grief isn’t linear. It ebbs and it flows. And that’s okay.”

Mom holding two kids
Courtesy of Rashida

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Rashida. You can follow their journey on Instagram and their website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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