Are we, as mothers, naturally hard-wired to feel guilty about everything we do (or don’t do) in regard to our children? Is it a reptilian-brained, archaic instinct gone completely awry? It must be - because my son Chad died and my “mother guilt” didn’t. It seems I have unwittingly transferred it from his birthstone to his gravestone.
I sometimes find myself keeping a surreal score of what, when, and how often I “do” something for my now deceased son (as if that’s even possible) - and then (usually in the middle of a long, scary night), I’ll play the twisted game of comparing myself to other mothers that have lost children. On those nights, my tally sheet screams accusingly: “bad mother, bad mother, bad mother…” I know I am not the only one that feels like this.
What suffering I cause myself as I think about these things:
There are mothers who stay in touch with their children’s friends.
There are mothers who have big parties on the anniversaries of their child’s death.
There are mothers who visit the graves every week, bringing flowers and prayers.
There are mothers who tell me their child leaves them signs everywhere they go.
For every kind of mother, and every situation, there are mothers who create beautiful mourning rituals and mark the time since their child has passed in lovely and gentle ways.
And then there are mothers who can’t get out of bed.
What suffering they endure:
There are mothers who check out by using substances or distractions.
There are mothers who ignore and neglect their surviving children and family members.
There are mothers who get stuck in their grief and sink into the muck.
(If you know one of these mothers, please pull them out. Get them help.
Don’t take no for an answer.)
Ease their suffering.
The majority of mothers who have lost children and grandchildren, I imagine, are somewhere in the middle, vacillating from one end of the pendulum to the other. Normal, right?
But it doesn’t feel so normal when I’m standing at my son’s grave, staring down at the discolored-by-calcium-buildup headstone, thinking: I’m a really bad mother.
I swear it happened overnight. I swear it went from shiny, polished black marble (I guess it’s really granite) with a fairly newly-trendy oval frame featuring a very nice photo of Chad - to this white chalky looking shadowy stuff around every letter on the stone and what kind of looks like rusty crud around the edges of the photo. Overnight.
I asked the ladies at the front desk of the funeral home what to do about it...how to clean it. “It needs to be something natural so it doesn’t hurt the stone. Google it.” Alrighty then. Maybe they don’t want to be liable. I get it. So I googled it. I started with vinegar, water and a toothbrush. It didn’t work. I went home. I got busy with life. A little time went by, and every time I thought of the cemetery, the mental reminder followed: figure this out.
So I asked another gal at the funeral home. She told me about a place that had a product that would work. I googled it. The place was 20 miles away with inconvenient hours. (Maybe if I was a better mother I would make the drive.) But my parents were going to be coming here from out of town for a visit soon. I wanted the stone to look nice. I bought some stuff on Amazon. They said it would work. I tried it. I brought the stuff to the cemetery. I brought water. I brought rags, I brought hope. But no. Nothing. It didn’t work.
This was really starting to bother me. What kind of mother was I? Can I not even keep the gravestone decent? I noticed I was avoiding the cemetery a little bit. I couldn’t face the confounded stone and how to fix it. I wasn’t accustomed to not being able to solve problems. I felt…helpless. I felt…defeated. I felt…so very alone.
My parents arrived despite it all. They asked a kind-hearted gal at the funeral home. She showed them how to scrape the calcium off the stone with her fingernail. With her fingernail. She told them a blade would work. A blade? Yes. And then some polish afterwards.
I’m supposed to scrape the gravestone inch by inch with a razor blade? I’m telling you: it doesn’t look like that would work. The white clouds around the letters sure don't seem to be "scrape-able".
And when, pray tell, am I going to go do that? I actually have a job outside the cemetery walls, and responsibilities. My life didn’t stop when Chad’s did. Nope. Mine got harder. Am I inept? Wouldn’t a good mother find the time? All the other graves are so pretty, so well-cared for… do these other people do this alone? What is wrong with me?
What suffering this causes me.
So whenever that time comes, as I kneel among the beautiful, well-cared-for graves in the peaceful cemetery where the ever-so-capable survivors honor their beloved dead, I’ll come to scrape. And to weep. And to finish some unfinished soul business.
Penance? Perhaps that will take away the mother guilt.
No, I know it doesn't work that way, much as I would like to be dramatic about it. I think it's simply just another milestone on the incredibly hard journey to transformation. The one that causes me to grow into and accept a new and sound belief:
I was, and am, a good mother.
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