Reader Suriani Bakri submitted this heartfelt reflection in response to the Ripples of Grief e-course that I offered in 2018.
It was November 11, 1986, and I was 15 years old. I had just come home from school. My grandma met me at the door. She said, in an urgent voice, “Go see your mom, she has been asking for you.” My heart dropped. My mom had been sick for the past two years, and as her cancer had spread, she had been treated at home with the care of a nurse. Bedridden, she had been confined to her room, with oxygen tanks hooked up to her to help her breathing. Somehow, that day, I knew ‘it’ was about to happen. So I rushed over to her bedroom. She was already unconscious. Her emaciated face was hard for me to look at. But remnants of her beauty was still there although ravaged by her sickness. The nurse was there, sitting beside her. It was just after lunchtime. That afternoon, the nurse called for all my siblings, my uncle, my aunt, and my dad to gather around my mom.
Throughout that whole afternoon, we stayed with her even though she wasn’t conscious. I held her hand, waiting for her to open her eyes and speak to me. What did she want to say to me? I wondered. Yet I will never get that answer. I had a feeling that afternoon, that I will never get to hear her speak to me again. The nurse kept telling all of us to gather around my mom closely and to stay together. She knew. And we all knew. There was a subdued silence amongst us. It was like waiting for the axe to drop. No one comforted me or my siblings. No one hugged us, or talked to us. It was completely devoid of emotional expression. We had her favorite show on TV, a mini series titled ‘Oshin,’ but no one was watching.
At close to 7 pm, as I was sitting close to her left side of the bed and holding her hand, I noticed that her fingers were turning blue. I felt choky, and my body was full of dread. The oxygen tank was breathing for her. A little after 7 pm, she breathed faintly and very perceptibly, for a few minutes. I could tell that her last breath was coming. I still held her hands, while my eyes were glued to her nails, which had also turned blue. Finally her last breath came. And went. It was almost like a sigh of relief. I was stunned, dumbfounded, even though I knew it was coming all along. Then I heard gasps, yells, and crying around me. It was a cacophony of sounds. My grandma hollered and wept uncontrollably. My brothers cried. I was just numb. I got up, and walked out of the bedroom towards my own room, opened up my closet for some reason, and started crying. Then I went back out to the living room and my mind took over, trying to stay in charge. Just minutes after my mom passed away, I started making calls to the neighbors.
Because of my loss, I felt as if a huge defining moment had happened to me. I felt as if I had entered a different plane of existence apart from my peers, as if I was in a world where I was alone and everyone I knew was outside of it. I knew I could never relate to my peers any longer. How could I? Their main concerns were boys, upcoming exams, clothes, and the usual teen angst, whereas I had just lost not only my mother, but a pivotal part of myself. It was as if I grew up 20 years internally, whereas my peers didn’t. It widened the void that I already had growing up, the void from growing up in a family devoid of emotionally nurturing bonds. The existing void was exacerbated by the emptiness I now felt, from the loss of my primary caregiver, my female role model, my mother. After I (barely) graduated from high school, I filled the emptiness by being very social, partying, hanging out with the ‘cool’ kids, neglecting my college prep studies, and jumping from boyfriend to boyfriend. I relied on the adrenaline rush of being in an energetic social hub of activities, in order for me to avoid feeling my loneliness and grief.
When I look back on this period of my life, as the adult I am now, I am filled with compassion for that young, confused and lonely teenager, who had to cover up her grief and sadness. Who tried hard to do the ‘right’ things so that she felt accepted and no different than her peers, despite the fact that she did feel very different from them inside. The young girl who felt that her inner world was careening out of control, and the only way she could find safety is through external pursuits of distractions. The first two years after my mom’s death, those ‘pursuits of avoidance’ consisted of partying and non-stop social activities and events. Then, as I came to the US and focused on college, my ‘pursuits of avoidance’ became achievement-oriented career goals.
I felt that if I could control my future, I would not have any need to look into my past and feel the pain from it. That, I thought, I can leave all behind me. If I were to tell my younger self anything, it would be this: Don’t be afraid to feel. Because in order to heal, I needed to reach my heart.
After my mom died, my grandma came to live with us full time. She helped with taking care of my youngest brother, who was 6 years old at that time. Even though I wasn’t close to her, having her around did help quite a bit because she tended to my youngest brother quite a lot. However, she and I had quite a few conflicts, as she had outdated ideas about how a young lady should behave; yet, I was turning quite rebellious. In essence, her help to me was only in watching my brother. She and I did not connect on an emotional level.
Other than my grandma, I didn’t really have anyone else who truly supported me through that time. My friends did not understand what I was going through, and as I wasn’t the kind of person who shared many personal feelings, I did not let out much of my sorrow, keeping it all within me. In fact, I lived in my head most of the time. I rationalized my grief until I concluded that I was ‘over’ it, only months after my mom died. Since I was not able to access that grieving part of me, no one, not even me, knew that there was still some grieving yet for me to go through.
What Stays with You
My mom loved to bake, especially pastries. Her favorite was pecan pies. Not an entirely Malaysian dish; regardless, she made absolutely delicious pecan pies all through my childhood. The smell of the pies would waft up from the oven long before it was ready and I would wait in the kitchen expectantly. It brought up the feeling of being loved, something that was not quite strong in my childhood home.
My mom was a wonderful woman with a great sense of humor that she often shared with relatives and friends. However, it was often not the side of her I was able to enjoy in my interactions with her. Due to her difficult and traumatic childhood, I believe she had challenges in being a loving mother herself. This fact had ramifications for me as I went through my life after her death, not only having shoved grief under the covers, but by not reconciling the lack of a loving relationship I had with her.
Regardless, last year I finally faced all that, in intense inner work which led to complete forgiveness for my mom. What do I remember of her the most? Intuitively, I sensed an inner pain within her, and an emotional struggle right below the surface of her smiles and joyous laughter. She was always trying hard in the things she did, and in this aspect of her I can see much of myself. This, in itself, stirs the emotions in me right now as I write this. It was her persistence to keep putting up a good front that was admirable, although misguided. She, like me, was afraid of truly expressing her authentic emotions, and in the absence of doing so, she was unable to teach her children how to access their true selves, to feel their own worthiness. For she didn’t have it herself. That was a big part of my forgiveness towards her.
Another memory I have of her is her lovely singing voice. She sang beautifully, sometimes out of the blue. At one point, during her illness, she had a ‘good’ day when she wasn’t in too much pain. On one of these rare ‘good’ days, she dressed up and walked around the house, singing melodiously. It was beautiful to hear, as it uplifted my spirits to the point of an ‘almost hopefulness’ feeling that she would get well permanently. To me, these rare instances of listening to her singing triggered the feeling of being loved, in as close a feeling of being loved there ever was, in my childhood home.
Throughout the years, I have gone through periods where I made efforts to really try to connect to the memories of my mom. But there were also some years where I just did not want to remember her. The years that I wanted to push her out of my memories were the years I was trying to convince myself that I was finally ‘over’ her, that I was a grown woman now and didn’t need to be ‘ carrying’ a dead mother on my back.
However, those years of denial weren’t many, and I finally did admit (after much soul searching) that I had repressed memories of her because I didn’t want to face my grief. After I turned 40, the age she died, I sort of had a realization that, whether or not I deny my memories of, or my connectedness with her, and despite my ‘non-close’ relationship I had with her, my mother is still an intrinsic part of me, the part that lies beyond DNA and blood ties. And that means I need to cherish my bond with her in order to cherish myself.
So I started to talk more about my mom to my kids, in bits and pieces. Every time I see a pecan pie, it reminds me of her and I will usually buy one, just for the sake of savoring it while thinking of her. I keep old pictures of her in a box in my room, and sometime I would peruse these pictures. Some of these pictures were decades old, and taken of her as a teenager and also as a young woman. I would wonder about her life then, having some regrets that I never had the chance to talk with her about her childhood and youth, the things I don’t know and now will never know.
There is an old purse that belonged to her that I still keep in that box. It holds some foreign currency from one of her many overseas travels with my dad. There is also an old address book that contains her handwriting. I used to examine and ‘go through’ this wallet, touching the currency and also looking at her hand-writing, almost like trying to ‘feel’ her touch – for these are the things that her fingers, and her essence, had left their mark on.
There is also an old night gown of hers that I still keep deep within my dresser drawer. It reminds me of all the times when I was a child, she wore the nightgown while cooking or washing dishes. She wore that nightgown very frequently, as it was a very comfortable outfit to lounge around while staying home in the evenings. The gown represented another piece of ’motherliness’ that I longed for throughout my life. For those times when she wore that gown were the times I felt the closest I had ever felt of being mothered.
Suriani Bakri is originally from Malaysia and came to the United States at age 19. She has a graduate degree in Accounting and is a Certified Public Accountant. Currently working at a manufacturing company, Suriani is also the owner of Sharpline Accounting Services, LLC. In her free time she loves hiking, running, spending time with family and friends, and writing fiction and inspirational stories for women. She is currently co-authoring a book with 5 other women around the world, scheduled to be launched by December 2018. Geared towards empowering women, the book is a compilation of personal stories of how the authors tapped into their own abundance as women and single mothers. Suriani lives with her two boys in Connecticut. She can be reached at email@example.com.