Saying Goodbye to Mom when I was Only 13
I was the oldest of 8 kids. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy.
Shira was 13 when her mother died from malignant melanoma. The following account is based on extensive conversations we had when she was 18.
When we first heard that Ima was sick, no one believed that she could actually die. I was 13, the oldest of eight kids. Our parents decided to tell us right away. Mom was one of the most positive people you could ever hope to meet. She didn't act like someone who was ill. That's how she was the 18 months while the malignancy was growing, taking over her body. We could see the lumps on her neck and face.
They wanted us to know straight from them what was happening. If they had tried to keep everything quiet and hushed up, I'm sure we would have gone crazy with worry, trying to figure out what was wrong. We could already feel the tension in the house before the biopsy. They explained to each of us on our own level what this meant for us as a family: how much we would need to pray and help each other; how Ima's energy level might be lower, she might need to rest more and she might need to be in the hospital.
They spoke so normally, as though we were discussing planting the garden out back. It was hard to absorb the information and be in shock. It was even hard to cry because life continued more or less normally for several months. My mother had this unbelievably upbeat personality, a sunny smile, spontaneously singing while she did the dishes. She'd hug us and ask how our day was, how we were doing.
I don't remember ever overhearing her complaining to any of her friends or our neighbors, not even to my father.
She didn't describe how difficult her day was, so it didn't seem hard. I don't remember ever overhearing her complaining to any of her friends or our neighbors, not even to my father.
Even after surgery, we were in her room and there she was, with this unsightly bandage on her head, greeting us with a smile and asking, “How are you? How’s school? What’s going on?”
She accepted that everything was from God, supporting us emotionally and spiritually in an amazing way. Physically, it was getting hard for her to keep up with the house by herself. But she was so positive; she never yelled and said, “Hey, I'm dying!” She never made it seem like something scary was going on. She was so full of faith.
She didn't accept the doctors' verdict as final. She said there was always hope, so we didn't give up. She was so strong, it made us feel strong. She believed that the medical team, the drugs, the surgeries, the experimental avenues she explored, it was all just making a reasonable effort to utilize messengers of God Who was ultimately in charge of everything.
She would tell us how much she knew God loved her. Right before they wheeled her in for an operation on her brain, I was with her and she turned to me, took my hand in hers and said, “Shira, it is incredible how strongly I know right now how much God loves me!” She wasn't making it up to comfort me; she was honestly expressing how close she felt to God.
She gave us so much hope that I wasn't prepared for her to actually die.
She said it so often, it made us feel good, that God would make a miracle, and she'd get better. Right up to the very end, when she was literally on her death bed, she never gave up.
She gave us so much hope that I wasn't prepared for her to actually die. The last week, it was really bad, she couldn't walk anymore, she was on oxygen, she couldn't move. Maybe we should have known that this was it... but I was so sure she was going to get up again, that it was a big shock.
Twenty-four hours before she died she talked to each of us individually to say goodbye. But I thought that was just a precaution, a 'just in case.' You don't just say goodbye to your mother when you are 13 and accept that you will never see her again. God could do anything, so why couldn't He have my mother recover?
She told us she wasn't scared of death, that she would be with God and it would be good. She would be watching over us from Heaven and praying for us. She would be with us even though we wouldn't be able to see her anymore.
She told us these things but we all knew that tomorrow she would be better, everything would be alright, she didn't need to say these things to us. We still didn't think it would happen.
Our entire community, hundreds of neighbors, everyone was praying, being careful of their speech, not to speak gossip or slander, saying Psalms, all as a merit for my Mom, full of hope for her full recovery.
I was upset with God when she died. Why me? Why my mother? Where did all our prayers go? My mother held up the house. She held our whole family together. She died and now it felt like my whole world was falling apart. Who would pick us up? My father? He himself was in unbearable mourning.
Everyone around us, all our neighbors, were wailing and sobbing. It wasn't real for me.
The funeral was unreal. In Israel, the body is just lying there in a shroud before you... so stark. There's no hiding from death.
None of us could cry. My littlest siblings didn't even really understand. But everyone around us, all our neighbors, were wailing and sobbing. It wasn't real for me.
The first year after she passed away was very hard for us. We really closed up. We couldn't talk about it. We weren't bonding together. We were each in our own separate worlds of grief and despair. We didn't open up to each other. My father didn't show us his emotions; probably he was trying to protect us. Maybe he knew that if he fell apart in front of us, from his anguish, then we'd really be in trouble, the whole fragile net of connection would totally unravel and we'd just free-fall in a downward spiral of emotional pain.
And since we oldest kids and my father were so quiet, the younger ones saw us being that way and acted the same, following our example. It wasn't healthy, that's just the way it was.
None of us wanted to go to a counselor. Even the idea that we 'needed to go' was threatening.
I did go about ten or 12 times, even when the rest of the family didn't want to come with me. Here was this strange, unfamiliar person with whom we were supposed to naturally open up. He'd ask a question; I would just answer as briefly as possible and no more. It was too forced. I didn't want to talk to him. I wanted to talk to my mother!
But looking back now I feel it could have helped our family if we'd have been willing to stick with it and keep going. We needed someone to help us unload our inner pain and turmoil.
Our community was so organized in how they helped our family, covering all the technical aspects of support: cooking food, laundry, dishes, Shabbos invitations. A bikur cholim organization sent someone several times a week to help us.
It was still overwhelming. I had to put my smaller siblings to sleep each night, get them up in the morning, dressed and out for school. We tried to fill in the space my mother embodied, but it was so hard to do her role when you miss your mom so much.
No one in pain wants to be on center stage.
People I hardly knew would ask, “How are you Shira?” and they expected me to open up to them and reveal what was going on inside my heart. It made me uncomfortable, like they were just being curious. They wanted to feel involved, like they were being helpful, so they'd just come right up to me and ask personal questions, expecting me to answer them. Some people seemed outright nosy. That was upsetting.
No one in pain wants to be on center stage. When people come and ask over and over again, “How's everything, what's going on?” it can feel invasive. People need to be sensitive.
Being bombarded with questions can add more confusion to an already complexly confusing time. If someone isn't sure what is appropriate to say, better not to say anything than saying things that could actually inflict unintended hurt.
Someone who is genuinely sincere and interested in what’s happening with you, says, “If you ever want to talk, you can come to me.” They extend an invitation, an offer without any pressure, so you know that they are there for you, that they care. That's good. That’s important.
Sometimes you only want to talk to people who understand your loss because they've personally experienced the same thing. You know intellectually that they understand what it's like to be in your shoes. You don't resent their presence.
My mother died from a vicious malignancy. I was very angry and upset. I resented God. But eventually I realized that I could cry to Him, that He was the only One that was really there for me, listening all the time. I wasn't crying tears into a void alone, by myself.
Part of the process of going on was knowing that God was there to help me. Throughout the first year I became more open to noticing His Hand in my life, recognizing His Presence. I started seeing little things that showed me He was with me.
Even though I didn't like writing, I started keeping a journal, like the therapist suggested. Seeing my feelings recorded on paper helped me connect more directly with what was going on inside. It gave me distance and perspective from my raw feelings and offered me comfort when I reread my words, knowing that, “Hey, that's exactly how I felt.”
Despite the intense pain, knowing that God was helping kept me from sinking into an endless depression.
Despite the intense pain, knowing that God was helping kept me from sinking into an endless depression. I had low moments, but not lows that lasted for weeks.
About a year after Mom died, I was having a down day. I was sitting in the school library feeling like nothing really mattered anymore. I randomly pulled a book off a shelf without paying attention to what it was and then I looked down at the title. It's All a Gift, by Miriam Adahan. I felt as though God placed that book right into my hand. I wouldn't have chosen it myself.
I opened it up and just flipped through the pages to whatever words spoke directly to me. God was right there, helping me gain perspective. I didn't read the whole book. It was enough to just open it up in this random way and whatever page appeared was the right one to read at that very moment. It was God’s way of providing me with support, speaking directly to me whenever I needed encouragement.
Another example of how God hovers close by happened about two years later. My father was now remarried and it was distressing me. He and I were fighting a lot, which hurt both of us. It was hard for me to admit that my younger siblings were benefiting from having a new mother-figure to take care of them. She wasn't my mother. I didn't want to be nice to her and just accept that she'd moved in to take over this role.
One day we were in the middle of another ugly argument. Dad was yelling at me and he said, “You're a disgrace to your mother!”
This was his way of saying that Mom taught me to act differently, she would be disappointed to see me carrying on like this.
I felt like, how could he say that? Didn't he know how hard it was for me to accept his new wife? I was so hurt that I ran out of the kitchen, straight to my room.
Suddenly, I knew – she was watching out for me. She wasn't ashamed of me, she loved me still!
On my desk was a radio. It was on. Right at that exact moment, that intensely difficult second when I entered the room, a song came on. Not the kind you usually hear on the radio. I'd never heard this on the radio before or since.
It was a lullaby my Mom used to sing to us when we were babies. I can remember her singing it, rocking me to sleep, humming:
... Say nighty night and kiss me...
Hold me tight and tell me you love me...
I fell into the chair next to my desk, gasping. “Mom! You're here!”
Suddenly, I realized, I knew – she was watching out for me. She wasn't ashamed of me, she loved me still!
I knew then that I could learn to go on.
It's still hard for me, but you don't have to stay stuck in the same place. Eventually, you realize that you can grow. I’ve become a better person. I learned how to deal with challenging situations. Losing my mother. Dad remarrying. But I learned that these are growing experiences.
I’ve become more sensitive to other people’s feelings and can accept a lot of different people. I learned to acknowledge that there are people and life situations that you can’t change.
I can’t say that the anguish is less. The pain is just hidden away. Something can happen that triggers an outpouring of emotion and I'm right there again, feeling like I did on the day she died, feeling this intense loss all over again.
In the beginning, the pain is a heavy burden. First it’s on your shoulders, weighing you down. Then it goes into your heart. It’s not as heavy, but it’s there.
The most important lesson I carry with me is the knowledge that we are never alone. God is there, helping us to go on.
But time helps with that too. I learned that if you want something to work out good then the effort that you put into making it work will have a major impact on the result. Your efforts don’t go to waste. It is work – learning to communicate with someone you don’t like, you resent, you don’t want them around, but they are there, part of your life now. It’s work that you grow from.
Even though the whole experience was so painful, it gave me more than just pain. I chose to grow from it: learning to give to my younger siblings, learning to give to my father, learning to give to my step-mother. I was thrown into a situation where either I was going to be a giver, or sulk around resenting my whole life forever.
I could make a choice of how to respond.
Life is so precious, so short. There's no time to waste. I’m looking at life differently than I would have been if this hadn’t happened.
And the most important lesson I carry with me is the knowledge that we are never alone. God is there, helping us to go on.