Being a mother gave me great joy, which grew even stronger when Jason and Abbey were born three and nine years later. I’m not saying motherhood is one hundred percent joyful or that there weren’t very challenging times – there certainly were – more than I can count. And, sometimes, Mother’s Day was downright difficult. I was torn between wanting to make it special for my own mother, and wishing someone would make it more special for me. My daughter, Abbey, a smart, caring, pretty young woman, struggled with physical health problems such as asthma and fibromyalgia, and with mental health issues such as anxiety and sleeplessness during her teenage years. Attention deficit disorder was also thrown around by psychologists as a possible issue, but who knows? As an attentive, concerned mother, I thought I was doing my job.
I took Abbey to every practitioner we could possibly find; mainstream medical practitioners as well as holistic approaches such as acupuncture, reflexology, and yoga.
Before I knew it, Abbey turned to other substances to try to relieve her pain and anxiety, anything to feel better. Then came arrests for driving under the influence, night after night of worrying about her whereabouts, and eventually, rehabilitation for substance use disorder.
After rehabilitation, we had a few glorious months. Abbey seemed happy working alongside her brother and grandfather in the family business, and was ready to try college once again. I finally felt like our lives were back on an even keel.
Until the call that Jason died while fishing – drowned while doing the thing that brought him the most peace. Andrew, Abbey, and I, as well as the rest of our family and close friends, were devastated. It was unfathomable that such a thing could happen to a healthy, vibrant young man.
Fast forward to Mother’s Day, the next birthday, or the next Christmas, and I found myself in the midst of special days that most people celebrate blissfully. These days surround us with advertising, greeting cards, and messages of family and love, but for those of us who have lost a child, they are bittersweet at best, and gut-wrenchingly painful in reality.
Yet, we survive. We survive because we must, whether it is for our children who are living, to honor our loved ones in some unique way, or because there is no other choice. And along the way, we survivors are often called “strong”.
I know that every time someone has told me I’m strong, they were trying to be supportive, to show admiration or respect in some way. For months, or even the first couple of years, I hated being called strong. The word simply did not resonate with how I felt.
I am a word person – I’ve always enjoyed writing. After retiring from my lifelong career, I wrote and published a book of fiction, based on my own story and the stories of many other parents who have lost a child not only to substance use, but from any cause. “Comfort in the Wings: A Novel Inspired by Love that Will Not Die” is the story of a woman who has endured the profound grief of child loss, yet finds ways to be comforted by connections with people and signs from her loved ones that sustain her. Finally, while writing the book, I found a way to share my feelings about the word “strong,” through the main character, Larissa. Larissa discovered a blog for mothers who lost children and is trying to comfort another mother. I’d like to share this excerpt from the book.
Dear Sad/Angry Mom in Albuquerque: I share the anger reaction to being called strong. I truly believe everyone who said it to me thinks they are giving me a compliment. I couldn’t figure out why it didn’t feel that way to me until recently. Not sure if it will help you, but here goes.
When I hear the word “strong,” something very hard and immovable comes to my mind – an image like rock, like the Grand Canyon. The qualities required to sustain me through challenges since my child died are anything but hard and immovable. Every single day presents a new, unforeseen challenge that requires me to change my entire life as I’d previously known it. Each challenge crumbles the core of my being.
What comes to my mind instead is the need to be resilient, to be able to alter my course without any warning. I remember coming across an article one time challenging the reader to conjecture which is actually stronger in nature, rock or water. Of course, most responded that rock is stronger. But the point of the question was that water can morph when anything, even something as hard as rock, gets in its way. Water will always find its way through to the other side by re-routing around any barrier, or by slowly wearing the rock away, breaking it down, little by little, over time. The answer then, to the question of which is stronger, could be that water is actually stronger, more enduring. It will prevail, it will find a way to where it needs to go, no matter the obstacle. It is resilient and adaptable.
Those are the qualities that have really allowed me as a mother to endure the pain, the suffering, and the countless obstacles encountered since my child died—the qualities of water. I think we are strong, but strong like water.
I have found, or stumbled, my way through medical examiners, funeral arrangements, and countless questions, all while enduring my own feelings of loss, failure, and loneliness. All of that has not hardened me like a rock, but rather taught me to adapt and change my route in order to survive. The last thing I want is to harden, to be like stone. I know that I will survive, not by being immovable, but by finding new ways, carving new paths, opening my heart to those around me, and resolving to keep on regardless of the hurdles. I hope it helps you to hold the image of a meandering stream working its way along all sorts of terrain to new outlets. That very image is helping me as I write to share this realization with you. Bless you, Mama.
I wish for all the mothers, all the parents who are reading this Mother’s Day blog, to be strong like water, to be resilient, to prevail, to persevere, to find your way to someplace of comfort and solace despite all of the barriers thrown in your way. May we all have the drive to keep helping the world deal with mental health issues with compassion and pursue solutions that dissolve stigma and build understanding for people affected by substance use disorder.
Jennifer Collins, PT, EdD, MPA, is a retired physical therapist and college professor whose career spanned more than forty years. She held many titles during those years, but “Mom” was the one that brought her the most joy and pride. Her debut novel, Comfort in the Wings, emerged from her own experience of loss.