Over the holidays, I tried to cook an Armenian pilaf my grandmother used to make, but I just couldn't seem to get it right. It had been so long since I'd made it that I'd forgotten how. My mother also used to prepare the dish, though she left out ingredients like butter and salt. (She was concerned about her health, while I just wanted to eat something that tasted good.)
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Frustrated with myself for burning so much rice, I finally picked up the phone to call my mom and ask what I was doing wrong. In the moment, I'd somehow forgotten that she had died two years ago.
Our Instinct to Reach Out
When I was a hospice social worker, I would tell families that some of the hardest moments of grief come when something great happens that we can't wait to share — or when something stressful occurs and we need to hear the voice of our loved one. In my experience, this was most strongly felt by new moms who desperately wanted to call their mothers to ask questions like how to help the baby stop crying.
My trigger was that forgotten rice pilaf recipe.
My mother and I had not been extremely close, but I respected her and all that she provided for me. Her family immigrated to America when she was young, but her father returned to Iran, leaving her to care for her younger siblings and help support her mother, who didn't speak much English. Later, she struggled with a cultural and generation gap as she raised my brother and me. Mom planned on my becoming a successful lawyer, but watching Perry Mason with her was as close as I got to practicing law.
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It wasn't until my mother became ill that she began to appreciate my career in thanatology, the study and science of death and dying. I often spoke with her about her wishes for end-of-life care and funeral planning, so I knew what to do when the time came.
Then it came out of the blue. She went to the hospital one day complaining of what she thought was food poisoning, but was actually pancreatitis. Shortly after mom was admitted, she went into a coma and was placed on life support. By the time I arrived a few days later, she had come out of the coma, but her prognosis was poor. I knew from our talks that mom never wanted to be kept alive if her quality of life couldn't be what it had been. After six weeks, the doctors determined she wasn't going to recover and mom was transferred to a palliative care team. She died, peacefully, two days later.
Things Left Unsaid
Grief lasts a lifetime. Some of us manage to grow from it and appreciate the time we had with the people who have come and gone. We're grateful for the memories.
"Our loved ones are always with us in some way or another," says gerontologist and end-of-life care expert Barbara Spring, a co-founder of the Life's End Institute.
It's completely normal, she says, to want to call or to actually dial the number of a loved one, even relatively long after their death. "It is another level of attending to the relationship we had," especially for those of us who have "unfinished business," says Spring, my colleague. "There's an extra push when there's more work to be done."
You can view the experience of picking up the phone, like I did, as a chance to look more closely at what might be unresolved, or at what you might feel you still need to tell your loved one. Don't ignore the opportunity to reflect on the journey you had together, to see what comes up, to say what needs to be said.
Say it out loud. Write it down.
Allow your grief to come out. It's appropriate if you find yourself saying phrases like forgive me, I forgive you, thank you and I love you — these words have energy that continues to circulate around us.
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You can ask a friend to stand in for your loved one — in my case, my mother — look that person in the eye and begin, "Mother I need to tell you … " Looking directly at a person will bring up deeper, more real feelings.
I never expected to pick up my cell phone and dial my mom's number two years after she died. It was an impulse, one that will probably come out again. When I realized what I'd done, I smiled, thinking of the last time we had made that pilaf and how mom actually let me add butter and salt. I also cried a little, because I realized I don't have her here to cook with, there are conversations I wish we'd had — and I don't have her recipe book.
Kristine Kevorkian, Ph.D., M.S.W., has worked as a deputy coroner and a hospice medical social worker. She lectures and teaches frequently on aging, end-of-life care, death, bereavement and grief.
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