Missing My Mother and Moving Through Grief

According to the calendar, two years have passed since angels came to collect my mother.

In my mind and heart it feels as if only a few days have gone by since I said goodbye to Nellie Pearl Yarbough (July 2, 1930–Sept. 1, 2020).

Despite facing a long list of health challenges, she managed to reach her personal finish line of 90 years old.

She would often tell me she wanted to live to be 100. Somehow I think that goal changed once the physical realities of Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, heart disease and the passage of time settled over her life.

I miss my mother each day.

We’ve all heard it said that time heals all wounds. I wonder, Is that true? Is the loss of a loved-one a wound that can be healed? Or does that loss simply create an empty space within us that changes shape and intensity over time?

Shortly after my mother’s death, I began writing stories about my caregiving journey and sharing them with others, thinking they would be valuable resources to help guide them. But what this process has taught me, is that grief is as unique as our population. It comes in all shapes and sizes, and it continually evolves.

Mine tends to strike at the most mundane moments.

Like the time I was standing in the checkout line at a HomeGoods store, looking at all the trinkets and knickknacks. “Do we really need another set of kitchen towels or refrigerator magnets?” I always wonder. Probably not, but we toss them in our baskets.

It is simple errands like this that can bring tears to my eyes.

‘Each artist allows me to relive my mother’s joy of those experiences while being acutely aware of her absence.’

I recall the trips taking my mother shopping and standing in such a line, watching her struggle to decide if she wanted to spend another $3.99 for a packet of cute little napkins.

She also loved listening to music. When she still lived on her own, there were many times I would stop by her townhome, knock on the door and she wouldn’t answer even though I knew she was home. The music was blasting so loud she didn’t hear my knock.

More often than not, I could guess her mood based on the music pumping throughout her home. So now, when I hear certain songs, I am transported back to those moments with my mother.

The memories may bring a smile to my face, yet just behind the smile is also a pang of grief and loss.

Case in point, several months before my mother passed, a musical memory moment took hold. If you recall, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, visitors were not allowed into care facilities. For me, that meant spending time with my mother required some type of off-site appointment.

On the way to pick her up, I was reminded of some of the quirky and more entertaining excursions I had taken with Miss Nellie over the years.

There was the year we visited New York City to celebrate her July 2 birthday, watch the 4th of July fireworks along the Hudson River and take in "Wicked," and "Mamma Mia!" She seemed so happy in those moments.

One of the most memorable was courtesy of country star Tim McGraw. My mother loved his song “Live Like you Were Dying.”

Not only had I bought her that CD (which she played all the time), but when McGraw and Faith Hill passed through South Florida for a concert, I knew I had to get tickets and take mom to see the show. So there we were. In the middle of a sold-out country music show. When the song came up, mom started rocking out. So did the people in front of us and then, they stood up.

Like clockwork my mother, who had her hands in the air (like she just didn't care) said to them... “SIT DOWN I can't see!!!”

Classic! To this day that memory makes me simultaneously feel joy and loss.

That wasn't the only “out of the box” show I took mom to see. We saw Bob Seger, Boz Scaggs, Seal, Sting, Annie Lenox, Johnny Mathis, Anita Baker, Hall & Oates and yes, Tina Turner!

Each artist allows me to relive my mother’s joy of those experiences while being acutely aware of her absence. In retrospect, I am thankful I had so many opportunities, the means and the vision to offer such remarkable moments to my mother.

What I realize now, is that those moments were not just for Miss Nellie. They were for me, too.

They have helped me learn to better recognize my grief, in whatever shape or size it appears. And instead of feeling sad or lost, I feel peace and gratitude.

Those moments remind me to embrace each moment and “Live Like You Were Dying.”

Julia Yarbough is a communications consultant with Magid, an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist and the creator of the Keeping It REAL Caregiving newsletter and website and publisher of the biweekly newsletter Keeping It REAL Caregiving Bulletin. She served as a family caregiver to her recently deceased parent. She is a 2020 ASA Rise Fellow and serves on the Equity in Aging Advisory Committee for the California Master Plan for Aging.

Photo: The author and her mother taking in a show in New York City.