By: Sydney Moore | Photo by Baptista Ime James
When I was 18 I read Cheryl Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life” about losing her mother. The essay was the prequel to her bestselling novel-turned-movie, Wild, and it made me fall in love with prose and writing. At the time I thought I was empathizing with her, as I had recently lost my uncle. I thought I could understand her pain.
I was wrong. But young me was so invested in her story that there was no way I didn’t 100% understand her.
When I was 19 I unexpectedly lost my brother-in-law of one year and temporarily lost my vision in the same week. And I thought I understood Strayed’s repeated phrase, “I cannot continue to live.”
I thought I understood Strayed’s repeated phrase, “I cannot continue to live.”
I went on a rampage. Drinking, sex with boys who didn’t give two shits about me, and abusing the oxycodone the doctors kept giving me well after I needed it. I felt like I understood her, running from the pain into the arms of escapism was clear and easy to comprehend.
But I was still wrong. I still didn’t understand.
When I was 22 I received a call from my mother telling me she had a rare form of leukemia. She said that she would fight it for us (my sisters and I). And at that moment I knew she would die—I said, “you don’t have to do that,” and felt like I gave her permission. Our entire lives she was always fighting—from having my oldest sister at 16 in the projects to having to quit her high-paying job because my youngest sister was constantly in and out of the hospital. She was always fighting. Fighting the stereotypes of a Black woman, fighting the trauma and mental health issues of her family, and fighting to be a mother to children she never expected to have. So, I told her it was okay. She never said she wouldn’t fight it for herself but for us–my sisters and me–and at that moment, deep down I knew I needed to tell her she could rest. That her fight was over. So, I did.
Four days later she had a massive brain bleed that required us to unplug her the next day.
And then I knew Strayed’s pain. I had finally understood her persona. Characters had always been removed from my life but small moments of relation. This time it was true understanding as I had never experienced with a story before. There was never a story before about a young girl losing her mom in a way that touched me. The stories of Batman or Ironman losing their parents and turning into saviors didn’t cut it. Strayed gave the ugly nasty story of it all–the agony only a girl can experience when she loses her mother at the turn of her life.
…the agony only a girl can experience when she loses her mother at the turn of her life
As my ex drove me faster than God knows possible to Kansas City immediately following the call that she had a brain bleed I screamed. I was hysterically screaming out about the pain. No one had even said she was dead yet, but I knew, and I hated that I gave her permission to leave. I was livid and depressed and destroyed.
I (finally) knew Strayed’s pain.
People have laughed and made fun of my love of media—but the display of humanity throughout media is what kept me functioning in those early days. Seeing ourselves in these fictional characters helps us relate to the real characters in this story called life. Seeing myself in Strayed, a newly graduated woman who had lost a parent so young when no one else I knew had, kept me from losing it completely. My entire life, media has been the connection that has kept our family together. My earliest memories are of me and a family member plopping down in front of a TV set to watch some show. My older sister and I never really even talked about our lives to each other, instead, we would just watch a movie or show. We would talk about the characters and cry and laugh, but never talking to each other in the way “normal” siblings do. Family movie night every Friday, a quick stop at Redbox, and a bowl of homemade popcorn creating a bond between people who would rather run away than talk about our feelings.
In the exact opposite fashion to Strayed and even myself in the years past, I didn’t turn to alcohol, sex, or even to drugs (though I did take far too many lorazepam than I’d like to admit). I didn’t want to see myself in Strayed. I knew the pain and, somehow, I knew that her path wasn’t what I needed. Rather I craved connection. I feared being alone. My ex wasn’t allowed to leave me alone for longer than a few minutes. I even made him keep the door open as he peed for fear he would leave me the same way my mother and brother-in-law did, quickly and unexpectedly with no time to say goodbye. So as lonely as I felt he (and other friends, but him the most) made sure I was never alone. I’m not sure if it was fear of me hurting myself or fear that I would retreat so far into my mind that I would never come out again–a place I’m all too familiar with but always had the will to emerge from. Maybe he feared that will was just as lost as my mother was.
The pain of losing a parent, especially at such a young age is not only heartbreaking but terrifying. Who would become my guide?
Many women tried–older women in my life who thought they were being helpful with their motherly advice, who somehow thought they were helping fill that void. But they did nothing of the sort. In fact, it was gut-wrenching to deal with their mothering. My mother was not a nurturing woman. So, these women nurturing me was an insult to her type of mothering. Their constant advice often was the exact opposite of what my mother would have done. My mother didn’t give advice, she picked out movies and shows for us to watch and cry over the storylines. She gave us characters and plots and joy and love and sadness wrapped up in a DVD box. The anger grew towards these women. I wanted a TV show to explain it away, to ease the pain. I watched Dead to Me the first month after my mom’s passing, a show about an unexpected death in a family and it ripped me apart with its accuracy. I couldn’t handle the rawness of the grief. So, I stopped watching. Media no longer was my safe place with her not there. And none of these mothering women helped a bit.
I’ve now cut almost all those women out of my life and feel as if I can breathe a little easier because my guide was gone, but their guidance was suffocation that the blankets wrapped around us during movie night never were.
A few months later someone pointed out my failures since my mom’s death. They had explained it seemed like I had lost my way or my drive. And I wanted to scream, “no shit, Sherlock!” But I couldn’t. So instead I learned to keep the pain to myself. Strayed speaks of how in America we see grief as a finish line. You have checkpoints but eventually, you are done.
I still hate when people say it gets easier because that’s not true. What changes is you. You adapt to your new normal and it’s still hard. It’s just no longer shocking. But it never leaves you, as adjusted as you are.
And for a while the adjustment wasn’t terrible. I was able to avoid new television shows and movies. I was able to bury the pain so deep that some days I would forget. But then I got dumped and we had a global pandemic and I was alone again, craving connection to people I was no longer allowed to see. I was alone in my loneliness.
But I was resilient. I could force myself to be happy. I figured out a home office, got a new boss, finished my master’s degree, went to therapy every two weeks, and started hanging out with better friends. I had even started watching new shows, all comedies of course, but new media again.
To the world I was so strong, so courageous for not only surviving this pain but thriving through it. I was able to be the family rock in a sea of nothingness. They could call me and vent and I mothered them. I was the good daughter, the good sister, the good employee all over again–the Sydney without tears or emotions that would make others uncomfortable.
But the further I pushed myself to be happy and suck up the tears the worse I got. I had stopped eating. I was taking two or three lorazepam just to get through a force-fed liquid lunch. I lied to my therapist and said I was always at a seven or eight in happiness. I wasn’t sleeping. I was in a constant state of panic. I stopped ingesting new media, completely gave up on new shows and stories, for if my mother couldn’t watch them, how could I? It felt as if I was robbing her of experiences. So, I stopped experiencing.
It had been a year since her death, and I was supposed to be “over it.” Time heals all wounds and whatnot. But I wasn’t over it. I had retreated further into myself than I had been in years—-this time I just made sure it wasn’t obvious to the world. I kept up my perfect joyful persona. Happy Sydney returned for the world to see. And no one guessed otherwise.
Until the weight started dropping off. I dropped 40lbs in less than six months while sitting at home on my work computer for 10+ hours a day without moving. The exact opposite of the rest of the world suffering from their Covid-19lbs. I had retreated so far in that I hadn’t noticed it. I knew I was losing weight but to me I didn’t look any different. I was so focused on my perfect, happy persona that I didn’t notice myself begin to slip away.
Then came Thanksgiving. My father seemed to be spending more time with his new girlfriend than me or my sister. I was lonely yet surrounded by family. A family of happy faces and broken hearts with mute mouths for anything other than positivity. A family who rather than crying went to the movies hours after she was gone. A family who could cry over the tragic death of Tony Stark but could only smile and say we were fine about my mother.
A family who rather than crying went to the movies hours after she was gone. A family who could cry over the tragic death of Tony Stark but could only smile and say we were fine about my mother.
I should have been happy. I should have been kinder. I should have been more accepting. I should have been… well, a lot of things that Thanksgiving. But I wasn’t. I had thought I had reached the end. Like Strayed had with her walk—I had finished the race, coming home after the battle, brushing off blood and dirt. I was to put on a smile and be happy that the war was over.
But I wasn’t finished. Not even close. Because really there was never really an end, was there?
And I forgot that. As I swallowed down lorazepam—that an ER doctor and psychiatrist had thought I had finished—I chugged another drink and snapped at my dad because I was right back where I started. The pain was still there front and center and I thought somehow if I pushed my way out of the maze it would disappear completely. But the maze was inside a circle, with turns and divots constantly changing and reorganizing to make sure that pain was always right behind you.
They say there are five stages to grief. Often seen as linear. Denial is always first, followed by anger then bargaining, with depression on the horizon and acceptance at the end of the tunnel. Strayed speaks of how in America we see grief as a finish line. You have checkpoints but eventually, you are done. But there is no finish line. It’s more like a never-ending maze where you get to what you think is the end but realize you were going in circles. A maze filled with turns and divots constantly changing and reorganizing to make sure that pain was always right behind you. You have moments when all you want to do is scream. And moments when you completely forget.
I’m not sure which one is harder.
…there is no finish line. It’s more like a never-ending maze where you get to what you think is the end but realize you were going in circles.
Strayed never pointed out what I realized over the last year. Grief never stops. It just evolves and you with it. I thought I would never go back to denial because I had pushed forward. I finished my degree, I tried so hard to keep my family connected, and I went to my weekly therapy. I was a good griever. All finished and ready to go. I would explain that grief was a circle or maze when family or friends asked, that I was happy. The pain was there but so small it didn’t matter. I was happy Sydney.Grief never stops. It just evolves and you with it. - Sydney Moore Click To Tweet
But I didn’t believe that for myself or even understand it. For me grief had to have a completion date, just like it did with my brother-in-law and uncle. When each of them had passed, I was surrounded by family and friends and even coworkers who believed if Sydney’s not smiling, the world is on fire. When my uncle passed my grandmother (his mother) told me to stop crying. To break down about them wasn’t an option. So, I made breaking down about my mother a non-option too. I didn’t have time or energy to deal with the various emotions again because I knew how dark I would go if I let them in. If I pushed them down enough, they would disappear. No one would have to hear me whine and complain if I just kept up the smile. The tears didn’t have to come. I could stop them from ever falling. I thought this act of denial was a strength in the weakness. The stronger I was meant the less I showed how things affect me. But sooner or later it all comes out. For me it was screaming at my father and losing so much weight I almost passed out on the daily. Other times it was and still is getting drunk and lashing out at whoever is near, only to apologize the next day for feeling anything other than contentment and cheerfulness. Or pretending that it didn’t even bother me, that I was so removed from the situation that tears were not a possibility. Telling myself, “it’s been almost two years, no need to burden people.”
If I ignored the screaming child asking for her mommy in my brain, then I was somehow out of the maze. The less I could hear her, the healthier I thought I was, the more adjusted and accepting. The need to be strong and push through it was different than Strayed. As a Black woman, grief was a luxury that I didn’t have time for and no one else had time for me to fall apart. My family had admitted it more than once to me (my mother’s more emotional copycat). For Strayed going on a walk and releasing her pain was acceptable. But I would be laughed at if I suggest it to my family or friends. Because I am well adjusted. I understand the pain of grief and know not to give it power. I am Happy Sydney, at your service.As a Black woman, grief was a luxury that I didn’t have time for and no one else had time for me to fall apart. - Sydney Moore Click To Tweet
A few weeks later, I watched the new episode of Wanda Vision, and chaos and grief were brought up again. Each episode prying me open little by little until the character must face every single trauma. To acknowledge it. To feel it. As she breaks down screaming, she embraces the pain for a moment before pushing it away. The pain and torment and the struggle to push the sorrow down displayed so ripped me apart.
Running away from grief and pain always seemed like the answer. Cheryl Strayed traveled across the country to hike the Pacific Northwest Trail. I wanted (still want) to go to California, getting as far away as possible. But as I convince myself to leave this area to go across the country and never look back, I’m wondering if embracing the chaos is the only way to survive the maze? As Wanda’s super-powered sons attempt to age themselves up to run away from the sadness consuming them from the unexpected death of their dog, I wanted to run too. She tells them, “the urge to run from this feeling is powerful” and makes them sit in it, in the dirt and disgust of the anguish. Maybe feeling the pain and sorrow and embracing it is the only way to truly feel better? The only way to truly process the grief is to feel it at its terrifyingly confusing core of madness. Maybe to embrace the chaos is the only way to save yourself from it consuming you. And maybe the chaos isn’t the problem—but how we view it.
Wanda’s late husband, Vision, claims for “what is grief if not love persevering?”
Grief is a profound declaration of love in our chaotic emotions. To grieve is to embrace the chaos of our feelings and learn from them to survive.Grief is a profound declaration of love in our chaotic emotions. To grieve is to embrace the chaos of our feelings and learn from them to survive. - Sydney Moore Click To Tweet
And some days, surviving looks like sitting on the floor of a hotel ballroom, sobbing over your mother at your best friend’s wedding, and sometimes it looks like watching funny videos of her with a smile. Or meeting someone who says things just a little too much like her and I must sit in the car with tears rolling down my face. And some days, it’s rewatching the same show for weeks so that I can cry over the exact same scenes just to get it out. And some days it’s telling my therapist that I’m at a 2 and I can identify emotions and that they aren’t bad to feel. It’s complicated, it’s messy, and it doesn’t make sense. But rather than pushing it down, learning to embrace it is what makes it a little more bearable. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.
As I sit here, approximately fifteen days from the anniversary, I want to push it down. I want to bury myself in work or friends or a night out so that the thoughts can’t even come up. My therapist asked how I wanted to spend the day and I said, “to ignore it all.” But I knew that wasn’t the answer. I knew that living in the barracks of anguish without succumbing to the disease of depression was the answer. To find the balance of love and grief and pain and happiness. To be more than just Happy Sydney. To embrace the negative without being consumed by it. But that’s easier said than done, isn’t it?