Grief has no timeline.
It was January of 1999, and I was 25 years old. We were standing right in front of the casket at my mother's viewing. My mom just passed away after a long and courageous battle with lung cancer. Part of my heart was now missing. Forever.
"You can thank your mother for him," my father said.
He was been referring to Brian, a man I had met only three weeks earlier through my cousin. I really didn't know much about the guy. However, for whatever reason, he was in love with me. As soon as he heard the news, he picked up the phone and called me. He had already sent flowers to the funeral home. I never expected him to show up to the services. Yet, he did. I agreed with my dad: Brian was my mom's final gift to me.
In the months that followed, I had the bittersweet challenge of entering into this new relationship while still mourning my mom. I was often depressed. Brian sensed this and always tried to be understanding.
In the next year, several of our friends got married. They were all starting new lives; it was a happy time for them. I was bitter and didn't even want to attend most of the receptions. I had to blame somebody and Brian was an easy target. It caused our relationship much stress.
Every year, Brian had the tradition of spending Mother's Day with his family. His own mother was alive to celebrate, yet mine wasn't. I always gave him my blessings to attend without me.
Within a few years, I sensed from his family they didn't appreciate my reclusion from certain events. To them, I should have been "over it." I clearly wasn't. Grief has no timeline.
I spoke of my mother often. I wanted to give Brian a clear description of the woman that he never got to meet. I always believed he was a final gift from my mom. He must have felt similarly, as he proposed two weeks shy of our fourth anniversary.
I let him know from day one that my mom would be a huge part of our wedding ceremony, and he was totally supportive. We would get married at the same church my parents did. Our wedding invites included a dedication to my mom, our favors included a note with a donation for the American Cancer Society, and I had the band perform "Sweet Caroline" in honor of my mother, Carolyn.
I never expected marriage to take away all of my grief, but I was grateful to start a new life. Although I was 31, I felt unprepared for motherhood. I definitely knew that I wanted to be a mom, but wasn't ready. I also didn't think I could possibly live up to my mother's standards; she was a tough act to follow.
Around this time, some friends started growing their own families. Again, I was bitter. Many of them had the privilege of giving their children two grandmothers. I not only hurt for myself, but I hurt for my future children. They would be robbed of the gift of knowing my mom.
I would drink wine and yell at the easy target that was, of course, my husband.
"Our babies will never get a chance to meet my mom!" I sobbed.
Of course, I knew it wasn't Brian's fault, as did he.
After three years of marriage, we found out we were expecting our first child. We were overjoyed. With this pregnancy brought peace.
For years, I was filled with guilt over the last moments with my mother. Did I support her enough through the illness? Was I a good enough daughter? Was she proud? I felt deep down inside that she was — and that this child in my tummy was another gift from her.
I couldn't have possibly predicted what would happen next.
"I found a problem with the baby's heart," the doctor said when I went in for my 21-week check-up.
My pregnancy, thus far, had been going wonderful. I felt great but all wasn't well with the baby. Our little boy was diagnosed in utero with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. In a nutshell, the left side of his heart was severely underdeveloped. The possibly of continuing a "normal" pregnancy was fine on my end. However, once he was born, the future was uncertain.
Brian and I spent the second part of the pregnancy hoping and praying. I thought about my mother a lot. She was the only one who would know how to comfort me during this time. I needed her more than ever. How was I going to get through this without her? I was counting on her blessings from above.
That September, our precious boy Liam entered the world. Meeting him was the most surreal combination of happiness and sadness. I just wanted him to be OK. I never loved another being so much and I wished my mother were there.
I thought the biggest tragedy I would ever have to endure was my mother's death. But when my son died nine days later, I didn't think I was going to survive it. This was my second tragedy, yet Brian was experiencing a profound loss for the first time.
He was devastated. I was not only dealing with my own pain, but I had to watch my husband go through it as well. Was this the pain that he had experienced watching me all these years?
At our son's wake, Brian gave a beautiful and heartbreaking eulogy for Liam. He gave a special mention to my mom and broke down. I got chills. It was then I realized that although Brian had never met my mom, he was grieving her, too. We shared in the loss of my son, but we also shared in the loss of my mom.
Shortly after Liam's death, we went to see a medium who said that my mother and son were together in heaven. It was comforting.
Today, we're the proud parents of two more children. I love them to pieces and they have helped me with both of my losses. In having my own children, I feel an even stronger connection to my own mother. In every parenting dilemma, I feel the urge to pick up that phone.
She would have been able to guide me through all the uncertainties of motherhood. She would have been my rock to lean on.
I don't even have to ask Brian how he feels about the kids not having their maternal grandmother. I now know that it affects him, too. I often think about the special bond that my husband and mother could have shared. They would have loved each other very much — and that alone turns my tears into a smile.