Surviving the First Year of Grief

by Christy Heitger-Ewing

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death. That means I’ve endured many of the difficult “firsts” that grievers dread—first birthdays, holidays, and school events. This one-year mark also signifies that I’ve learned how to live in a world without my mom in it. And let me tell you, that’s no small feat.

When the phone rang a year ago at 3 a.m. with news that Mom had passed away, I started shaking uncontrollably. Then came the flood of tears, accompanied by a flood of jumbled thoughts. I collapsed into my husband’s arms and said between breathless sobs, “I don’t have a mom anymore.” Releasing those six words into the universe was a jarring, surreal, unsettling moment.

Mom’s passing was tragic and traumatizing—the kind of death that made me question if I could go on living. Though I never considered harming myself, I do recall thinking that should a car happen to strike me one day when I was out for a run, I’d be okay with that. I’m not sure if I was apathetic about living or intrigued about dying; all I knew was that for a period of time, life crippled me.

Tasks that should be simple—eating, sleeping, and breathing, for example—were now insanely challenging. I also struggled to care for my two young sons. One gorgeous spring day, the kids asked to go outside so I took a folding chair onto the driveway to watch them play. Only I wasn’t so much watching them as I was zoning out in a grief-stricken haze. Looking back, I’m relieved my little one didn’t run out into traffic because I doubt my slow reflexes could have stopped him.

The spring and summer months were never-ending. Stuck in the mire of grief and all the crud that comes with it—guilt, rage, frustration, and sadness—all I wanted to do was fast-forward time. I was desperate to move past the agony to get to a better place.

I was beyond bummed that I couldn’t even escape grieving during slumber. Every night, I had exhausting dreams. In one of them, I was stumbling on stilts down a pitch-black path in search of my mom. I was wobbly, lost, and confused, which pretty well summed up my condition during consciousness as well. In another dream, I fell into a bottomless pit of darkness. At least I thought it was bottomless, but ultimately I did hit rock bottom with a massive thud, at which point I sprang to my feet and ran from three menacing guys in black cloaks who were chasing me with shiny swords. I was terrified initially until it dawned on me that if I stopped running and simply let these people slay me, I would be immortalized—and finally at peace. That sounded awfully good.

“Cool,” I thought. “Kill me.” I stood still and calmly awaited the prick of the piercing sword. Weird, I know. That’s how most of my dreams were for awhile. After several months, however, the fog mercifully lifted, the harrowing dreams ceased, and I returned to the land of the living. Through it all, one thing remain unchanged: my fervent desire to talk about my mom. The funny thing about death (which really isn’t funny at all) is how the majority of the population clams up about the deceased whenever they see you. It’s like they think, “Oh, no! I’d better not mention her mom or else then she’ll start thinking about her mom and get sad.”

Please, let me enlighten you. First off, I’m always thinking about my mom, which I love, actually. Second, while, yes, on some level “mom memories” sadden me, that sadness is always superseded by the joy I feel whenever somebody is kind enough to invite her name into the conversation.

Now that it’s been a year, my thoughts have shifted. I no longer wish to fast-forward time. Where would that get me, anyway, except for additional wrinkles and taller children? My dreams have also shifted in that they are no longer driven by fear and confusion; now they seem to come from a place of understanding and acceptance. The vivid dream I had earlier this week in the morning of April 2 exemplifies my point.

It occurred at 3 a.m.—precisely the same time Mom passed away one year ago. In it, a huge storm blew through our neighborhood and uprooted our beautiful house from its foundation. After the storm, my husband and I frantically searched for our two children and found that they were okay. Relief. Then we realized we wouldn’t have power or water or be able to live comfortably for awhile, but we could still continue to live in the house even with such extensive damage. More relief. We stood in stunned silence, looking at our wrecked house, astounded by the total destruction. We simply couldn’t believe the massive devastation that had leveled our lives in such a brief amount of time. Still, all I could focus on was that we had survived….We were survivors.

And that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned over the course of this past year. Grieving the loss of someone you deeply love is beyond painful, and some days you really question if and how you’re going to make it through. But if you let yourself feel, open yourself up, accept love and hugs from those around you, and fully embrace the grieving process, you will slowly move forward. You will slowly heal.

Please know that if you are currently grieving—even if it’s an intense, unrelenting, overwhelming, all-consuming, catastrophic grief—you will survive, too. So take that deep breath when the universe allows it, and trust that you will learn to live again—in peace.

Read Christy Heitger-Ewing’s new book “Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat” (

Note: This piece was first published on the Huffington Post on April 7, 2014.

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