Finding Gratitude Among The Grief :: How Losing My Mom Changed Me as a Mother

It has been 13 months since I decided that I wanted to write a piece about my Mom. For over a year I have struggled to put into words how the biggest loss of my life changed me. Grief is a hard topic to talk about because it is such a personal experience. How we process the loss of someone we love and grieve their absence is totally unique to us as individuals. My loss has its own set of unfortunate circumstances – my Mom became terminally ill while I was pregnant with my first child and died shortly after her birth.

I became a Mom and lost my own all within 90 days.

My Mom, Jenny, was diagnosed with cancer when I was just 25, she was only 48. For most of her illness, I lived in denial. In the back of my mind, it was always like “Ha, that’s my Mom, no way will she not beat this!” Her cancer started as cervical cancer, which has a 92% survival rate. Back then I barely knew anyone that had already lost a parent – it seemed impossible in my mind that it could happen.

During this time period, my now husband and I found out that we would be having my daughter. After years of having a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship, my pregnancy brought us closer together than ever. We would talk on the phone every day when I got off of work for hours. She wanted every single detail, she was so excited to be having a granddaughter. For the first time in my adult life, we were truly best friends. She lost her Mom at the age of 9, and she loved being a Mom herself. It was what bonded us from the beginning.

The odds seemed on her side – until they weren’t. The cancer quickly metastasized and spread to other organs. I watched as my vibrant, young Mom became tired. I could hear it in her voice some days when she’d pick up the phone. As my due date neared closer I still remained optimistic. Surely I wasn’t going to lose her. She always told me, “I am going to meet that baby girl.” She made it to Louisiana for my delivery, but her body was so frail. The love in her eyes when she held Mila for the first time is a moment I will vividly remember for the rest of my life. She was so proud of her. So proud of myself. It is one of my most cherished photos.

The next 3 months things quickly went downhill. One afternoon at the end of March, I called her, and I knew something wasn’t right. I quickly hung up with her and called my uncle, who told me I should come. Without hesitation, we made arrangements and took the road trip with my husband, my brother, and my 3-month-old. We were able to visit with her that night, and she was able to hold her beloved granddaughter. I didn’t want to take pictures, but I am glad I have the ones I do. As I helped her in the bathroom that night she hugged me tight and just said “I’m scared.” All I could say was “I know Mom, me too.” And I knew she was, I was too. She wasn’t ready to leave us and we weren’t ready to lose her. It’s the last conversation I clearly remember having with her.

48 hours later, I sat next to her hospital bed as she slept and held her hand tight. I told her how much I loved her and that she was the best Mom I could have ever wanted. Our whole life together flashed in my mind as I watched her sleep. The summer days spent by the pool together. Driving around in her Buick listening to James Taylor or Collective Soul. Watching ice skating together, playing in the leaves, and snuggling by our Christmas tree. I tucked her foot, which was identical to mine, back into her blanket and hugged her tight that final time. I told her to go and be with her parents, be free of this life. We would be okay, I got this. I didn’t mean any of it, but I knew she needed peace. The doctor reassured me that we had time to make plans for the week so we headed to her house to do just that.

Two hours later I got the phone call that changed me forever. She heard us and she went. It still crushes me I wasn’t with her, but I truly believe that was her last act of love as our Mom – sparing me and my brother the pain of actually seeing her move on from this life.

Those next weeks and months are all a blur. I don’t know if I would have made it through had it not been for my husband and daughter. I don’t know if I would have been strong enough had I not had my own little family. Ryan was such a rock for me, he would just let me cry and squeeze my baby girl tight. I truly think she was an angel placed in my life at just the right time. My immense joy of being a new mom was just shattered by losing my own when I needed her most.

The pain. The pain I felt in my heart was so immense. My afternoons driving home were spent sobbing, and a lot of time questioning God. Why? Why her!? Why MY Mom?! Every holiday and milestone of my daughter’s first year was a struggle between being blissfully happy and feeling like my stomach was being ripped out constantly. I was mad for years, mad that she wasn’t here with us. I would see mothers and daughters in public together and my heart would yearn to have her here with me. I still have moments when the overwhelming feeling of it just not being fair returns. She should be here.

Finding Gratitude Among the Grief

Eleven years later this April 16th, and that pain still lives deep within my heart. You see, grief is the one human emotion that sticks with you. It’s always there, lingering below the surface waiting to rear its ugly head. Grief changes, but it never leaves you. It is your unwanted guest at holidays, the uninvited passenger on long car rides, and the unexpected visitor on even the best days. I spend most of every March somber, as I am reminded of our final time together. I still have her voicemails saved on my phone, but I am never brave enough to listen to them. I have the journal she left me, but I still haven’t finished it. You would think these things would bring me comfort, but they send me on a grief spiral that takes days to shake off. I will be having a completely normal day and something like a sunset or a song will be enough for my eyes to explode with tears. I catch myself saying out loud “Mom, I really need you. I wish you were here,” often. I miss her immensely still and always will until we are together again.

Becoming a mom while losing my own, I found comfort in my children. The sayings “life is short” or “enjoy every moment” took on a new meaning for me. I truly live in every moment, especially with them. I want them to have allll the memories of their mom one day. One that’s fun, adventurous, loving, and honest. One that would give the world for them. Because once we are gone, all they have left are the memories. I look back on my own childhood fondly, my mom did all the things. I see her in me and I hope my kids do too. My tremendous amount of grief came with another lifelong side effect that I didn’t expect: gratitude. I am grateful for every day. Grateful for every day I had with her, grateful for every day I have with them. Losing her was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but I am grateful that I see my own journey of motherhood through enlightened eyes. I take nothing for granted and I love big. I don’t know that I would be that way if I didn’t live with my grief, and for that, I am also grateful. I think of her when I see pretty flowers, butterflies, birds, fall colors, twilight sunsets; all the things we loved together. And for all those daily reminders of what a beautiful Mom I had – I am grateful.

She always taught me to find the bad in the good, the dark in the light. So this summer I will sit on the beach and watch the waves crash. I’ll let the grief wash over me as I will inevitably think about how much she’d be enjoying the day. And in the same moment, as I look over at my sweet husband playing with my kids, I’ll let the grief wash away for a while to make room for more gratitude.

This is dedicated to my very own angel, Jenny Carter Hardee 09/29/1958 – 04/16/2012

Dana Wattigney
Moving from Nebraska in middle school, Dana considers herself a New Orleanian 25 years later. She now lives in Belle Chasse with her husband Ryan, 12-year-old Mila, and 8-year-old Rex. As the Executive Director of the YMCA in her community, she is very involved in all aspects of family life. You can find her on the weekend doing DIY projects, cheering on LSU or the Saints, and spending time with her family. A lover of all revelry, there is no festival, concert, or event that she won't go to! Catch her with the Krewe of Cleopatra each Mardi Gras. She gets out of town with her kids as much as possible, they enjoy the outdoors, especially the mountains & the beach. Affectionately known as "Dana Dolittle" to her friends, you can expect her to have a random animal she is trying to help at any given time. Dana loves to write & says there are no topics off limits.


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