Monday, March 30, 2015

What I learned when my mom died: Part 1

My mom recently passed away in a fairly horrific car accident while traveling in New Zealand with my dad.  It has been an indescribable experience on so many levels and for so many reasons.  It has also been a learning experience.  The Mormon religion has some beliefs and teachings about life, death, and the afterlife that bring a measure of comfort and perspective during times of mourning, but it's still a difficult thing to deal with.  Everyone grieves in their own way, but here are some things I learned and experienced in the days and weeks following my mom's death.

1 - It's okay to feel sad.
And I don't mean sadness tempered by the Sweet Peace of The Gospel and the knowledge of Eternal Families, or sadness lightened by the Tender Mercies of Heaven.  I mean gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, deep-down, ugly cry sadness.  100% okay.  Do family ties last beyond the grave?  I believe they do.  Can the teachings of the gospel of Christ bring a measure of peace?  I believe they can.  Does God provide moments of mercy and comfort at a time like this?  I believe He does.  That doesn't mean you should feel less sad.  Don't let anyone tell you you should.  Death is an inherently sad thing.  In fact, the Earth trembled and the skies turned black when Christ died in the Bible.  If God can feel such visceral sadness, He wouldn't expect any more from you.  It's also okay to feel hurt, confused, angry, relieved etc. etc. etc.  You can't control what you feel.  Lean into it, and work through it.

2 - Let people help.
In this situation I found myself at the epicenter of a tragedy.  Countless people offered to help in any way they could.  Our natural reaction as humans, I think, and especially as Mormons is to say, "Oh, no, don't worry about me.  I don't want to put you out."  Just know that people offering to help is their way of processing grief and offering solidarity with you.  Let people feed you, tend your kids, do your laundry, take you to a movie, fill your gas tank, weed your garden, vacuum your house, help you move, do your dishes, iron your clothes, etc. etc. etc.  You're not putting them out.  They want to help.  They need to help.  And it's even okay to expect help, just be sure that you're gracious about it.  Expecting help is different than being entitled to help.

2b - Have distractions handy.
This is where you call on those people that are offering help (and as a sort of 2c, don't be afraid to ask for help, remember people need it as much as you do).  If you need a few minutes to get out of your head, send out the call.  People will provide movies, drives, coloring books, shopping excursions, walks, playdough, sudoku, puppies, lunch, theater tickets, sports tickets, books, magazines, toddlers, etc.

3 - You have every right to say no.
If you don't want to talk, or eat, or be around people, or participate in the funeral, or see them shut the casket, or give someone a hug, or go to bed, or ride with your crazy aunt Florence to the cemetery, or send out thank you cards, you don't have to.  Don't let anyone force you to do anything you don't want to.  You're going to process grief in your own way, and only you know how to do that best.

4 - You're going to cry.
A lot.  You already know this, but what you may not know is when or why you'll cry.  You may cry when you find out, and when you're initially letting those close to you know, and when you hug your loved ones.  In fact, you'll probably cry for a good portion of Day 1. As time passes you'll probably cry less.  The initial shock will wear off and acceptance will set in.  But then you'll smell someone else wearing your moms perfume, or you'll catch someone out of the corner of your eye that looks like your mom, or a friend - or even a stranger - will unexpectedly do something very thoughtful.  And. You.  Will.  Lose it.   Let it happen.  It's part of the healing process.

5 - You need to laugh.
Laughter is healing.  It lightens the mood and helps you to cope.  Whether that's joking about being orphans like the family who's parents were traveling with my parents and both also died in the crash, or simply enjoying a funny movie, or sharing amusing memories.  Find plenty of time to experience laughter and joy.

6 - Nature is healing.
Anecdotal and empirical evidence back this up.  Get outside.  Walk in a park, hike in the mountains, swim in the ocean, meditate under a tree, take a nap on the back lawn.  Find ways to connect with Mother Earth.  She'll take care of you.

7 - Day 2 is worse than Day 1.
Just a heads up.

8 - Grief is exhausting.
No one tells you this.  Everyone knows you're hurting and that this situation sucks.  No one tells you that you'll feel totally wiped out because you're crying all of the time, and your brain and heart have been on overdrive processing all of the information that comes with a death, and you're dealing with everyone expressing condolences and love, and you're trying to make sure everyone else in your family isn't completely falling apart.  It's okay to pop a couple of Tylenol PM and pass out.

Your situation is going to be different than mine was, but I think most of these things are fairly universal.  Hopefully they'll help you, or help someone else help you get through the first few days.  You're gonna be okay.  Have a good cry, then have a cookie, then give me a call and we'll cry and have a cookie together.


  1. This was amazing and so well said! Love you!

  2. You are a gem Greg - thank you for sharing your insight, wit and love with us during such a difficult time and journey. Thoughts and prayers with you and your family!

  3. Greg, thoughts and prayers will be with you and your family, forever. You will always miss your mom. She was an amazing lady. But you will see her again. Hugs. Stay strong.

  4. #5 has me concerned, I absolutely agree laughter helps heal, but "joking" about being "an orphan like the family whose parents were also killed" is a little insensitive. Mitch was my cousin and a friend, we miss them.

    1. Anonymous, I totally understand where you're coming from, and I would feel the same way if it had been anyone other that his own daughter who commented about making the orphan jokes. She mentioned in her tribute at the funeral that her parent's sense of humor was sometimes a little on the dark side and that they had passed that on to the kids. She then said that they, the kids, had been making orphan jokes and it had helped them to ease the pain of their own grief. So while I agree that strangers making jokes about how the Peterson kids are now orphans is completely inappropriate, those same comments coming from the family members themselves doesn't concern me at all. In fact, in my family we've been making "your mom" jokes and calling my dad "The Widower Barnett". For some, that may be in poor taste, but it isn't for us. It's how we cope and how we process and how we come together.

    2. The day after my mother-in-law passed away (my father-in-law had been gone about 9 years previously) my brother-in-law walked around the house singing "It's a hard-knocked-life for us!" From Annie. All the kids were laughing at the humor mostly because they were exhausted from crying the last 4 months of watching their mother suffer. Dark humor is definitely a coping mechanism and is often used just to be able to deal with the pain! Heaven knows our family has used it! It's not that we are insensitive to the situation it's just that it hurts so bad we have to get through it some way!

  5. Greg, you are an amazing writer! Your Mother and family will always have a special place in my heart!

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  7. Greg - thank you so much for this post. I LOVED every word of it & it's so true. Grief is different for every single human being & no one should tell you "I understand, when my .... died" - UGH! I hate that! Just a forewarning (at least this was for me) - year 2 was WORSE than year 1. Of course, this was from losing a spouse, so could be very different for you. You are loved, my friend and terribly missed!

  8. Great insights Greg, thanks for sharing and I hope it helped you as well. I lived on the Road of this tragedy for 7 years so know that there are many of us connecting with you at this time. While I am not close friends with your wonderful mother and dad, I do know of them both and they have given you a wonderful heritage. Best wishes in the weeks and months ahead, and look for signs from your Mom, they will be there and you will feel of her presence.

  9. I found this off of Facebook. My spouse passed, so i relate to this in your grief journey. He's been gone for over 3 yrs. What i wish I'd known back then-Don'trush to 'get over' it. However you feel is ok. Breaking down in front of people is ok. Grief has huge feelings. Be easy on yourself and take it day by day, minute by minute. Record everything you remember about your mom, even her smell. Time fades and so does memories, sadly.
    My heart hurts for you, my friend, in a way only people who have experienced loss can relate, loss of a loved one. My husband has been close to me and my 2 young boys who were 3 and 3 months at the time of his passing. I'm sure your mom is close through all of this. Hugs to you!

  10. Greg you're awesome!! And your family is also.
    And you have wonderful friends.
    My brother passed away very tragically and unexpected a few years ago.
    The pain gets a little more bearable, but it never gets easier.
    And yes you still cry over little things that remind you.

  11. Please know that our thoughts and prayers have been with both of your families since the accident. We know of our Savior's love for each of us and hope that you are feeling that right now.

  12. Loved your comments. Its so true that dark humor can many times help us delve in and around and sometime straight through the ugly parts. We love your awesome family and the Peterson's. Soooo stoked that you all were able to Share Spain with.our Crazy Costa Clan! Hugs for y'all,

  13. Thanks, Greg. Love you. I may take you up on that phone call and cookie.

  14. My 23 year old brother was recently killed in an ATV accident. Every bit of this rings true! Very well said.

  15. I didn't have the pleasure of knowing your mother but my children are patients of your father. I find your posting here spot on (having known a few times of grief thru losses of other family members and friends thru the years). I hope that those out there who need a little understanding or hope thru their own losses read this and feel a little more understood.

  16. First things first, I have loved and admired you as an actor and a fellow human being. Second, I love you for sharing your feelings with us on such a lovely personal level. You have touched our hearts (Ron & me). I feel it an honor to know you and call you friend. Having a good cry and cookies with you would be a splendiferous experience.

  17. Thank you. I lost my mom on September 5, 2014 completely and totally unexpected. My heart still aches some days, I feel guilty for not being the daughter I should have been, and I find myself smiling when I take a moment to just have a chat with her or to get mad at her for leaving too soon.

  18. Greg, you are an inspiring individual. Thank you for sharing all that you did especially during this hard time. I hope that you know how right you are about all of this. You bring so much hope to those around you. You have always been someone I could look up to. Thank you for being you. Your mom was an incredible person from what I have heard. You and your family will forever be in my prayers.

  19. Thank you for your article. We've had our share of tragedy in my home. My mother had a brain aneurysm, my dad died from the cancer that tried for 40 years to take him, my brother committed suicide, my friend was murdered, and my other friend died of brain cancer. Dark humor happens here too. The joke now is that is not safe to know me. You just might die. As a teenager I watched my Dad suffer through cancer. It was horrific. But on his good days he'd tell us that when he dies, we should just build a catapult and sling shot him into the land fill. On his bad days, he would tell us that he wanted to build his coffin and practise lying in wake.
    For heaven sake the man had the last word at his death! We thought he'd taken his last breath he hadn't breathed in five minutes. The nurse was getting the doctor in to call it when my dad gasped, sat up in bed, looked at my mom one last time, and then died for real this time. How I miss him!
    The Gospel helps, true. But there are still days that it hits me all over again and I just sob. I know humor had to come in it for me or if go crazy. Sometimes you have to laugh over the insanity of it all. It's on to go crazy for awhile.
    Oh, and ice cream helps too.