I was a girl when my mother died, thirteen years ago.
When she passed, my world became something else. Something dark, unknowing, fearful. It also became other things I couldn’t quite name, or understand, as the wisdom of insecurity hadn’t seeded itself yet.
After her funeral, I spent a long time in the bathroom of my brother’s apartment. First sitting on the floor and then standing up, looking at my reflection in the mirror. I was studying my hands and then my face. My face and then my hands. And I have no idea how long I was in there, searching for her.
Between my hands and my face, it was my hands that most resembled her. Not my nose or my eyes, which weren’t green like hers but hazel. Not my skin color or my pink lips or cheeks. Even our hair color was different, as well as the texture. Her natural hair color was a deep and consuming dark brown and straight, while my hair was much lighter and waved. I stood four inches taller than my mother, and my feet were two sizes larger. But my ten bony fingers were hers! I had my mother’s hands, and I was strangely grateful for this. Grateful because hands are for doing and I thought I could do a lot in her name.
Only, I didn't know what I could do — not yet anyway. So, I just kept myself busy. Though, looking back, the truth is, the reality of things hurt. A memory might float in, and I'd touch it for a moment, and then watch it float away, secretly aching for my mother.
Over the years since she passed, grieving has never felt quite complete, the process interrupted by other incredible losses and life changes, and the perennial isolation I felt, and continue to feel, without my mother — my first home, shelter.
Though I keep living each day, and the word resilience comes to mind. The ability to persevere, stand up, to weather life’s storms.
Socially, we understand, and perform through resilience, as a specific kind of strength. Fortitude. Will. Except, the more I dive into it, the more I try to expand its definition to feel somehow more inclusive, I can’t help but consider that the underbelly of resilience is a compromise. That is, only, if we disallow ourselves to see and experience our despair fully.
My emotional life felt bulwarked by my grief. At times, I couldn’t see anything beyond it. But when my father died three years ago, the dam, in a way, was released. I entered into a wild period of confrontation with my pain body — all the emotional wounds, the trauma of living, all right there, colorful, painful, terrifying, and I found what my hands, and my pain, were meant to do — write.
To get there, I entered into a period of self-study. In this way, finally, instead of rushing through, I cocooned myself in my hurt. I felt that the only way to move on and live with integrity, self-respect, to cultivate compassion, and love, would be to know my hurt, to understand it, to knit my hands with it, neither holding onto it nor letting it go before it’s time. And it would be in this way, that I could draw actual, beautiful, immense, even provocative strength from it. The only thing I hadn’t anticipated was that it would take time — a lot of time. Slow like molasses time.
And that’s okay.
This thing about resilience, it’s admirable qualities, things people like, the marks of a hero — courage, bravery, strength, do not actuate if we haven’t meaningfully explored our hurt. What I mean is, if we keep running away from our pain, whatever it’s source, it will always be there, driving us. Think about it. Think about all the uncomfortable emotions you might experience in a day. If you sit with them for a moment, can you touch their source?
When I was younger, I wasn’t okay with hurting — a lot of us aren’t. It’s uncomfortable. Scary. Confronting. So, if you’re like me, you probably created all sorts of coping mechanisms, many of which were maladaptive, to avoid feeling pain. But at some point, something in life will happen, and you’ll have to face it. So resilience stops being about standing up and moving on. It becomes more about standing still in the muck.
Over these last few years, slowing down, opening the seal of my pain body, has taught me that my pain is my most productive, most valuable resource. And through the lens of it, I can see that I am living my best life. I have learned that resilience was not so much about showing my strength or stamina, to the outside world, but to myself. Suddenly, the necessity to get there, wherever there was, felt moot. I was where I needed to be all along.
I have to say, healing feels like an oddly contentious word, more like a destination than a state of being. Though only because I'm not sure if healing ever really happens. Dare I say; I'm not sure you ever wind up on the other side of not okay. So I decided that part of my resilient nature, part of what makes me, me, is is accepting of that.
The thing is, resilience and grief are curious bedfellows. This decade-long process of grieving has taught me that people are often uncomfortable with other people’s pain, though, only as much as they are uncomfortable with their own. Let me be clear: that is not a judgment. What I’m offering is a shift in perspective, a springboard toward transformative action. Empathy is the salve to cure our wounds.
I’ve recently told myself that I don't have to heal. But that agreement is predicated on two promises. First, I cannot work out my pain on others, and second, I have to make my grief into something else. I have to use it for good.
Bound up with grit, and perseverance, resilience is deeply instinctual, it helps us survive. But if we don’t allow it to do its profound work, it’s soul-nourishing goodness; we miss out on it’s most salient feature — the ability to hold a vision for beauty. Meaning, an integrated life.
When my mother was still alive and thought she was alone in the house, sometimes I’d catch her dancing. From my vantage point in the living room, I'd peer around the corner, into the kitchen to watch her. On her face was a look of pure joy.
My grandmother, my mother's mother, also died young. My mother's eyes were never the same after that, and I think she had a hard time feeling happy. That is something I understand deeply now.
This thing happens when people close to us die. This thing where you feel like you have to resist your own life because it might mean that you are okay with their passing. Of course, you aren’t okay with it. But you have to continue to live.
You have to find a way to dance in both seen, as well as the unseen ways.
These days, I’m starting to look a lot more like my mother.
Like a woman, who lives with pain.
But what is beauty, if not perspective, if not forgiveness, maturity, compassion, gratitude for all the things that cut you out and made you fertile enough to grow?
Jocelyn M. Ulevicus is a writer, educator, and seeker of truth and beauty. Her work aims to assign a meaningful, accessible, and loving language to themes of loss, trauma, and heartache. You can follow her on Instagram or contact her via her website.
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