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A Simple Act of Gratitude Helped Me Grieve My Mom’s Death

Friday, November 12, 2021

By Lizzie H Cleary

A few weeks after our daughter was born, my husband walked in from a grocery store run to find me sitting in the all-purpose room of our small apartment. We had rechristened our lone armchair as “the throne,” and it was the spot where all of my new parenting activities took place: nursing, soothing, rocking, and recovering from a C-section. Our infant daughter was asleep next to me, and I was half-buried in a flurry of note cards, stamps, envelopes, return address labels, and a few scattered pens.

“What are you working on?” my husband asked with kind concern.

“Don’t you want to nap while she’s sleeping?” he continued, sharing the advice we had heard from so many: “Sleep when the baby sleeps.”

“I’m working on thank-you cards,” I replied, as I resumed my cursive scrawl.

“Uh, I don’t think anyone is expecting you to write those,” he said. “Everyone knows we have a brand-new baby. I think you’re given a grace period on thank-you letters, if anyone expects them at all.”

I took a deep breath and kept writing.

While the physical muddle of writing supplies was visible, I was also submerged in an abstract world of grief. Almost a decade earlier, my mother had died unexpectedly in a kayaking accident a few months after I completed college. It wasn’t until several years later that I came to accept her death as a suicide, and not the accidental drowning that was initially hard to make sense of, given her strength as a boater and swimmer.

Grief had already colored the start of new jobs, a cross-country move, a wedding, and the in-between moments of feeling my mom’s absence in a million tiny ways. But now, a fresh wave of grief had left me winded as I tried to inhabit my new role as a mother.

Unanswered questions assembled a heavy stack in my mind. What was I like as a baby, and how she had felt as a new mom? Did she savor the dependable routine of feeds, naps, and changes, or did she feel restless with the repetition? Who did she lean on in those early months as a new parent? How long would she have stayed with us when she came to meet her first grandchild? I grieved the gap between how others tried to take care of me, and the ways I knew her presence would have reassured me. I grieved a daughter without her grandmother and a mom who never became a grandmother.

A fresh wave of grief had left me winded as I tried to inhabit my new role as a mother.

I knew writing those cards had more to do with myself than with the expectations of others. I could text a thank you or send a photo of our daughter in a gifted onesie, and with subsequent babies, I would do just that, but then I clung to those cards as a sign that I was still myself. A responsible, thoughtful person, who expressed gratitude and felt enjoyment. Someone who could move unencumbered. That was who I wanted to be. That was who I willed myself to sound like with each note I wrote, despite the heartache I felt.

Those first weeks were hard. I questioned and worried about everything. Whether our daughter was getting enough to eat. How I would know if she was too warm or cold. If keeping her awake a bit longer would grant us a better night’s sleep, or backfire and leave us with an overtired, inconsolable baby (always the latter). And, finally, how waves of grief reappeared after I had already grieved a decade ago.

I felt untethered in this new world of unrelenting responsibility. Clinging to what would make things right, I wrote those thank-you notes. Stamp in the right corner, return address in the left. Names paired with gifts, checked off on a to-do list. Envelopes sealed and stacked, ready to travel across state lines and into the warm hands of family and friends.

For other mothers, maybe that anchor is going on a daily run, listening to their own music instead of lullabies, or lunch dates with friends. For me, it was expressing gratitude. The notes reassured me that the world was in order and that I was still me. Sleepless and laden with grief, but also responsible, and still saying thank you.


Dr. Lizzie Cleary is a clinical psychologist and the Training Director at the Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children.