The Moon Is Just the Moon: A Child’s Growth Into Grief After Loss of a Mother
I was a happy child. This seems an odd sentiment for a childhood defined overwhelmingly by the loss of my mother, but the statement is as genuine as is my ongoing awareness of her absence. Her death remains a mystery to me, and my grief for her will always be with me, to varying degrees, as I move through my own life. The reason for my childhood happiness, however, is not a mystery at all. People surrounded me—before the innocence of my childhood lost its ability to protect me from the devastating pain of her death—and ensured my grief would unfold within an experience of life’s joys and the knowledge that I was loved.
My mother died of breast cancer in 1983. I was nine years old and in the fourth grade. I remember clearly the day she died, though not many days prior to her death. In many ways, the snapshot of that day foretold my path through my grief, and the foundation forming under and around me, even if on that day I lacked the maturity to understand what I had lost. She died on a sunny Sunday in September. My older brother and I followed our usual Sunday routine of attending Crescent Hill Baptist Church, while my dad spent the morning at the hospital to be with my mother. After the service, Nina Pollard, a dear friend to my parents and mother to one of my closest friends since childhood, came looking for me and my brother. I saw her face, and immediately, without a word, I knew my mother was gone. Nina did not speak. As she would do countless times in the future, she wrapped her arm around my shoulder with a firm grip, then guided me through the crowd, without letting go. She led me to the office of Steve Shoemaker, our pastor and my friend. There, my father sat on Steve’s sofa, his head in his hand, eyes closed. I remember walking in the office, alone with my brother, and waiting for confirmation of what I knew. “Your mother died this morning.” The words came and hovered heavily in the room, as did the tears. I distinctly remember the feeling of dizziness, the rush of questions in my mind as to what would happen to us now, and my desperate hope that heaven was real. My father held me and my brother tightly and began the refrain that he would repeat for years to come: “If we stick together, we can make it.” I remember wondering if that was true. I imagine my brother and father did as well.
The rest of that day and following week are only random snapshots of memories. People coming to the house. Casseroles. Showing off my dog. Picking out a dress for the funeral. Missing school. Singing “Amazing Grace” in church before her casket. Many of the memories are tinged with a sense of guilt—I remember playing hopscotch the day she died. Laughing with people who came to the house. Enjoying the food. Thinking the inside of the limousine was fancy.
The finality of death is incomprehensible to a child still engaged in the pastime of make-believe. My childhood imagination became my greatest conscious comfort when I had to cope with solitude. Sleeping became increasingly difficult without my mother’s comforting routine of tucking me in. I spent many nights gazing through my window at the moon, pretending that my mother was in, on, or embodied by the moon listening to my stories. In retrospect, I see clearly in that connection my efforts to reconcile notions of heaven and death. It made infinitely more sense to me to talk to my mom in the moon above me than by visiting her grave and imagining her in the ground. I created a special seat at the window and decorated the window frame with pictures of her, to help me see her face up above me. If I tried, I could see her face smiling down at me. The moon became my confidante, the heaven that held my mother’s spirit. I felt comforted by its appearance. Soon I had created my own routine of tucking myself in after finding the moon in the sky.
Eventually, inevitably, maturity pushed away my childhood innocence. Gone was the ability of my imagination to overcome my awareness of my mother’s absence. The moon became just the moon, not some version of heaven. I began to ask questions. Initially, I directed the questions inward. I was angry with myself, even embarrassed to think of my behavior in the days surrounding her death. How could I enjoy any of these moments? Worse, how could I show any joy in front of my father, or my brother, in the midst of mourning ? How could I have reveled in the attention bestowed on me? Then the questions turned outward, and with them, so did my anger. Why did my mom die? Did we not pray enough? Why would my mom die when others lived?
My grief began in earnest as I watched my father cope with his own, despite his efforts to shield me from it. And how could he? I had lost my mother, about whom I had few memories not tinged with her sickness; my father, however, lost his life companion, the mother of his children, his best friend. I felt responsible at times for keeping my father happy, or at least unwilling to give up. In some ways, I grieved for his loss more than I grieved for my own—his was more tangible somehow. In his many efforts to mother me, he protected me from the depths of his grief without hiding its existence. My father had provided me with other places to take my grief – the associate pastor who also lost his mother as a child, a child psychologist, other mothers. But he was the only person, I thought, who understood the magnitude of this loss. The only person who could understand how badly I missed her. I could not handle the pithy cop-out response of so many who tried to comfort me by explaining my mom’s death away as part of God’s mysterious will. Why would I want anything to do with a God who wanted my mother anywhere but with me? Who would dare tell a child that a benevolent God wanted to take her mother away after a painful sickness? My father was the only person, I thought, who had been completely honest with me—and he believed in some form of heaven. As my questions of why became more persistent, I took them to my father who always listened willingly, this theologian fighting to maintain his own faith in the midst of the most profound loss imaginable.
My most cherished memories of childhood are my conversations with my father about My Questions. So many mornings, I woke up first, poured my dad (and eventually myself) a cup of coffee, then woke my father to begin pummeling him with the why of life, and the bigger why of death. I knew my father would never lie to me, and he would not give me an easy answer for me to reject when I was older. He never turned me away. If I was late to school, he wrote a note and commented that this was more important. If I grew frustrated or angry, he sat in silence and listened, then comforted me as best he could, acknowledging at times that comfort was not enough. Sometimes we cried together. Other times we sat in silence, trying to accept the realization that there was nothing that could be said to give either one of us a full sense of satisfaction. Little did I know then how much my father shared my questions. I joke with him now that he never really answered me. This was, of course, deliberate. My answers became my answers, or non-answers. He equipped me with confidence in answering the questions that I could, and he taught me it was possible to live with the unanswered questions, even with the answers that were so grossly unsatisfactory. Eventually, I stopped looking for my mother in the moon.
My father told my brother and me on that sunny day in September “if we stick together, we can make it.” But grief is an intensely personal, lonely experience. The three of us confronted grief at different times, in vastly different ways, necessarily isolated from each other. Grief made it impossible to always stick together. We suffered together and alone, at times battling depression, anger, even detachment. Yet, when I think of my childhood, my immediate thought is of my happiness despite the constant awareness of the grief around me, whether my own or the grief of my father and brother. How could this be? The answer seems simple enough to me now. So many people in my life loved me and planted that knowledge firmly as I matured. When my grief unleashed its fury, I knew that the love shown to me was more powerful. It encompassed hours spent with my father in the morning over coffee, a pastor and associate pastor willing to talk to me about my nightmares, home-cooked meals from my friend’s moms, and female seminary students to take me shopping and out to eat. So many people were determined to give me pieces of the childhood I would have had with my mother. They recognized that my childhood was not the same, even before I was able to do so. Mine was a grief delayed. By the time my grief became real—at times, even debilitating—I had a foundation in place that had been under construction for years without my realizing it.
Just a few weeks ago, I received in the mail a card from Judy Johnson. She was the mother of a childhood friend, wife of Crescent Hill’s Minister of Education, friend to my father, and a fixture in my childhood and adolescence. She sent me a copy of a card she found recently that I had made for her as a small child, “To my Second Mom.” I cried happy tears, knowing what it meant to her, and grateful for her presence in my life as one of my many “second moms.” Nina Pollard, Ginger Miller, Judy Johnson. My most important second mom, however, was my dad. He was a motherly father, imperfect and grieving, always willing to listen to me, even if he had no idea what to say. He shared my frustration at the futility of some questions. He helped me cope with the reality that the moon is just the moon, and that my mother was gone. As an adult, I tattooed my mother’s face in the moon high on my arm. It's hard for me to see but easy to hide, an icon of remembrance and acceptance that she is still with me. On the skin of my opposite lower arm facing me is my father’s face in the sun, visible to me from any angle. It's a reminder of the light that remained in my life, even when I knew only darkness. The moon is not just the moon, after all.
Not every child who experiences such a loss will have a surviving parent willing to create a safe space to grieve. Not every child who experiences such a loss will have other mothers willing to give her moments of a happy childhood and provide a firm embrace as she grows into womanhood. My hope for every child who loses a parent is that someone is willing to be there as the power of childhood imagination fades earlier than it may otherwise, ensuring that they find a way to continue to make happy memories, even as they make room for her grief.
Michelle Tupper Butler is a litigation attorney at Dickstein Shapiro in Washington, DC. She also serves on the board of directors as a founding member of juvenile justice advocacy group DC Lawyers for Youth. She lives in DC with her husband Brandon, a custom carpenter and musician, and with her rescued Doberman, Boomer.