I recently marked the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. I was with her throughout the week before she passed away and had the privilege of shepherding her through that transition — a moment I had been preparing for since I first became a hospice physician. I knew many years ago that I would be with my mom on the day she died and that it would be one of the most important days of my life.
Her death itself was actually joyful, though it was a process that took a great deal of inner work on her part, which has also been true for many of my hospice patients. Mom had been ready and waiting to “go home” for the previous five years and was relieved that her time had finally come. So as she took her last breaths I had to celebrate on her behalf, that her struggle was coming to an end, even while my heart was breaking as each thread of our physical connection slipped through my hands and I confronted the enormity of that loss.
For days after her death I was in a heightened state of consciousness — sensing her presence everywhere around me, exquisitely aware of the beauty and fragility of absolutely everything in existence. Every portal of my being was wide open and love poured freely into and out from my heart as I delicately negotiated those tender days.
But within a few weeks I had retreated into the protective cocoon of grief, while I went through the motions of daily life, numb and slightly dazed. I could no longer recall what it felt like to be in that incredible state of lightness I had experienced immediately after her death and I concluded that it had simply been a symptom of sleep deprivation.
Over the next few months I kept myself incredibly busy as I joined a mastermind group, traveled to a publicity summit, became a radio show host, produced a digital workshop and created an online interview series, along with doing speaking engagements in various parts of the country. I stayed constantly on the go and rarely took a moment off, even when I was “on vacation.”
I was proud of myself for being so resilient and productive. I didn’t realize that I had actually been hiding for all of those months from the grief that was mounting up inside me. But then everything fell apart: my radio show was cancelled, the interview series ended, my mastermind group moved on without me, my publicity contacts stopped communicating and I had run out of speaking engagements.
Winter weather had arrived, the holidays were looming, my calendar was empty and I had nothing to show for a year of exhausting over-commitment and frantic busy-ness. I suddenly recognized how short the days had become as I laid awake for hours in the darkness, lost in my own emptiness.
“This is my first holiday season without Mom,” I thought to myself, remembering how much she loved these times of celebration and always made each moment feel so full… full of love and joy and laughter. And now, though I had the financial resources to buy anything I wanted or needed, I could not even begin to fill this emptiness that haunted me deep in the darkness.
How had she done it? What “magic” had she created to make each moment of anticipation before a special holiday feel so extraordinary, so full of meaning?
Searching for answers, I unpacked a box of some of her prized holiday decorations I had “inherited” after she died: a glittery ornament she and my grandmother had pieced together from old greeting cards; a tree-shaped wall hanging she and her sister made from broken green and brown glass (beer bottles my grandfather found in the trash behind a local dance hall) and adorned with old costume jewelry; various vases and candle holders she had crafted from discarded plastic bottles and glass jars, decorated with scraps of lace and fabric.
I had found these “treasures” of hers to be deeply embarrassing when I was a teenager and my friends from across town would visit our little house. They lived in huge homes, fancily decorated with porcelain figurines and hand-painted glass ornaments, which no one was allowed to touch. Yet my mother, oblivious of our humiliating low social status, proudly displayed her homemade trinkets as if they were priceless works of art.
Lost in these memories as I held the fragile greeting card ornament in my hands, I suddenly realized what my mother had been able to do all those years ago …
She had created something from nothing …
She had excelled at making each day seem special, even though her resources were limited. She managed to create little miracles everywhere she went, though her pocketbook was empty. She took things that were unwanted and discarded and gave them new purpose and meaning, finding the hidden beauty in everything.
She did this even with the destitute families she met who needed a place to live — she allowed them to move into the little rental house she owned, knowing they wouldn’t be able to pay their rent for several months. “You will make it up later when things are going better,” she would tell them. And her grateful tenants, relieved that someone finally saw something of value in them, almost always repaid her.
As I arranged my mother’s treasures on a shelf in my living room, I suddenly knew what I needed to do. I would find my way through this grief that was smothering me by doing what Mom would do: make something from nothing.
That night when the sun went down and the temperature dropped well below freezing, I placed two buckets of water out in the snow. They froze around the perimeter and remained hollow inside, forming beautiful sparkling ice lanterns that glowed with the light of the candles I placed in them.
I situated these ice lanterns at the top of my driveway, where they illuminated the path toward home in the deepest darkness of night though they were composed of “nothing” but water. Each evening as I trudged through the snow to light them, I took comfort in the warmth emitted by those tiny flames and found hope that perhaps this light will also guide others who are wandering in the dark shrouds of grief toward the home they are seeking.
Though Mom will never again be with me physically and I will never again open a present from her on a special holiday, I have received the most important gift she could ever give me: the ability to cherish what really matters in life, to find the hidden beauty in everything, to make something from nothing.
And that has become my path through this process of grief: to continue to honor Mom’s memory by offering up whatever I have as a gift to the universe, free from self-judgment and embarrassment, cherishing each moment as a priceless work of art, creating always:
Something from nothing …
Light in the darkness …
Fullness within the emptiness.
It is all I can do right now… and indeed… all that needs to be done.
About the Author: Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician and the author of the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying.” She is a frequent keynote speaker and radio show guest whose profound teachings have helped many find their way through the difficult times of life. Learn more about her work at www.karenwyattmd.com.