The messy best we can

I’ve never grieved before. Not like this.

I don’t know how to do it.

I don’t know where to start; I don’t know where it ends. We had so little warning. And this road map? It’s full of unnamed roads, dead ends.

We lost Alex in August. It happened so fast. My mother-in-law became sick, then rapidly sicker, and it was only weeks before we were forced to stare at the horrible truth: we had days together, not weeks. Not months. Certainly not years . . . the ones we’d planned to fill with kids’ dance recitals, long conversations, puzzles. Unbroken stretches of beach. Hot tea and cocoa at midnight. Sunshine.

It’s been inky-dark for six weeks now.

Grief has been a strange and unwelcome bedfellow. I’ve never lost someone so close to me—someone loved so dearly by everyone . . . especially my father-in-law, husband, children, and me.

We had no idea she was sick.

She had no idea she was sick.

When we finally heard it—cancer, after months of wrong and incomplete diagnoses, non-answers for her pain—I felt my stomach fall to my summer-scuffed toes. It was late June. And it was in her bones.

I cried for days. In the shower. On my lunch breaks. In my office. And I yelled. I punched my steering wheel alone in my car, after dropping my kids at summer camp, where I wouldn’t alarm my own shell-shocked husband. I stood in the kitchen and stirred pots of boxed mac and cheese with a spoon in one hand, crumpled tissues in the other. I dried my face each time my children ran in, sucking down the panic rising in my chest.

She was gone in just five weeks.

I’ve had time—so much time, really—to think about what made her so special. And the truth is that I couldn’t appreciate so much of what made her an outstanding mother until I became one myself. From the moment Oliver came crashing into the world, upending everything we knew and then some, I had her standing sentry—guiding us, laughing with us, crying with us. And cooking for us. Alex’s love language was gifts, and meals were part of her thoughtfulness. When all else failed (as it sometimes did), she fed us.

Nothing in my brain computes this loss. I’ve fretted endlessly about how to help my husband and children while feeling mired in despair myself. The kids—now 7 and 5—say little, afraid to set off more tears. I do let them see my grief, as all the experts share, but in slivers; I let them cry with me, encouraging them to share. We talk about the good times. We look at pictures.

There’s just so much I want to remember.

Remember her generosity. Her big laugh. Her way of making everyone feel comfortable and important in her presence. The genuine love she had for her family and friends—all of them. The way she took ordinary days and infused them with creativity, patience, and fun.

And she was all about action. I think of the time she painted our bedroom closet. When she rode with me to Spencer’s surgery (plus the realization that I, his wife, would be the one now receiving the surgeon’s call). The time she took the 3 a.m. feeding so Spence and I could sleep, giving us our first unbroken stretch of rest since Oliver came home from the NICU.

We loved all of the same things . . . and the same man. And Alex never seemed to question my presence at the side of her beloved only son. Now the mother of two dear children myself, I have a new appreciation for how hard that could have been.

Alex saw me at my absolute best and my frightening worst. And she never begrudged me any of it. She could absorb my pain, particularly the fear and exhaustion of new parenthood, without taking it personally. Even 360 miles away, Alex was never a guest in our home; she and my father-in-law are part of our home. Hearing her slippered feet on the stairs and whispered bedtime stories was a balm for my soul, too. I breathed easier, slept easier, when she was here.

I’d say I don’t know what we’re going to do without her, but I do: what we must. We’re going to keep moving. Appreciating the little things. Digging deep to feel grateful for the time we had with her—the love she inspired, and the love that continues still.

We’re going to do the messy best we can.

9 thoughts on “The messy best we can

  1. Oh, Meg, I’m so, so sorry. I wish I had words to make the hurt go away. I don’t; none of us do, I think. Just know that I’m sending thoughts of strength and togetherness to your entire family during this time.

    My deepest condolences to you and yours.

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  2. I’m so sorry for your loss. How blessed you were to have such a wonderful person in your lives A year and a half ago, I lost my own mom,, suddenly. You’re right in that it will take time. Grief will catch you at the most unexpected moments, catching you off guard even months later. But it does get better. You will be less angry, less overwhelmingly sad, more able to think of her without falling apart. In the meantime, hold tight to those who loved her as much as you do.

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  3. I’m so very sorry, Megan. Back in 2004, I lost my dear mother in law to lung cancer. She was the best and it really left a big void in our family. Remember the love she gave, and still is within you, and you know she wants you to keep living and loving. Hugs from Patricia Armstrong

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  4. I am sorry for your recent loss of your beloved Alex. So many of us already know the sting of losing someone we love so dearly. Thank you for relating your love story for this wonderful woman. Know that she will continue to love and watch your family – just like always.

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  5. When my mom passed away last year I felt like my heart was on the outside of my chest. Thank you for sharing your story of her life. I am sure those few short weeks between diagnosis and the end went was too quick. Prayers of peace and comfort for you and your family.

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  6. My deepest sympathy on the loss of Alex. She sounds like an amazing, beautiful woman. May you and your family find solace in the precious memories of her. You are in my thoughts and prayers❤️

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