|True Tales: Marissa's Story
The grieving process has no schedules or time limits. Take Marissa, for instance, who lost her mother in 1991 when she was very young. Now, Marissa is 17, and the road from there to here has been a long and winding one. She told us her story.
Marissa: I was almost 5, and my sister was 2. My mom was making dinner for us, and she lost feeling on one of the sides of her body, so she called the neighbor. They called my father (who was at work), and then they called an ambulance. They couldn't figure out what was wrong. I really didn't know what was going on. I was pretty scared. There was a fire truck and an ambulance parked outside and it was smelly and loud, and there were these strange men in our house. They were paramedics, and they were big guys, and I was really small. The paramedics put a breathing tube up her nose, and that was the last time I ever really saw her alive.
When Marissa's dad returned from the hospital that night, he told his daughters what had happened. Their mother had suffered what doctors call a brain hemorrhage, bleeding in the brain, and was going to die. Marissa's dad told the doctors to keep her mother on life support (machines that were keeping her alive by helping her breathe) until the family could come back and say goodbye.
Marissa: I understood that it meant that she wasn't coming back ever again. They took all the machines out and they let us into the hospital room to say goodbye, and I was very frightened because at that point I knew she was dead. I didn't have to go in if I didn't want to, but I wanted to. My mother was in the bed, and she had a bandage on her head from when they had done an operation to relieve the pressure in her brain. But she looked very normal to me, just like she was sleeping. Her hands were still manicured; her nails were still painted the same pink that they always were. It was something very comforting to me-And so, that's when I got the chance to say goodbye. I told her I loved her, that was it, and I held her hand.
For Marissa and her family, the next step in saying goodbye was going to the funeral.
Marissa: We were told what was going on, that it was a ceremony to say goodbye-that everybody was given their chance to say goodbye. My mom had a rose garden at our house, and we brought roses to throw into the grave. It was explained that when you die, you return to the Earth.
With her mother now gone forever, Marissa was overwhelmed with all the emotions of grief.
Marissa: I cried a lot. I was really, obviously devastated and sad, and it created a lot of stress within our family. I had temper tantrums and I was really easily set off. I was always kind of on the verge of crying. I was very emotional and very sensitive-I had a lot of anger and resentment towards God. I felt there was a great injustice; I felt that it wasn't fair. I didn't understand why it had happened to me. I didn't understand why it happened at all, and why I deserved it. I also became very clingy to my father. I didn't like to be by myself, if I could help it. It inspired this fear, that I later learned was normal-the fear of losing him too. My mom wasn't sick beforehand, so it made me afraid that my dad was going to die, and that if I wasn't with him, maybe something would happen.
Marissa was dealing with some difficult emotions, but just as hard was the day-to-day living without her mother.
Marissa: My mom's death changed the way my life worked. It changed the way my house felt. It changed everything that was familiar to me, because every experience now was something without her-Nighttime was the hardest. My mom used to tuck me in, and sometimes she'd fall asleep with me. It was very hard for me to fall asleep without that. I had a big window in my bedroom and we would look out when I went to bed and find the first star that I saw and say a poem: "Star light, Star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight." And that was our thing together-and I'd make a wish and then I'd get a story, and I'd go to bed. It was the little routine things that she did that were the hardest to live without.
Back in school following her mom's death, Marissa felt isolated and different from the other kids.
Marissa: No one else had experienced anything like that, and I didn't really have anyone to talk to about it who was my age. It made me feel very alone and very afraid. It made me a very serious little girl. Once I told the other kids, it was always something that they walked on eggshells about. They would make sure not to mention a parent, or they would look at you funny whenever you talked about moms or Mother's Day.
Before Marissa started first grade, her family moved from Northern California to Los Angeles. At her new school, none of the students knew that Marissa had lost her mother, so she decided not to tell them. She even made up lies to cover the fact that her mom was dead.
Marissa: I wasn't ready to make myself different. I would say that my mom was at work or I would say that she was on a business trip. I would get myself out of family things that would be happening at school by saying that I had doctor's appointments or family functions outside of school or something like that.
Then when Marissa was in 2nd grade, she started going to group meetings at Our House, a Los Angeles grief support center. She met other kids who had a parent die, and it helped.
Marissa: You sit in a circle of bean bag chairs with a bunch of other kids your age who have experienced almost exactly what you've experienced, and they know the feeling of not wanting to talk about it and feeling alone at school. I felt good to go there every week and feel like I wasn't alone. When I would go back to school, I knew that there were other people out there, at their schools, just like me. It was a great comfort. It made it a lot easier to talk about things, and when I started to talk about things, I finally started to be able to tell the truth at school, and I finally started to be able to feel confident in myself and feel like it was okay to share what I had gone through. It wasn't something that made me strange or weird, it was just something that happened. Group gave me a real sense of belonging, and it helped me work through a lot of the pain that I was feeling. It taught me that it was okay to cry and show emotions and not be perfectly strong and perfectly composed. That it was okay to feel angry and it was okay to show those emotions and not feel like you were doing something wrong.
After Marissa's mom died, it sometimes felt that life would never be normal again. But as she learned to work through her grief, she also learned that she could find new ways of living, and of being happy. When her mother died, for example, she lost her bedtime routine-so she and her sister made a new one, with their dad.
Marissa: My dad started reading stories to us and we had a new routine where we sat down in this chair, and my sister and I would each sit on one arm and my dad would sit in the middle and read us a bedtime story together. It takes a while, but you start to find comfort in those new routines as they become more routine.
Many years have passed since Marissa lost her mom, and she's past the pain and grief. Now that she's a teenager, Marissa helps other kids who have had a parent die by volunteering as a Teen Group Leader at Our House, the same organization that helped her.
Marissa: All the kids know when I introduce myself to them that my mother died, when she died, how she died, that I went to group. They're free to ask me any personal questions about how I felt when something happened, how I dealt with things, anything that they want to. It makes it so that they have an example of someone who's come out of what they're feeling and been through it. And it's okay. I'm okay, I'm normal, I'm happy-and they can just kind of see that.