Dear Family Advisor

My mom just died, and I don't know how to be "normal" anymore.

Last updated: Aug 30, 2011

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I'm 16. My mother became seriously ill two years ago, and I've been her caregiver. She recently died, and now I don't know what to do. She was my whole life, and now I feel empty -- and like I failed her. If she had someone better to take care of her, she might be here now.

I feel lonely, because no one really understands. My whole body hurts. I smile and laugh and function, but I'm falling apart. Now school is starting and that's a whole other group that I have to fake-smile and say, "I'm fine" to. I don't know how to climb out of this hole. I used to be such a happy-go-lucky person, and I feel like I lost that. Like I lost everything.

I want to tell you how courageous you are for being honest about what you're going through, and for reaching out. That takes guts, and it's your ability to put your sorrow into words that will help you get through this.

What you're feeling is absolutely normal. What's not normal is that you lost your mom, and that you lost her at your young age. At such times, it's as though our hearts and souls, and even our bodies, just can't accept death. It's a shock to our entire system. I too remember feeling lost and as though I had to fake it in front of everyone else. And all the things I'd thought I wanted -- to go to a movie, to have lunch with a friend -- none of that mattered anymore, because I'd lost something so much more important.

That's what grief feels like, and I don't know any way around it -- you have to just walk through it. You're also physically and emotionally exhausted from years of caregiving. It will take time to find a new normal, to figure out who you are and what direction your life will go in.

I do know that, in time, the sadness will start to ease off just a bit, that you'll start to feel connected to friends and your own life again. I hope that knowing this now will help a little. If you've always considered yourself happy and upbeat, that's a good sign. It means that's your natural set point, and -- believe it or not -- it will be easier for you to return to that way of being, because your body and mind know what that feels like and prefer to live that way.

As for feeling guilt that you could have cared for your mom better, you'll be able to see that more realistically, given time. You did not do anything to hasten your mom's passing. You cared for her when she needed you most and did the best you could. You were there to the end -- how brave that is! And even though those memories hurt now, I hope that later some of the sweet, tender, and even funny times will come flooding back.

Meanwhile, it helps to keep moving as much as you can. At school and in friendships and in life in general, you're going to feel like you're just going through the motions for a while. There will be a few minutes, or even hours, when you'll be OK, and then grief will wash over you again. But staying busy will distract you, and that can be a good thing. That break lets the healing begin. You can't and don't want to push what you feel away all the time, because that means you'll just have to deal with it later -- but a break sure helps.

I hope you have one or two good friends you can talk to, someone you can just be yourself with. Also, what comforts you, what can you immerse yourself in for a short while? Music? Renting movies? Working out? Focus on that thing. Do you attend church, or is there a place where you feel surrounded by people who care? What I'm getting at here is that though everybody's different, we all have ways we cope -- healthy ways -- that make crappy days more bearable. Learning how to comfort ourselves in nondestructive ways is important throughout our whole lives.

Grief is natural part of your healing, but if it gets to be too much, make some noise and reach out until somebody really hears you. Try as much as you can not to give into being completely overwhelmed by the sadness. A few minutes of hard grief, a bad couple of days -- these are inevitable; but if you become unable to function, you can't sleep or you sleep all the time, or you feel like there's simply no hope -- get help, and get it fast. There are bereavement groups, counselors, and even medications that can help get you through this.

I know it's hard to believe, but one day most of the deep, hard hurt will subside and you'll feel your mom's love and goodness surrounding you. Just keep reminding yourself that she would want you to embrace life with your whole heart.