Letters to My Mama: A Daughter’s Odyssey through the First Year of Mourning
by Cheryl Kain
On August 13, 2009, my adoptive mother, Elaine Windrum Kain, who was, to me, my one and only mom, passed away. She was my best friend, go-to movie date, confidante, and companion extraordinaire. Elaine Kain was always game! Whether we were riding in my convertible, top down, in the dead of winter, with the heat blaring, or enjoying a twilight picnic on the beach, Mom’s fun-loving spirit enveloped me in love, safety, and hope.
Words from Darcie Sims, PhD, grief management specialist, rang true: “My mom taught me everything—except how to live without her.” When I looked for books to comfort and inspire me after this indescribable loss, I found few, and was left feeling very alone.
I needed help—but, intuitively, I knew I needed something in addition to counseling or a support group. The loss of my mother left me feeling soulless at first, knee-deep in shock. Thanks to Mom, I’d enjoyed support for various creative mediums throughout my childhood. Singing was very important in my life, yet my body-wracking grief with its extreme fatigue left me little energy for singing, or for being around other people. My wounded heart needed hope, reassurance, and some kind of reconnection with my mother. Like all humans, I had suffered loss before, but this desolation had me concerned that I would ever experience joy again.
One type of creativity literally saved my life: writing.
After losing Mom, I began writing letters to her about my pain as a motherless, adult child. I was fearless in including the good, the bad, and the messy emotional rollercoaster that is grief. But after months of exploring my pain, I must have turned a corner, because I got a little bored with just telling Mom how bad it was without her. I had a new desire, a tiny flower bursting through the tiniest crack in the concrete what if my mother could write back to me?
I said a little prayer, took a breath, and then ventured to write a response, a letter back to me from my mother. Similar to non-dominant handwriting, the channeling of Mom back to me was a revelation. This changed everything. I now had a reason to be, to write to Mom and have “her” write me back. It became the first thing I did in the morning, and the last at night. Mom had always been a generous listener, and nothing had changed in that respect. When I was exhausted, lonely, and inconsolable, tapping out a letter on my laptop to Mom was the best comforter imaginable. Typing words that only she would use, especially meant for me, channeled the love, support, and humorous wisdom that only she could give. It hit the sweet spot in my heart, and I knew that this new intimacy with myself, through my departed mother, would keep me going.
I remember sitting with the car top down, in “your beach” parking lot, just listening to the surf, content in each other’s company. I loved that you answered the phone saying, “Good Morning!” That you used clean tissues as bookmarks. You loved your oatmeal cooked with milk, not water. I feel calmed by how much I am reading. I’ve finished Still Alice, What Remains, and now I’m on to Say You’re One of Them. You loved to read! You read four or five books at a time. You taught me to spell, write letters, and appreciate books. Another gift you gave me that keeps on giving.
I still can’t believe you’re gone. I wonder if there is a day, a year, a season that comes, when the griever finally believes and accepts the loss? I understand why people get into drugs or alcohol, or just give up on life. Losing you has altered my soul, my cellular memory, my deepest essence. I am walking on strange, new territory, and I need to hear from you. I hope you are well. Should I discontinue thinking you are Somewhere? Is it unhealthy to reminisce like this, and want you back?
If you have any wise words, now’s the time to share! I’m still angry that you left this place. I wish I could see you.
I love you always,
Please don’t worry about me. And certainly, it is not a bad thing to talk to me. I hear you, honey. I’m always here, and I don’t care if your therapist believes that or not. It’s real, to me and to you. That is all that matters.
I know you miss me, dear. I miss you, too, and your sister. And the cats! I wish I was there to hold your hand or tell you what to do. The job thing will clear itself up, you wait and see. Just hold on and trust yourself. Keep taking good care of yourself. I’m glad you’re feeling better from your cold.
It is nice here, where I am. You’ll see it someday. For now, just make the best of where you are. I know it’s frustrating for you, but after the spring comes, you’ll have more fun. You won’t be this sad forever, I promise. You know that I’m often right!
I didn’t leave you on purpose. I knew you and your sister would be all right. It was my time to go, Cheryl. People were waiting for me, and it was my time. Now is your time on earth—you have a lot to look forward to, even if it seems hard now. You’ll be busy with writing and more music. It’s been rough on you, without me. You have wonderful friends, so let them be there for you. Everything will ebb and flow, and the passing of time will help, sweetheart.
Remember, dear, I’m always your mother.
I love you,
The "conversations" with Mom took on a life of their own, and re-reading what I had written months ago gave me perspective on how I was moving through the different stages of grief (which are more cyclical than linear). As healing as it was to talk with my mother through the letters, it was equally comforting to read how far I’d come from the earliest, most acute grief.
I decided to integrate the letters into a book. If writing and reading them had helped me so much, perhaps it could be a guide for others in their first year of grief. At the least, organizing the letters physically into a book gave me record of how loss shaped me from who I was into who I could be. I grouped them chronologically, with creative exercises at the end of chapters, to inspire grievers to imagine ways of expressing their thoughts, emotions and dreams.
It was healing to see my heartbreak turned into something that gave back to me, during what I had originally called an inconsolable year. Writing the letters every day was the most loving action I took for myself. When I lost my mother, my first thought was, "Who will take care of me?" Since she had been my number-one cheerleader, I never had to work at self-nurturing. Once she was gone, my soul needed a way to access the archetype inside myself, the "mother bear" who was fiercely protective, discerning, and self-soothing.
After two years of letter writing, my mother’s voice had become my voice. I now had a core sense of self that could not be shaken. Mom’s love had integrated into my psyche and I was able to see, for the first time, that I was extremely fortunate to have received such an abundance of love from a parent. The strength of her love and acceptance became my strength. I became my own advocate, merging Elaine Kain’s wisdom into my own. While I will always miss her, on a fundamental level, I will never be motherless again.
Cheryl Kain is an author, teacher, and composer living on Cape Cod. She has practiced Kripalu Yoga for more than 20 years, and was featured on Good Morning America for how yoga changed her health and her life. Her memoir, Letters to My Mama: A Daughter’s Odyssey through the First Year of Grief, is available at her website, www.cherylkainwrites.com.