Chelsea Roff: Losing a Parent… and How Empty Spiritual Teachings Make It Worse

There is a ghost where my mother used to be. She looks like my mother, sounds like my mother… but she is not my mother.

She calls everyday. Every. Single. Day. Sometimes five – but more often ten, eleven, twelve times. The phone rings, and I shudder.


“Chelsea!”

“Hi mom. How are you?”

“I miss you, Chelsea!”

 “I miss you too. Did you go to the library today?”
“No.”

“Why not?”

“It’s hot. And Johnny won’t take me. I had a McDonald’s cheeseburger.”

“Oh you did? Was it good?”

“Mmmmhmm.  When are you coming to visit me?”

“I don’t know, mom. I live in California now, remember?”

“California? That’s so far. Why are you in California?”

“This is where I live now.”

 

… and on it goes.

 

She’ll call two hours later and we do it all over again. She tells me about her McDonald’s cheeseburger and asks me to come visit. I tell her I live in California, and she is surprised again… California? Why so far away? When will I come to take her home?

I’m not coming home, mom. This is my home now.

If I don’t answer, she leaves me messages. Sad, confused, rambling voicemails, pleading for me to answer, to come pick her up. The messages always sound almost exactly the same. Listening to them makes me feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone.

 

“Chelsea, where are you? I went to McDonald’s today. When are you coming to get me?”

Delete. Next message.

“Chelsea, where are you? I went to McDonald’s today. When are you coming to get me?” 

… and on it goes.

 

About a year ago I stopped answering. Or I stopped answering as much, anyway. Talking to the ghost became too painful, agonizing really. But after a few weeks – months, sometimes – the guilt overtakes me and I answer. She doesn’t even notice I’ve been avoiding her, speaks to me like we just had a conversation the day before. She says, “Chelsea,” like a giddy little girl. My heart softens.

 

“You know I love you mom, right? You know I love you very much?”

I can hear her smile. “I know you love me, Chelsea. When are you coming to get me?”

 

Five years ago my mother was diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome – a form of alcohol-induced dementia. That’s when she became a ghost. I was living in Dallas at the time – she in Austin – when one day my little sister called me in a panic, said she couldn’t find our mother anywhere. There’s blood all over the house, she told me. It looks like a murder scene.

I got in my car and made the four-hour trip to Austin that night, calling hospitals and jails on the way. Finally, I got a hold of the attendant at the gas station near her house. Do you know where my mother is? I asked him. She’s the little blonde lady, the one who comes in there all the time to get wine and a cup of ice. I think the police picked her up, he tells me. She walked in here with blood all over her face – I think she fell.

The next day I find her at Williamson County Jail — she’d been arrested for public intoxication. When the security guards finally take me in to visit her, I see the ghost sitting on the other side of a two inch pane of glass in a wheelchair — eyes glazed over, drool seeping from the corners of her mouth.

 

“Oh, mommy.” She stares blankly past me. “Mommy, are you okay?”

Silence.

“Please, talk to me.”

No response. Nothing. Hollow gaze. Empty eyes.

 

A few months later, she was released from jail and a county judge awarded me custody and legal rights. I had just turned eighteen and essentially become my mother’s parent. With the support of my aunt (the rest of her family had disowned her), we were able to get my mom into a group home for people with mental disabilities. After several months of medication, she regained the mental capacities of a second grader. Over time, she came to recognize me as her daughter again.

She knew her name, what city she lived in. But when I would ask her what year it is, she’d give me a ridiculous answer… like 1995. Sometimes she thought George Bush was president, would ramble on about how we needed to get that chimp out of office. That made me laugh. I told her a black man was president. Oh! It’s about time, she would say. When are we gonna elect a woman?

Her doctor told me this was as good as it would get. Think of her like an Alzheimer’s patient, he said.

Guiltily, I went back to Dallas, back to my life. I was a freshman in college, barely making ends meet with my financial aid — I couldn’t drop out of school and move down to Austin. The guilt paralyzed me. I was a bad daughter. I was selfish. I’d abandoned my mother and sister, left them behind. How could I just go back to my life like nothing happened? How could I be happy?

My therapist told me I needed to grieve the loss of my mother. Grieve? But she’s not dead, I told her. “She’s dead to you.”

I didn’t cry. I didn’t shout, didn’t get angry. I isolated. I hardened. I worried, I controlled, I tried to fix. But I didn’t mourn. Touching grief felt too vulnerable, too weak. I would not be weak. I would not.

******

Yesterday in yoga class I was lying in pigeon pose, when I felt my mother sitting before me. Not the ghost mother, but my real mother. Holding my hand.

The yoga teacher started speaking: Everything in life happens perfectly and synergistically so the soul can transform and know God.

I wanted to scream. “Bull$#!&! How the #%& did drinking until her brain withered away teach this woman about God? Where’s the divinity in that?!

The phone in my bag lights up. Mommy Dearest.

“Our challenges,” the teacher continued, “are spiritual lessons that illuminate our disconnection from source and lead us toward awakening. This is karma. Spirit gives us the lessons we need to learn. This is how the soul wakes up.”

Don’t talk to me about Karma, I wanted to tell her. Don’t give me that crap about the Law of Attraction, about how if we just focus on our desires everything we want will come to us. Tell that to the ghost, I wanted to yell at her. Tell her all she needs to do is wake up and ask for what she wants to get better. Tell her she manifested this.

I used to believe that story. I used to believe that adversity inevitably becomes resilience, that the universe conspires to bring us toward transcendence, that if we don’t learn the lesson this time… well, there’s always the next life. But I don’t believe it anymore. I can’t.

Losing a parent is something we all have to cope with sooner or later — some earlier on, others later in life. It is a heart breaking, earth-shaking, change-your-life-forever kind of experience. Some of us become our parents’ parents, have the privilege of holding their hands as they become infantile again, kiss their foreheads like they once kissed ours. You survive it, but you come away with new eyes. Nothing looks the same.

Losing my mother did indeed teach me “spiritual” lessons. When I finally allowed myself to grieve, I discovered within me a newfound capacity for compassion, resilience, empathy, self-care. My mother, cliché as it sounds, became my one of my greatest teachers. She taught me to love without expecting anything in return, she taught me that I was stronger than I believed myself to be, she taught me to forgive.

But what about her… what spiritual lesson did she glean from all this? What will come of the woman who begs to go home, who cries for her daughter to come save her from the monsters in her mind? Where’s the light in her darkness? Where’s the divinity in someone drinking herself to death?

Sometimes, I think, suffering is just that… suffering. Sometimes, there’s no pretty bow to tie around a tragedy, nothing beautiful or glorious about the grotesque. Spinning an optimistic story around the “spiritual purpose” of heartbreak, grief, trauma, etc no longer makes me feel better… in fact, it makes me feel worse.

The notion that God acts like a puppeteer behind the curtain of the universe, weaving elaborate narratives to teach human beings about the nature of Love… it just isn’t true. And that myth creates shame, blame, a sense that people are suffering because God willed it so – or worse, because they (karmically) brought it upon themselves. People don’t get cancer because God wants to teach them a lesson. Children don’t starve to death to learn about universal Love. Life includes suffering, simple as that. Feel it, endure it, and hopefully – when you finally stop trying to make sense of it – it will pass.

Thankfully, I was able to glean a few gems from my suffering. But she – this ghost of a woman that I cannot help but love (she’s my mother, after all) – as far as I can tell, she will not. She got lost in the darkness. She won’t emerge stronger, wiser, with a greater capacity for empathy. For her, this is it. This is all.

That’s a much more honest approach to life.

And so, I accept. There is suffering. There is joy.  Both are temporary. This is life.

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About Chelsea Roff

Chelsea Roff is Managing Editor for Intent Blog. She is an author, speaker, and researcher writing about science, spirituality, women's health, and humanitarian issues. Visit her website to read past writings, watch video interviews, and see her teaching schedule. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Comments

  1. Reading about your wrestling match with this tragedy brings me directly to my own grief and anger over the death of our son, who would be 7 years old. No guru or pastor could ever satisfy my questions about why–their answers were shallow, meaningless, or way off base, which is why the title caught my attention. Your ultimate conclusion rings true. Thank you.

    1. Oh, Mindy. My heart breaks reading this, and remembering your tears. I remember when we first met, I thought to myself… this woman has known sadness. This woman has known grief. I couldn't put my finger on why, but I knew.

      I was just talking to a friend on the phone about this today… this unrelenting need to understand, this search for answers. I just want to know why. My friend told me, "the truth is, I don't know why… no one does." I wish more people had the courage to say that.

      I love you. I miss you. And I'm so grateful to have you in my life.

  2. Beautiful and brave post, Chelsea. You're right, sometimes there isn't a spiritual purpose to be found in suffering; our work then becomes building a container to hold it, and if we're lucky, finding others to bear witness. And then there's hope – like embers in a fire, the flame from it all too tenuous and elusive. I read a line yesterday from Gail Caldwell about grief: "hope in the beginning feels like such a violation of the loss, and yet without it we couldn't survive".

    1. Wow. I had to read that quote a few times for it to really sink in, Lara. Yes. Sometimes, I think, people grow attached to the grief — they're afraid to let it go for fear of betraying the person they love. The tendency is to deny it altogether or drown and lose ourselves in it. There's a balance in between. As you say, a making space — building a container to allow whatever arises to come and go.

      Thank you for bearing witness.

  3. Thank you for your very honest and heartbreaking story. I couldn't agree with you more. I used to be intensely interested in looking at every situation through the idea of spiritual lessons and karma. As I'm getting older with many experiences behind me, I came to a similar conclusion. Sometimes some thing is just is, and have no deeper meaning, other than the meaning we wish to find in it. Karma is complex and not a one to one equation of action/reaction. We see it used in such damaging ways every day, blaming victims and people in dire conditions for creating their own destiny. To look for the silver lining in every tragedy might have its purpose but not just honor the moment and acknowledge it for what it is. There is so much senseless pain and suffering that we cannot do anything about and losing loved ones who go through it is heartwrenching. This we can never get over. As you said there is Joy and there is Pain and everything in between, and this is the human experience. I wish you well, I wish you peace and love in your heart and I hope that you'll be gentle with yourself through this difficult process.

  4. wow! thanks for sharing. I feel similar guilt, sadness over my mother's situation as well. good to hear another's perspective.

  5. Powerful and heartbreaking. I wish that it were not so – but it is. Why does one person get lost in the darkness and another emerge out of tragedy wiser and more resilient? It's a mystery that we can't answer. But those who are strong, like you, can be of great service by providing inspiration to others.

    Thanks, Chelsea. You are a beautiful lady.

    1. Thank you, Carol. So grateful to you and Roseanne for encouraging me throughout this process… writing that chapter opened a lot of doors for me as a writer (even with it not being out yet!). Hope to see you again soon.

  6. Ah, what a raw and brave soul you are! The world is so blessed to witness your activism. We often can't understand the why, and allowing that mystery and sadness to be exactly what it is, is our challenge. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Thank you for this, Chelsea. This makes two things now that I’ve read from you that just makes me want to meet you and have a cup of coffee (or whatever your beverage choice is) and talk!

    My mom’s alzheimer’s means the mom that raised me is dead and gone. The woman I take care of is someone else and though she may or may not recognize me when she sees me, she sure as hell has no clue that I am (was?) her son. I can learn — and HAVE learned from this experience, but mom? There is no ‘spiritual lesson’ for her; even if she did garner some insight, it would be gone within a moment or two!

    The first noble truth of the buddha is ‘dukkha is.’ He clearly states, among other things, that dukkha is losing what you love and getting what you don’t want. We live as bodies and minds, dukkha will always be with us. If there’s any ‘meaning’ in it, it can only be the meaning we create.

  8. Once again, Chelsea, you cut through spiritual materialism and expose the raw, tender heart of being human. I lost a parent to alcohol, too, as a very young girl. My dad is still alive, but he has been dead to me for over 35 years. I agree that empty, immature spiritual concepts that try and explain away suffering are useless, even detrimental. And, I also know the power of deep forgiveness, the freedom of experiencing my life beyond the path my father chose and the beauty of choosing my own way. All of these things, my father taught me, in his absence and inability to be a parent. So, yes, he has been one of my greatest teachers, too.

    1. Had to read this a few times. There's so much packed into that short little paragraph, Abby. I'm not sure what to say, other than thank you for reminding me that there are so many people on this path together… even when we don't explicitly talk about it with one another. I guess it's no surprise that you now work with struggling youth — the same reason I feel so called to serve that population.

      Thank you for the work you do. Thank you for being the woman you are. Thank you for commenting, and for being such an example of how we can turn these heartbreaks into something beautiful. And please, let's go out for coffee sometime. We live in the same town now for heaven's sake!

  9. Our little group lost too many friends over a two-year period to drug overdoses and alcohol-induced car accidents. 22 year old kids don't die with needles in their arms because god willed it–I have never been able to jive with that type of logic. Fucked up, uncontrollable things just happen sometimes. I completely agree with what you said about these events teaching us that we are stronger than we know, and can handle more than we ever thought that we could. So many emotions after reading this. Thanks, Chelsea!

  10. This article jumped out at me for the exact reason it spoke to one of the previous posters: we lost our son in utero at 36 weeks. It hasn’t been very long but sometimes the grief still surprises me with its intensity and renewal, seemingly out of nowhere. It has been limiting my yoga practice, not wanting to go there. I don’t want to be vulnerable in the way I can be on my mat, and I don’t want to hear platitudes and spiritual mumbo jumbo that, like you said, does more harm than good. There have been times in my life where I felt.the divine connection to everyone and everything; this experience has largely severed that awareness for me. There simply is no reasonable answer to the myriad questions I have. Life is just not fair.

  11. Hi Chelsea – I love that you assert that sometimes, things really do just happen, and life is random and chaotic. It makes me cherish every day, with every person, and generate gratefulness just for making it through to see another sunrise, or sunset. As humans some of us want to attach meaning to all events, for comfort, for insight, or make sense out of total confusion and grief – which as you said, is absolutely "life" too.

    So I've had this same conversation many times. I think personally I've settled on a bridge between two perspectives. On the one hand, sh*&t happens, oh yes it does…and nobody is immune to it. On the other hand, when you are a person that chooses to walk in self awareness, whether through a sense of personal responsibility, commitment to your spirituality, or simply a conscious path of growth…say…living each day with the intent of being in harmony with the world around you…one can manifest "good" things, as well as generate "bad" things from time to time. That's a beautiful ability to look back on a situation and reflect on how much of our own thoughts or intent influenced a situation in our lives. So I believe that it's quite a mixture of both, depending on who you are, and of course the circumstance you're in.

    You nailed it also when you said how much you learned from your situation with your mother. As I've matured a bit in my own spirituality, I've come to realize that "the man upstairs" is really just inside me – and it's given me a whole new perspective on how I create (or relate to) many of things that happen in my life…and also a sense of vulnerability, because I know I can't control the world around me or anyone else in it. The universe is the ultimate Catch 22.

  12. Hi Chelsea – I got so much out of reading your story and responses that it generated. I lost my Mother to cancer in 2010 and it has been a struggle to cope with her passing. I feel fortunate that I was able to move across the country to live near her for the final 10 years of her life, after living apart from her for nearly 25 years. It was like getting to know her all over again. We had our ups and downs and in the latter years I found myself being the one to comfort and hold her as she once did the same for me when I was a child. The experienced changed me and made me more compassionate and grateful for every moment I have with those I love. I wouldn't change those 10 years for anything.

  13. I "enjoyed" your writing, thanks for it. I feel your pain. This entry also helps me to imagine losing one of my parents before it happens.

    I paused to consider the points you make in the below sections:

    "Spinning an optimistic story around the “spiritual purpose” of heartbreak, grief, trauma, etc no longer makes me feel better… in fact, it makes me feel worse.

    The notion that God acts like a puppeteer behind the curtain of the universe, weaving elaborate narratives to teach human beings about the nature of Love… it just isn’t true. And that myth creates shame, blame, a sense that people are suffering because God willed it so – or worse, because they (karmically) brought it upon themselves."

    To my mind, we don't have to spin optimistic stories around heartbreak for grief to deliver its jewels. Grief is hard, but experience alone shows us that on its other side, and all along if we can feel and sense it, is the good story. And often in the midst of grief, it is hard to tell an optimistic story and be truthful to what we are feeling. But experience allows us to remember the sub-plot of grief, when we can go through grief to its end. You grieved, you learned, but sounds like your mother was a different animal to it, and so it is…the similarity of painful circumstances/suffering plays out differently for different people. It's not grief's fault, or suffering's, or even the person who refuses its entry, because they know no other. But the passage through grief, in my experience, need to have nothing to do with God weaving narratives about the nature of love. In fact, this God story is the denial of grief's deliverance to greater love; it is the denial of pain for story. Grief itself does teach us greatly about love, when we accept it as part of love. Sounds like your mother did not grieve, and perhaps she suffered for it, along with her disease. Maybe you are saying this very thing. I wanted to mention that it's not either/or—either the puppeteer God-story OR suffering…but that entry into grief delivers both in one—pain with a brighter end when we deal with it.

    So, yeah, the feel-good stories can be a way to deny pain, but the heart of grief is still sacred and is itself not a story to feel better, but an experience that can and often does make us feel better, eventually..so yeah, the story around grief makes you feel worse, but for grieving you got the good teaching/learning, hard as it is. Glad you found a different path than mom. Peace, Jack

  14. I'm so sorry for your pain Chelsea, this was a very touching story to read. I hope you find healing and even more clarity through your experiences. In my own life, I have observed that the key to healing is to discover that who I am is not and has never been touched by experience. I don't mean numbing the emotions that arise, not denying pain, anger, suffering, I don't mean constructing silly explanations that make terrible things sound good … I mean that healing is about discovering our untouched, undamaged presence beyond all that. It is a process and unfolds in due time, we can't hurry it and we can't pretend it's there when it isn't. But I do know today that suffering is not obligatory and I continue to allow my meditation practice to show me more. I hope you trust your yoga practice to take you to a place of true freedom. Blessings and love!

  15. Your story is both gut-wrenching and beautiful, Chelsea. Each of us has a story. Thank you for sharing yours with such honesty. I know your words will inspire people to feel the humanity that connects us all. It did that for me, and I will think of you and your story often. xo