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It hits you like waves. One minute, you’re staying afloat. The next minute, a wave crashes into you. Now you’re gasping for air, trying to get your grip on something, anything, so it doesn’t take you under.”
Breathe. Just breathe.
That’s what it was like for me when I lost my grandmother, Mamita. That’s what it was like to grieve but not let anyone see me grieve because I needed to be strong for my mom. She’s the one who lost her mother, after all.
And I thought to myself, “I have no right to be sad—I still have my mom.” So I kept it all inside.
Staying busy kept me afloat, so I took charge of handling all the arrangements with the help of my sister, hiding in the work of loss. Making the phone calls to family. Gathering the photos. Taking trips to the cemetery. Picking out a monument. Picking out flowers. Planning the food. Leading the novena.
Never openly grieving. Just remembering to breathe.
After the funeral, I stood in the kitchen of Mamita’s house, washing dishes. When I turned around, I saw my mom as I’d never seen her before. Seated at the table with her siblings, she reminisced about the force of their Mamita and instinctively reached for one of her sisters, holding hands for the first time in ages. And then another sister reached out, then another, until slowly all six of them were linked around the table in silence.
My heart nearly burst.
In that moment, that precious, private moment, they were not mothers, or aunts, or wives. They were just daughters, together again, working through the pain of losing their mom.
I walked quietly toward the bathroom, and my sister—seeing me caught up in a wave of grief—walked right into the bathroom with me. Together, in secret, we cried.
Grieving for our mother.
Grieving for the loss of Mamita.
Then we wiped our faces, left the bathroom, and jumped right back into survival mode.
As the days went on, I tended to my mom as she had me, for all those years of my life that I have needed mothering.
“Eat something, just a little.”
“Mom, let me help you get dressed.”
“It’s okay, Mom, we’re here. Just let it out.”
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I wanted to help her. I wanted to heal her. I told myself that’s what I should be doing. And if I kept busy, I didn’t have to do any of that for myself. I could just power through each day, trying not to think of Mamita.
One night in my apartment, at three in the morning, I woke up to the sound of a guttural wail. It was the sound of my own voice. I never knew that a human could make that sound, that I could make the sound of an animal in pain.
With one hand, I gripped at my chest, and with the other, I ripped off the blankets as I struggled to breathe. Then I wailed some more.
Ten, nine, eight…
Seven, six, five…
Just remember to breathe.
Once I started letting go of how I “should be,” I was slowly able to lean into the love that buoyed us for all these years.
After what felt like an eternity, a sense of calm came over me and I was able to get out of bed. I walked slowly to my laptop. It powered on and I began to write out my grief.
For my mom.
Sentences flowed as tears poured down my face. Then I closed my laptop and went back to bed.
I spent many nights this way, openly grieving, using my pain to create. In time, I found I could breathe again without reminding myself to do so.
As I allowed myself to feel it, I started to move through the waves and not against them. I’ve come to realize that it did not serve me to compare my pain or to hide my sadness from my mom. Once I started letting go of how I “should be,” I was slowly able to lean into the love that buoyed us for all these years.
Mamita’s love for us.
Our love for Mamita.
And our love for our mom.
Because that’s what remains.
Lisann Valentin created the short film “Letting Go,” which captures her journey of loss and the strength she needed to let go.