Jane is gone

My mother could be … difficult.

She and I never had a real relationship. Mainly she was this woman I knew who gave birth to me and our main bond, from my perspective, was one of family obligation. You know, “but she’s your mother.”

I was raised by my grandparents after she and my father split when I was three, and I’ve often said her decision to give me up was at once the best thing that ever happened to me and the worst. I’ve had this conversation with enough mothers to know how hard “she gave her son up at age three” lands, and it’s probably true that a majority of the challenges I’ve confronted in life trace to that moment. But she was right, 100% right. It hurt me and it was a torment throughout her life, but it was the best thing she could have done for her son.

And it would almost inhumane to blame her when you consider what she grew up in, anyway. I know a couple stories about her family life as a girl and they’re utterly harrowing. I also know there are more stories I’ve been shielded from that are even worse. That she could get out of bed in the morning and go to work was a miracle.

So today I’m struggling with a massive bout of ambivalence. I’m not mourning the loss of a mother so much as I’m mourning the fact that I didn’t really have a mother for whom to grieve. And that my feelings are honest and unfair and beyond my grasp.

I was able to speak to her last night as she lay unresponsive on her deathbed. The nurse said she could hear. So I got to say goodbye. In the last three years we’ve talked more and it was better between us than it ever had been before, so I said I was glad we were ending on the upswing. I told her I’d made lots of mistakes in my life, but also that I’d accomplished many things of which I was proud and that she could take pride in, too. I said I loved her.

If consciousness somehow coheres beyond this realm, Mom, may you find more peace in death than you ever did in life.

Jane Roberta Smith Heitman
2/4/1941 – 1/20/2020

Sam Smith and Jane Heitman

Memphis, TN, August 1988


  • Sara Robinson

    May you both find the peace you need. So much love to you, Sam.

  • Parental relationships are often difficult. Your feelings are not unfair. They are valid, we have it drilled into us from a young age that we are supposed to love our parents because that’s how things are. Fate dealt you a mother that wasn’t ready/able to be a mother, so you are left to grieve not just not having a mother to grieve for, but also what you never had. People grieve in different ways, there is no right or wrong, there is just you and how you need to do it.

    I hope you have a peaceful day.

  • Dr. Denny Wilkins

    Threads of what you’ve written reflect much of the relationship I had with my father. Your conflict has caused me stop and think about mine.

  • A remarkably honest, and I’m sure painful assessment to get this typed out. Thanks and hope closure if possible comes soon.

  • Ambivalence is almost worse than pain. It doesn’t give us any sense of direction nor does it point out a course of action. Not knowing how to feel isn’t a feeling, and is often worse than feeling nothing.

    But the happy news is these things are allowed, for however long you need to exist in this state regarding your mother’s death. Even if the “how long?” is forever.

    And how you feel about all this in the end, it will be the result of what she did and didn’t do to you, not what you did and didn’t do to her.

    • Thanks Dan. I’m probably not qualified to say what’s worse, but I do know we humans are wired so that we seek certainties. The inability to do so can be unsettling in the extreme.

      I’ll reach a place I can live in eventually. In the meantime, I just need to stay honest….

  • I’m feeling deeply for you, Sam. These words struck me especially: “I’m not mourning the loss of a mother so much as I’m mourning the fact that I didn’t really have a mother for whom to grieve.” As the daughter of a mother with great mental/emotional health challenges, for which I will forever bear scars (as a child and as an adult alike), I am very wary of the day she will depart, knowing these same feelings like ahead for me. It’s a strange sort of grief — grieving what you never had but should have had — what all children deserve to have. Nothing truly fills the hole in our hearts that is where a mother’s care ought to lie. I’m sorry for your loss in all those ways. Your mother was a beautiful woman. I’m glad you were able to tell her you loved her, at the end, to send her forth with that. It’s a selfless gift.

    • Hi Wendy. And thanks for your comments. I obviously wish I could tell you it’ll all be good, but I think we humans aren’t very well wired for uncertainty and ambivalence, and it’s pure torment for those of us smart enough to understand it all rationally.

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