Wil Wood, contributing writer

Google sent me a notification today. I thought it was a picture text from my mom.

Because she died 559 days ago, that text — that was not a text — made me want to cry. I got too much spit in my mouth, not like the kind when your mouth waters, but the thick kind right before you throw up.

Here, I share some of my experiences feeling waves of grief for my mother’s loss and how those feelings have evolved over the last 20 months. I realize my journey is not over, and my point of view and experiences are small and unique.

For the first couple of weeks after my mom died, every thought I had was saturated with the emptiness she was leaving behind. As the weeks went on, I started to be able to think without her absence at the front of my mind. I began to concentrate on one thing at a time, such as cleaning out the garage refrigerator in the middle of winter. There I was, standing in my socks on the garage floor that felt more like the Coldstone Creamery counter where everything that touches it freezes and gets scraped off.

Looking into the refrigerator, I discovered a half-empty enamel cast-iron pot of frozen chicken noodle soup my mom had made for us during one of our busy weeks. I picked up the lid and saw a bay leaf sticking up from the frozen crystals of broth — broth with a bit of celery salt because my mom knows I hate that stuff. As my guilt ripened from wasting food to guilt that I had kept my mom’s favorite pot for weeks, I realized she was not missing her favorite pot anymore. There was no one to return this pot to. Then I got too much spit in my mouth, but not like the kind when your mouth waters.

At this point in time, only weeks after her death, I was still hoping that grief was something I could finish. A therapist told me it wasn’t like that. Grief, while it may change, is something you live with. Indeed, there were moments when I couldn’t feel grief or sadness. But then I’d find some chicken noodle soup or a long white hair on my fleece, and it felt like an ocean of grief was hanging over my head, ready to burst and wash over me at a moment’s notice.

Looking back to the day when she came home for the last time is bittersweet. She came home to Logan from Salt Lake City in an ambulance while high-flow oxygen was forced into her lungs to keep her alive. While all my siblings, their spouses, and kids waited in the driveway of the home I grew up in, it was hard not to reminisce about the time I welcomed her home from her first foot amputation.

Karen Wood, Wil’s mother who passed away in 2022.

I remember my mom rolling down the car window as they pulled into the driveway. I walked up to her and played the joke that had been rattling around in my head, “Mom, you don’t look 100%.” She laughed, which assured me it was still my job to play the jester. So, I would play that part one last time for her. Upon arrival from Salt Lake City, as the ambulance finished backing into the driveway, I jumped on its bumper and banged on the window. She coughed out a laugh and cheerfully waved to me from her stretcher inside.

Here was a whole family gathered one last time in the home we grew up in. The home we moved to in 1992 after leaving Alaska. The home we were kids in. The home where we now bring our kids to. The home where my dad kept bees. The home we lived in long enough to see fruit trees grow and die. The home where my mom kept a baby hairbrush to scrub out my road rash. The home where a strong man and a strong woman forged a family of unique people confident enough to be themselves.

During our last hours together, my son Liam played and sang Greg Brown, The Avett Brothers, and Cat Stevens. My mom ate a few bites of a gyro from Greek Streak 2 and sipped a dirty Diet Coke from Chugz. She tucked herself into the quilts she had made when she had steady hands and good vision.

There was something transcendent about that day. We fluidly traded roles as needing comfort and giving comfort. I understand now that courage is not the absence of or the shunning of fear but of being at peace in its presence. My father showed us that he could cry in front of his children, and it taught me that it is OK for me to show my children what I am feeling, too.

A lot has been written about grief, and a common thread is that grief does not travel a linear path. People have different journeys with it, and there is no right way to metabolize those feelings. While there may not be a right way, there are some unhealthy ways to cope. I believe refusing to acknowledge feelings or numbing ourselves is a recipe for disaster. It doesn’t have to be drugs or alcohol. Obsessively working or exercising are great ways to keep our minds busy and our bodies too tired to acknowledge what is happening. Strong feelings of grief need to be felt and experienced. In fewer words, do not numb! Do feel!

I hate scary movies. I will not watch them. Last year, I started watching a “thriller,” but it was actually a scary movie. After I turned it off, I could not remember why it was scary. Sometimes our lives are scary or sad. Some of us choose to push against those feelings or not feel them. I have done this, and it is easy to see that life does not work like a movie. If I bottle up feelings, the most common thing they ferment into is anger. Maybe anger and resentment. Maybe anger and hopelessness. Maybe anger and overwhelm. You get the idea. To me, grief is an overly spicy Thai curry. I know it can be delicious, but all I can feel is the burning pain of spice so intense I can’t taste it. However, once your threshold for spice increases, you can enjoy the sweet coconut and the nuanced flavors Thai curry offers. Thinking of my mother used to only bring pain. Now that it has been almost two years since her passing, I still feel the void she left, but I am able to think about her and feel good. I can miss her and feel love. It is not one or the other; it is both. I am starting to understand what people mean when they say that grief will never leave you.

Just as courage cannot exist without the presence of fear, love cannot exist without a painful goodbye. Maybe you felt a pang of sadness while reading this. Maybe a tear came to your eye. If you are sad because you miss someone, you can be happy that you loved them enough for it to hurt.