In The Secret Life of Bees, the girl Lily deals with feelings of guilt, anger, and forsakenness after her mother’s death. At the end of the story she says:
“I keep my mother’s things on a special shelf in my room…. The feeling that they are holy objects is already starting to wear off…. In the photograph by my bed my mother is perpetually smiling on me. I guess I have forgiven us both, although sometimes in the night my dreams will take me back to the sadness, and I have to wake up and forgive us again.” (from The Secret Life of Bees, p. 301)
After a loved one dies we tend to idealize that person. In our minds we exaggerate their positive qualities and minimize—maybe for a while we even forget—their negative qualities. I knew a mother whose young son died in a Boy Scout hiking accident. Even after ten years she hadn’t moved anything in his bedroom. And no one else was allowed in there. That space, his things, and those memories were sacrosanct.
At the beginning of The Secret Life of Bees Lily treats the few things she has left that belonged to her mother as holy objects, buried secretly in a treasure box. By the end of the book Lily keeps these objects on a shelf like other possessions, and she is even beginning to let her friends touch them.
In the book, Motherless Daughters, author Hope Edelman says, “Like anger, idealization is a normal and useful early response to loss. Focusing on a mother’s good traits reaffirms the importance of her presence, and processing the happy side of a relationship is a gentle way to activate mourning. But every human relationship is affected by ambivalence, every mother an amalgam of the good and the bad” (p. 19). Ms. Edelman explains that if we are to mourn our mothers fully, we need to look back and “acknowledge the flip sides of perfection and love.” Otherwise we will be remembering our mothers as only half of what they were, and even ending up mourning a caricature, not the person who was your mother.
My mother died young, before I had matured in my understanding of her and ability to relate to her. I was stuck in my needy grief as long as I memorialized her in my mind as perfect, almost hallowed. Coming to remember, love, and appreciate my mother as a multi-faceted, even flawed woman (albeit one who loved a perfectly loving and holy God) has helped me move through the grief to a place where I can live and love much more freely.
~ Catherine Lawton