Inspire – Women of Dartmouth Stories

Reframing a Loss

Allyssa Ford Austin, D'19, shares a fresh look at her mother's death.

I was 16 when my mom died. I’d just finished my sophomore year of high school. I can’t decide if I was lucky that she died after the school year ended, giving me an entire summer to grieve, or if I would have fared better with classes to distract me.

In the end, it doesn’t matter because I tried not to think about it at all. For many years, when I did think about it, one scene played over and over:

It’s early December. My mom and aunt are sitting in the front seats, and I’m in the back. It’s sometime after the doctor confirmed my mom’s fears: the double mastectomy and chemotherapy didn’t work. Her cancer is back and worse than before. I can’t remember her exact words, but the message I hear is “I’m not going through it again. I won’t do this. I am giving up.”

For years, when I thought about my mom’s death, what I remembered was she “gave up.” For years, I extrapolated and translated that thought into versions of “if she had loved me more, she would have tried harder, and she would still be alive.”

I don’t think that anymore. The evidence reveals the truth: my mother loved me beyond my capability of understanding. A lifetime of hurt and disappointment gets too heavy to carry.

At 32, the loss is an old hurt. I can enumerate the major life events that my mother should have witnessed: high school graduation, Navy boot camp graduation, Defense Language Institute graduation and conferral of an associates degree in Russian, multiple promotion ceremonies, Dartmouth undergraduate graduation, wedding, Cornell MBA graduation, etc. etc.

This list is one-sided. I have also missed out on applauding her additional achievements. Not only have I been robbed of the opportunities to ask my mother details of her childhood and get to know her as an adult, but I am also cheated out of celebrating the new milestones she would have reached.

I am approaching painful milestones ahead. Soon I will pass the line of where I’ve lived more years without my mom than with her. A few years after that, I will (hopefully) celebrate my 38th birthday, the first of many that my mother was never able to celebrate. And what a celebration it will be.

I celebrate the memory of my mom, whom I love dearly and who I know loved me fiercely. I celebrate my father and my brother; together we remember the past, find joy in the present, and marvel at what the future may yet bring. I celebrate my stepmother for helping manifest that joy in the present and for keeping my father distracted and young (seriously, thank you).

I celebrate the many, many women, who, knowingly or not, kept me afloat and keep pushing me forward. I am truly humbled that there are too many amazing women to recognize by name. Without each of these wonderful women, I would not be where I am today. Words cannot express how I grateful I am for your support.   

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