Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald, in a scene from "Brave." Her mother, Queen Elinor, has been turned into a bear.
Mother-daughter relationships are both so sacred and so challenging that hardly any fairy tales in the world has a mother in an active, main role. The mother seems to generally be removed, asleep, separated or the mother dies, or there is a stepmother who has replaced her. This was the genius behind the recent Disney movie "Brave" (written by a woman), which was one of the first stories in recorded history to express the mother-daughter dynamic directly, but even in this case the mother had to be turned into a bear before conflict could resolve.
My mother and I had an extreme version of that mother-daughter dynamic, with all the classic conflict and devotion. From her, I inherited a fierce determination, strong work ethic and an independent spirit like her own. This led to emotional conflict in my adolescent years, when I no longer needed her the way I had as a child but did not understand that I did still need her. My young adult rebellion was an attempt to wrestle myself free of that conflict, and I caused her much pain and sorrow.
It was only the power of our deep devotion toward each other, mostly hers for me, that pulled us both through to the other side. As we both matured, and as I repented, the very traits that had often divided us began to unite us. There was a healing that not only brought peace but also forged a unity that nothing else could conquer. Our relationship became a source of strength, and it was upon this strength that I relied when she died unexpectedly a few weeks ago in a horrific car accident.
Here are some things that helped me in my grief, right away:
Acknowledging God’s will. We knew that mom had survived many things, including an almost identical car accident years ago, and that she was recognized as one of the oldest living survivors of stage IIIB ovarian cancer in our state. She had always told us that she had survived these things because we still needed her as we continued to progress in becoming our adult selves. For us, her not surviving this time was also an understanding that we were ready and prepared to lead our own families the way she had loved us.
Recognizing timing. While we were shocked at her sudden death, and continue to grieve over the loss of our mother, there were significant things in timing that revealed to us the tender mercy of her accident. My husband and I had just been married three months before, and she was there to enjoy that celebration with us at the temple. Our last conversation with her was sharing the news that we were expecting, and nothing could have delighted her more.
Her last day was spent with my brother’s family, watching the older teens compete in school activities while the younger children crawled all over her. She could not have had a better last day. Being released from mortality suddenly also rescued her from the ravages of the onset of dementia, released her from the years of pain since the other car accident, and allowed her to retire from her incredible career in all her dignity.
Ending well. When I was first baptized as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and learned about Mormon temples, the first thing I wanted to do was reconnect with my mother. I invited her to go see Nauvoo with me, and she agreed because of her love of history. While this became a wonderful experience and a memory I now cherish, the benefit was all those hours in the car together as we drove. It was the beginning of our peace, of our friendship as adults, of our rediscovering that level of devotion that is unique to mothers and daughters.
When I chose to do the Personal Progress program of the LDS Church following my conversion as an adult, it was these specific exercises that refined my interactions with her, taught me how to specifically care for her, and turned my heart toward loving her through service. Now having the spiritual muscles to practice this, I moved her into my home two years ago to care for her following a surgery. This was one of the greatest challenges I had ever faced, a burden that seemed so hard at the time, when I was weak and had so much to learn.
I grew to understand that it was a blessing and not a burden, and I now know I would not have chosen differently. Those were sacred days I will never forget, and moments that are now my best memories of us together.
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Ending happy. My mom was feisty and hilarious. My new husband charmed her, and together their antics and wit would leave me laughing so hard tears would pour down my cheeks. They could banter nonsense faster than I could listen, and our final months together were full of laughter. She began going to LDS Church meetings with us, meeting with missionaries, and coming to family home evening. She went to a Relief Society lesson on forgiveness, and formally apologized to me after the class. She started letting go of things for which I had begged forgiveness, and there was a great peace that fell upon us. Our lives together were simply good, each of us focused on serving the others. Our interactions were positive and uplifting, each of us acknowledging positive traits and contributions of others as we noticed them. Our days were happy, with contention driven out by peace, and old dramas silenced by laughter.
What I learned from my mother, and from the movie "Brave," was that it was me who turned her into a bear. What I learned from the gospel was how to just let her be my goodly parent, and appreciate her for it.
Emily Christensen, Ph.D., lives with her husband, Nathan, in Owasso, Okla. Her doctorate is in marriage and family therapy. Her blog is www.housewifeclass.com, and her email is email@example.com.