Archived Opinion

When distractions — and watchful angels — soothe grief

When distractions — and watchful angels — soothe grief

They say the weeks leading up to the anniversary of a loved one’s death are harder than the day itself. 

I’d say that’s true. 

My mom passed away Aug. 14, 2016. This Saturday marks the fifth anniversary. Some days I wake up feeling like my last encounter with her was from another lifetime. Other days it feels like she was here yesterday, laughing, smiling and enjoying a cute thing one of my boys did or said. 

Birthdays, holidays and Mother’s Day are always challenging, but those were times of celebrations, so it’s easy to honor her on those days. The anniversary of a passing is different. You replay the week and day in your head over and over. The sadness, dread and finality all come back. There is nothing happy to pull from. 

Grief is one of the hardest emotions. It comes and goes in waves. It seeps into your bones and never really dissipates. Grief also makes you mourn harder for others because you can authentically empathize with what they’re experiencing. Grief gives you an unwelcomed wisdom. 

When you lose someone so dear, you have to find ways to connect with them in an otherworldly sense. I see my mom in my dreams. I see her in the hummingbirds that visit my porch and the butterflies and cardinals in the yard. I see her in my own mannerisms and habits. I see her in the words on pages of historical fiction novels, her favorite genre. I see her when I travel. She loved to visit new places and go on adventures. I see her when I hear Elvis or Patsy Cline. I see her when I find a shark’s tooth or when I enjoy a crisp glass of Chardonnay. 

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While these reminders are beautiful, other things are equally as sad. I still have two saved voicemails on my phone that I can’t bring myself to play. I worry that hearing her voice will break whatever morsel of thread holds me together. 

It’s challenging to watch my friends’ moms be involved with their kids but to not have my mom to do the same. It’s even hard going to Target. When my boys were babies, she and I would meet there and walk around for hours drinking Starbucks while lulling the boys to sleep in strollers. 

Grief never leaves a person. It merely matures and changes over time. 

In these weeks leading up to August 14, I’ve been gratefully distracted by a number of adventures and experiences. My boyfriend, Matthew, and I traveled to Colorado to see two of our favorite bands at Red Rocks. While there, we ate great food, frolicked around Denver and Boulder, and enjoyed the Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Less than a week later, we took our collective five kids on an eight-day road trip in an RV to visit five amusement parks — Kings Dominion, Hershey Park and Cedar Point. It took a lot of planning and energy, but it was well worth it. Even though Matthew had never driven an RV and none of us had ever stayed in an RV, we embraced the chaos and had an absolute blast. 

When we returned from that trip, I only had a week left until the Lake Logan triathlon, which I’d trained for since early April. I’d been experiencing months of anxiety and worry over the swim portion of the race. I can’t even pinpoint what unnerves me about it. 

Nevertheless, I persisted and completed the triathlon this past Sunday. During the last third of the swim, I got caught up with some other swimmers at a turn and swallowed some water. The anxiety kicked in. I had to hang on to one of the lifeguard’s paddleboards to catch my breath and regroup. Luckily, the bike and the run were no problem. 

The week before the triathlon was consumed with preparation, along with making sure I had all of the equipment I needed, so there wasn’t much time to perseverate on the impending anniversary. 

In fact, my mom helped me get through the swim. Every time I turned my head to breathe, I looked up at the sun and thought about my guardian angel watching me. She would have been so proud and probably shocked. The old Susanna would have never done a triathlon. I grew up dancing, twirling the baton, playing piano and flute, performing in theatre productions and basically doing everything except athletics. I ran track in high school, but that’s the extent of my sports history. 

I’ve run some 5K races and one half-marathon but did not get interested in triathlons until I met Matthew, someone my mom never got to meet. I met him almost exactly one year after she died. Falling in love and building a life with him certainly helped combat the dark place I’d entered after my mom passed. 

As a college baseball player, fierce competitor, and lover of all sports, he had a very different history than I. Matthew inspired me with his triathlon training and encouraged me to learn freestyle swimming and to get on a road bike. He asked me, ‘Why not?’ And so I did. 

Now that the trips and the triathlon are over, I’m left with free time to think. And while that can be a negative, it also gives my mind space to remember and reflect. She was such a great mom and just like I did during my race, I’ll be looking up at the sky a lot this week, knowing my guardian angel is taking care of me from afar. 

(Susanna Shetley is a writer, editor and digital media specialist for The Smoky Mountain News, Smoky Mountain Living and Mountain South Media. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Leave a comment


  • Betty Dishman, I will wait for that article when Susanna chooses to reveal that information very patiently.

    posted by Jonathan Builder

    Tuesday, 08/17/2021

  • Great story. I enjoy your column. You are spot on about loosing your mom. God bless you.

    posted by Susan Breese

    Monday, 08/16/2021

  • Jonathan Builder, you are assuming the writer was married and is divorced. It may be a different case altogether. She will write about it if and when she chooses to.

    posted by Betty Dishman

    Sunday, 08/15/2021

  • This is a nicely written heartfelt article Susanna but I am curious. Since you mention a current boyfriend, myself and I'm sure others would be interested to know about your boys and their biological father. What happened to your marriage? How come it didn't work out? Who initiated the divorce and why? I think that would be a good topic to discuss in a future article.

    posted by Jonathan Builder

    Friday, 08/13/2021

  • I know the feelings as my Mom passed on Aug 30th. She was 96 and died of natural causes. She just got in her recliner and died. She was so sweet and my biggest fan. I am still dealing with tieing up the loose ends. She is the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning. It gets to be less painful as time goes by.

    posted by Jude

    Thursday, 08/12/2021

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