Memorials and Mixed Emotions

A highly personal post.

My mom died recently. I have been deeply saddened by the loss. Yet, I have found some good in the experience.

Her death was sudden, but not unexpected. She had been in constant physical pain for many years. Hence, her peaceful death brought me relief because it relieved her suffering.

Our relationship was complex. My mother was a force of nature, and she was not easy to get along with. I was her primary caregiver, a challenging task living nearly 2,000 thousand miles away. She had several falls over the past few years, and I worried about her often. Despite the risks of living alone, she wanted to be on her own and resisted my suggestions for her to consider assisted living. She resisted most other suggestions I had for her. Over time, I realized that the best way to help her was to be available and simply ask her what she needed. She just needed someone to listen.

As I got older (and seemingly wiser) our relationship improved. I learned to be patient, compassionate and to accept what she wanted. When I told a good friend about her death, he said, “You have handled your relationship with her like a gentleman,” which brought me to tears. I feel fortunate to have learned to respect the way she wanted to live her life – on her own terms – and to be grateful for the sacrifices she made for me and my sister. We turned out well, and she was proud of us.

In my grief, I am seeing more of the good than the bad. And for that and the profound effect she had on me, I am thankful.


A good memory

Mixed emotions

My good friend, Jeff Larsen, and I have been studying mixed emotions since graduate school. We have written about how people can be happy and sad in response to complex emotional situations. Though I have studied the topic for many years, I have never been so affected by mixed emotions.

A grieving child has many challenges. One unanticipated challenge that I am facing is the potential to feel guilty about having some positive feelings in response to the loss. My mom was always in the back of my mind, like a stereo speaker that has a slight hum, whether or not music is playing. That hum could be concerns that surface as I lay in bed or a voice mail message on my phone that might have bad news. And now, for better and worse, that hum is gone.

Recently, research by Hal Hershfield and colleagues has shown that people who more frequently experience mixed emotions over their lives have better health outcomes. With that in mind, I am trying to accept and even embrace this complex, unsettling time.


My mom liked the beach. Tomorrow, I will drive with my sister to the Jersey Shore to scatter our mother’s ashes. We will shed some tears, but I also suspect that we will share a lot of laughs. Fortunately we share a similar (sometimes warped) sense of humor, which we have often used to cope with the challenges of family life. As we experience the sadness and the happiness, I will try to remind myself that this is part of a mature, healthy life.

 A better memory


Her obituary:

Kathleen M. McGraw of Willingboro died peacefully in her sleep on Aug. 23, 2012. She was 69.

She was born on April 7, 1943 in Montclair, N.J. to Catherine and Joseph Rafter.

She is survived by her children, Peter and Shannon; grandchildren, Nicholas and Dillan; siblings, Marie and Joseph; and dog, Tiger.

Kathy lived life the way she wanted, with determination and spirit, qualities she passed on to her children. She was a working mom, with a strong moral compass, who always kept food on the table and presents under the Christmas tree. She helped raise Seeing Eye dogs and enjoyed the time she spent at the Jersey Shore.

She will be memorialized in a private ceremony held by her children.

In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting that donations be made to the Burlington County Animal Alliance or Seeing Eye of Morristown, N.J.