Healing The Heartache Of Unspoken Words

Maternal love

by Carol Woodliff

My mother, Lucille, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in her late 70s and experienced a stroke in her early 80s. That’s when I stopped kidding myself that I had unlimited time with her, a realization that left me sad and anxious. There was unfinished business in our relationship, but after 45 years with my mother, I knew that what I wanted more than anything probably wasn’t going to happen.

My relationship with Mom was always a challenge. As a child I was closer to my father. He was the giver of unconditional love. Mom was the one who pushed me to do my best but rarely gave me credit when I did. “You got all A’s on your report card because God made you smart,” she’d say. “Don’t get a swelled head.”

Her approval felt unattainable and I internalized the belief that I would never be good enough. But the gray cloud had a silver lining: I learned to achieve for the satisfaction it gave me rather than waiting for someone’s approval to spur me on. But I still yearned for what she seemed unwilling to give. I wanted her to say out loud that she loved me. And, as a bonus, I wanted some acknowledgment that I was making her proud.

I knew Mom loved me from the hundreds of ways she expressed it when I was growing up. Like staying up all night to make the dress I would wear to prom, or driving 100 miles to pick me up at college and take me to our doctor when I got a bad case of bronchitis. And I knew she was proud of me because her bridge buddies would tell me that Mom had bragged about things I had done. But even in my mid-40s, there was still a small child inside me, craving those simple words that were so hard for her to speak. I needed Mom to say, “I love you, Carol,” but without my having to ask for it.

Long before Mom’s health declined, I spent years in therapy doing self-development and spiritual work. Much of it focused on not idealizing my mother and learning to accept, forgive and embrace the woman herself. I came to suspect that Mom wasn’t able to verbalize her love because it wasn’t part of her family experience growing up. Which left me with a choice: I could try to convince myself that hearing Mom say these words wasn’t so important after all, and I could live happily and comfortably without it, or I could accept that deep inside her was probably a wound much like mine and that she, too, craved this verbal expression of love but feared making the first move and being rejected. Or maybe just didn’t know how.

Then the big “aha” hit me. I was no longer the little girl who had to wait for Mom to approve my decisions or tell me what to do. In fact, the power of our relationship had largely shifted. My sister and I were now responsible for making sure Mom was cared for in her final years. I could say, “I love you,” not as a test, hoping she’d reciprocate, but as a gift to heal us both, with no expectation of her returning the sentiment.

I lived in California. She was in Illinois. I knew that each phone conversation or visit could be our last. So I made the commitment that each time we ended a conversation, she would hear me say, “I love you.”

In the beginning it was rocky. I’d say, “I love you, Mom,” and she’d either snort or say, “I know.” Because I had no expectation of receiving the words in return, I could smile as she harrumphed, snorted or grumbled.

Then one day it happened. I was ending a phone conversation and said, “I love you, Mom,” and she said it back! I heard the words “I love you, too,” and then I cried.

After that breakthrough, each phone conversation ended with my saying, “I love you,” and her replying, “I love you, too.” Sometimes she’d even beat me to it and say it first. I would hang up the phone, knowing it might be the last time I’d ever hear her voice, and I was grateful that we had gotten to the place where no words were left unspoken.

One visit, when I was getting ready to return to California, I stopped by my mom’s assisted-living apartment to say goodbye. Some days, when her Parkinson’s medications were effective, she could get around reasonably well with a walker. Other days were tougher, and harder to witness. She’d be wheelchair-bound and unable to move without assistance. She’d issue orders like, “Move my feet! Pull me up in the chair!” because her body was incapable of even the simplest movements.

She’d had several bad days like this during my visit, but this was a good day. We talked for half an hour and when I got up to leave, she got up and, using her walker, accompanied me to the end of her hallway. She put her arms out and I fell into the first, standing, body-to-body hug I’d had from her in five years.

She looked at me and, without prompting, said, “I love you. Thanks for coming!” I hugged her hard and said, “I love you. Thanks for being my mom!”

I walked to my rental car with tears streaming down my face and gave thanks. No matter when the end might come, I’d always have that perfect moment to remember. And I’d always be thankful that I had listened to my impulse to express my love for her unconditionally. Now I whisper to that great beyond, to that place where her spirit rests, “I love you, Mom,” and I hear her whisper back in my heart, “I love you, too, Carol. You did good! Thank you for being my daughter!”

Carol Woodliff is the author of From Scared to Sacred: Lessons in Learning to Dance with Life. Based in Los Angeles, CA, Carol is also a healer, intuitive coach and Western shaman.

14 Responses to “Healing The Heartache Of Unspoken Words”

  1. This was simply marvelous! You will help so many by your telling your story. God bless you!

  2. Denise Glasco-Sims says:

    I had a mom that was diagnosed with dementia. I was her caregiver. It was easy to know my job was to keep her safe and as comfortable as possible with the knowledge of there not being a happy ending ,meaning her death. I too knew how to get her to be demonstrative in her affections towards me. I simply treated her the way I WANTED TO BE TREATED. I was able to love her and know she did the best she could in being my mom. Unfortunately, my sister had unfinished business in her relationship with my mom and resented my relationship with a growing hurt and anger. Upon her death, my sister’s rage has increased with terrible accusations against me regarding the chooses and decisions that were made by my mom and for her. I wish my sister could have the closure she needs and we could be sisters.

  3. Nancy Kern says:

    Thank you for this letter. My mom and I had a relationship very close to you and your mom. In 2001 we both had a heart attack. This brought us so much closer and for 6 years I was able to hear her say I love you. At one point she even told me she was proud of me. That means so much now that she is gone. I sat here crying while reading your letter missing her so much. Thanks again!!!

  4. Thank you all for your kind comments. I believe it is by sharing that we all know we aren’t alone. I think that is the key many of us miss in healing relationships. We expect others to go first. I’m glad that on some level I knew that I needed to be the one to “GO FIRST” and treat mom the way I wanted to be treated. It enriched our last years. Love to you all! Carol

  5. Colette says:

    Carol, thank you so much for your eloquent post about hearing the words, “I love you” from your mom.

    Several times I have driven away from the AL facility where my mother lives, tears streaming down my face, my inner child hurt beyond words because I’ve said those three words to my mom, and have heard nothing in response. Nothing. She is in mid-stage Alzheimer’s and what hurts most is that I hear her lavish “I love you”s on my brother’s children and my brother. On me and my children, not so much.

    I have stopped saying it to her because her silence and refusal, unwillingness or discomfort with telling me that she loves me is just too painful.

    After reading your post, maybe I’ll try saying “I love you” to her again.