“Those we love never truly leave us… There are things that death cannot touch.” ~J.K. Rowling
Growing up, I was glued to my mother’s hip, ready to follow her wherever the world took us.
I used to sleep at her feet on the floor of her law school lecture halls while hundreds of students poured over scores of legal terms and historical court cases.
When I was six, we packed our bags to jet off on her semester abroad in Paris, and at fourteen, I stood beside her as she battled stage III breast cancer.
After my stepfather passed away, I became her main source of emotional support during sleepless nights of grief, and helped her raise my twelve-year-old brother.
When the periods of illness and trauma subsided, I supported her decision to buy a flat in Paris, despite many family friends misunderstanding her creativity and her courageous leaps of (sometimes irresponsible) faith.
We journeyed to the heights of Machu Picchu, through the narrow alleys of Fez, Morocco, and camped in the jungles of the Amazon.
If she wanted to explore a foreign destination, I was her wing woman.
If I was overwhelmed by the insecurities of young adulthood, she served as my rock and confidence.
My mother and I were interwoven, two threads running through the same stitch, navigating tragedies of life together. When she died this year, I felt betrayed, but began to search for meaning.
While there are moments when I feel stranded and abandoned, terrified of the unknown future, I am beginning to uncover lessons that she left behind. This is what I’ve learned from my mother and through her death thus far.
1. Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. Reach out to strangers.
When my mother and I would travel to different countries together, she always conversed with strangers. She would tell our life story and I was often embarrassed. I figured that people thought she shared too much and was inappropriate.
I now recognize the importance of the connections my mother made. After she died, I received hundreds of messages, emails, and phone calls from people all over the world. They called to offer their condolences, but mainly to share how much my mother had meant to them. Whether she offered legal advice or simply shared a story, they gushed to me about how she had changed their lives.
When she first decided to buy an apartment in Paris after she went into remission for cancer, she contacted the writers of her favorite blogs and instantly began to form a French community. They spent hours eating carefully selected cheeses and sipping rosé while discussing favorite Parisian restaurants. These are the people I now call my French aunts and uncles.
What I judged as my mom making a fool of herself was her way of sharing her strength and charm. This taught me to step forward into fear and to not let self-criticism govern anything I do. Now, I speak up. I talk to strangers. I extend myself and because of it, I receive.
2. If you don’t like something, own it.
When we let go of shame and our fear of judgment, we free ourselves to do what we want.
After my mom finished her last round of chemo, she made a vow to stop worrying as much about what others thought. From there on out, she did what she wanted.
Life is too short to do things for approval or to avoid conflict. If you don’t like where you are, get up and leave. If you don’t like what the waiter brought you, order something else. If you aren’t happy with what someone says, respectfully let them know. You must be your own advocate.
The more honest I am, the more I love. I have a difficult time being honest when I feel negative and vulnerable. Since my mother’s death, I practice expressing myself even if another’s response isn’t what I imagine. If it goes well, I only feel closer to the person I am honest with. If we don’t see eye-to-eye, then I feel closer and stronger within myself.
3. Be willing to spend money on experiences.
My mother and her family grew up extremely poor. They immigrated to Los Angeles from Taiwan and lived in my grandfather’s assigned student housing at UCLA, squeezing five people into a tiny apartment for two.
Despite her childhood poverty, instead of gripping onto money earned, she believed in spending to create incredible experiences. She always paid for friends to join us for family events and dinners, in order to include all who were important to me.
Dining out at different restaurants was one of her greatest pleasures, and she told each guest to order whatever they wanted. She believed that good quality food meant good quality life. She planned wild trips abroad and made sure to include strange excursions so that the memories would live with us.
Don’t worry about saving every penny. I believe that if you have the means to let go, then let go. There’s nothing like sharing laughter with a friend over a good meal, or the adventure of taking a last minute road trip to a nearby state. If you have the money and you can afford to relax with it, spend it. Spend it, because you can’t take it with you to the grave.
4. Don’t make impulsive decisions when you are feeling extremely emotional.
Grief leaves me exhausted on most days. One minute I’m grounded, feeling confident in my ability to move forward slowly, and the next I am completely doubled over with fear and pessimism, a blubbering mess of tears. Combine this with the pressure of Estate legal dramas and you have a cocktail for extremely reactive impulses.
These feelings have taught me a lot about the wisdom in pausing. Even if someone wants an immediate response from you, it’s your job to make sure that you take care of yourself first.
If a situation doesn’t feel right, pause. If you aren’t sure, pause and consult multiple people. No matter what anyone instructs or insists, you have a right to tend to your mental sanity and clarity first. Whether this takes a couple of hours, days or weeks, is entirely up to you.
Wait for feelings and situations to settle, for time to pass, and for more answers to reveal themselves to you. You don’t have to do anything right away. Your job is to take care of yourself and more will unfold on its own.
5. Don’t overthink or rationalize your way out of everything.
Even though it’s always okay to take time and ride emotions out, you may never be entirely comfortable enough to make the “right” or “perfect” decision.
There is something to be said about risk and trust in one’s intuition. This will lead you into some incredible experiences that might not happen with rational thought.
If I always waited to feel safe then I wouldn’t have spent four nights in Prague where I exchanged life stories at a bar with a French man, received advice from a writer for Vice magazine, and connected with a girl from the Netherlands who gave me Art Nouveau history lessons during our sightseeing ventures.
My rule of thumb is this:
If there’s high long-term risk involved, such as decisions on investments or legal issues, or if it can strongly impact other people’s lives, then let yourself breathe, think, and consult someone else before coming to any conclusion.
If there isn’t much long-term risk involved but you are scared because you don’t know the logistics of everything, you can’t tell the future, and you want everything to be in your control, then take a leap of faith. You can always change your mind.
I spent the past four years afraid to change my mind, afraid to disappoint others, and afraid of ridicule. I am now learning to empower myself, by allowing room for change and the freedom to decide differently.
I may have said no to something yesterday that now feels like a good idea, and that’s okay. You are allowed to alter the path.
Many of my mother’s closest friends told her they didn’t think it was a financially sound or responsible decision to buy an apartment in Paris. She did it anyway and because of this, I was able to witness some of the happiest moments of her life, in her fifties, in the apartment of her dreams, in the last few years before she died.
6. Your story and talents are needed.
My mother’s friends call me to confess how amazed they were by her willingness to help.
“No matter what, I could always count on your mom. She would be in a hospital bed looking into legal matters in regards to my divorce, just to give me advice.”
“Two weeks before your mother died, she was researching how I could deal with my US Green card from Croatia. She always wanted to help.”
Even if you think your experience isn’t valuable, it is. My mother never felt like she knew or accomplished enough, but she used all of her life experience and knowledge to help others.
You never know when what you give will be returned. Because of all of the support my mom gave, I have an international community of people who want to support me.
There is always a friend or acquaintance who can benefit from your support, or someone who wants to know that another person has gotten through what they’re going through now. Don’t dim your light. Don’t remain silent. Share yourself and recognize the value in your individuality.
7. Find a little thing to be grateful for in each moment.
After my mom died, many of my illusions and fantasies were shattered. I realized how disconnected from reality I could be, absorbed in my world of false fear and anxieties.
This single moment is all there is to live. Longing for the future or the past is indulging a mental fantasy.
Find a “best thing” in each moment even if it’s small. Recognize at least one thing that you are grateful for in order to practice bringing yourself back to where you are. This will help you to feel the joy in the mundane and the preciousness in the practicalities of life.
8. Do not take every piece of advice everyone gives you.
Try not to let the common sense or “better sense” of others confuse your own intuition. Gather opinions if you are uncertain about a decision, but return back to your own internal guidance system. Allow others’ advice to help strengthen your intuition by tossing out what doesn’t resonate and hold onto what does. This will help you get clear about what is really true for you.
9. “Stuff” doesn’t matter; connection does.
My mother worked hard and rewarded herself through shopping. I’d frequently come home to new gadgets. About a week after she died, a jellyfish tank was delivered to our house. Now I have a jellyfish tank with no jellyfish, and no clue what to do with it.
Since going through many of my mom’s personal items, I’ve recognized how insignificant material things are. She liked to buy interesting things, but mainly so that they could be shared. She sent spices and food ingredients to people in other states because she wanted them to try a new recipe that she discovered.
On the Paris Home Hunters International episode that we starred in, she said to her friends in LA, “I’m also buying this property so you guys can now have a place to enjoy in Paris too”.
The point of life is to share it. It’s not the objects that are valuable; it’s connection. Having a room full of things cannot make up for a lack of love or community. Spend money to enhance everyone’s experience and if you can’t do that, focus on the qualities to give that actually matter, like love, presence in conversation, communication, and your time.
10. You’re never too old to do something new and completely different.
My mom constantly wanted to know, learn, and be more. For her, getting a PhD in molecular biology and being an accomplished lawyer wasn’t enough. She also wanted to be a dancer, and fulfilled this by dancing three to four times a week at her favorite ballet studio for thirty-seven years. Then, at the age of fifty, she decided that she wanted to share her life story with the world and in order to do so, she had to complete a master’s degree in Creative Writing.
Many people thought my mom was irrational and wanted to do too much for her own good, but she marched forward and kept achieving.
I believe that it’s best to narrow down what is most important to you to accomplish. Some of us have a list of things we want to master, but it’s best to begin with one goal and to give that goal your consistent attention.
There is something admirable about committing and seeing something to the end. Try not to give up halfway if it gets tough. Like my mother, push on until you get that degree, but don’t ever tell yourself it’s too late to step into the dream.
11. Life isn’t about fixing yourself; it’s about letting yourself love and be loved.
I spent many years trying to figure out how I could “heal” from emotional trauma only to realize that there will be no final “fixed” product of me. I am constantly evolving, and what I believe has changed me for the better is that I’ve learned to wait and to fully feel my emotions through.
If I want to react out of anger, if I want to respond quickly to someone's text or opinions, I don't. Instead, I pause, I express what's coming up for me either out loud to myself, or to my mentor, and I give it a day before proceeding.
Sometimes I scream in my car, bawl my eyes out while clutching my dog, or I curse my life circumstances. Will I ever stop having these reactions or emotions? No, and at one point I thought that “healed” meant exactly that. I thought being healed meant finally being rid of these impulses or consuming moments, but I now know that isn't true.
It's my ability to fully embrace and ride them out, to hold myself and say “yes” to those painful moments that makes me “healed.” I choose myself in my entirety now, with all of my pain, reactions, desires, and emotions.
Life is about putting yourself out there. How much can you continue to risk battle after battle? This is what is beautiful. It is the resilience of growth and continuing on.
Even after all of the grief I’ve endured, I always try to open my heart after it closes in fear. I can confidently say that I am proud of my willingness to show up time and time again, even in often messy and uncertain ways.
It is my way of showing the world that I am here to receive the fortune, the ease, and the joy to come because I am willing to endure the difficult.