Sharing Our Stories: Loss. Then and Now.

contributed by Clara Brunner Doerr Johnson


My name is Clara Brunner Doerr Johnson and I am a Motherless Daughter. My Mother was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in 1990 when I was only three years old. Over the next 14 years her cancer returned in many forms. In the end, it had spread to her liver. I was 17 years old when my Mother died. That was 13 years ago.

There are two entries below. One journal entry was written by me at age 17, the day after my Mother died. I've added a few details to clarify that entry for those who don’t know me well, but have kept the wording, grammar and structure the same for authenticity. The other is a reflection I wrote 13 years later, this year. My hope with this piece is to provide a reflection on life after losing your mother, specifically to those who have lost their mothers more recently. To share my journey so far, and what I’ve learned since it all happened. To remind you, you aren't alone, and that above all, you can get through this.


March 13th, 2004

Dear Journal,

The worst possible thing happened last night, my dear sweet mother, the person I love more than life itself, died last night, Friday, March 12th, 2004, age 47, at about 8 PM. I haven't written for a while and that is because everything started going downhill on Tuesday. I came home from school and knew she wouldn't be there because Tuesday is the day she goes in for a check up and usually for treatment. When Mike (my step dad) called me and told me mom was going to have to stay the night at the hospital, I knew right then that it was going to happen soon. I hate that I was thinking that, but I was trying to prepare myself. So anyway, she spent Tuesday and Wednesday night there and then Thursday morning we knew that she would be happiest if she were at home. So we brought her home (we had Hospice there to help) and she made it through the night, but that morning we knew it was getting close because her hands had grown cold. So a little before 8 o'clock, Dylan (my brother), Mike, Laura (mom's best friend) and I were sitting around her, holding her hands, watching the home video of Stella's (our family dog) puppies birth and I remember us all laughing for some reason and then Mike, Dylan and Laura were all about to get up and do something when I looked at her and realized she had stopped breathing. We all hovered around her and cried for about an hour. I saw her face change in about two seconds. I saw the moment her spirit left her body, because when it did her face grew tighter, her hands turned whiter, and she was gone. After she stopped breathing I was holding her hand and she moved it onto her lap, it was the most movement she had made in about a day and a half, it was her last grasp for life. Everything was perfect. She was at home. She got to talk to her mom one last time before she could no longer talk, everyone who loved her was either able to come and sit with her or at least send her vibes or love and strength. People were coming and going those last few days. Sitting with her, holding her hand, telling her how wonderful she was, what a great job she had done in this world, and how much they loved her. We even got a hold of her family in Switzerland. They told us to tell her they were sending their love through the wind. She got to spend her last night at home surrounded by love and that last day we could hardly leave her side. There were so many flowers brought and we had her orchids out with her too (my mother was an avid orchid collector). It looked like Spring. The last words she said to Dylan and I before she couldn't talk anymore were, "I love you guys." She also had told us the day before, when she was fully aware and able to talk freely, that she would always be with us, watching over us and that she would try and send any signs to us to let us know she was still with us. She said she would be our guardian angel.

I'm debating whether to give every detail and I actually think it's best to leave it like this. She fought what seemed almost every year of MY life and she had a great battle. It was just time for her to let go. Where she has gone is a much happier place where she's probably sitting on a beach in the form and way she liked most throughout her lifetime, and she is surrounded by all those she had to say goodbye to. She's with her dad, with my dad, with my dad's dad (Grandpa), with Dan Fox (Laura's husband), with Pepper, with Wally (Grandpa's brother), with Dennis (Rita's husband), she's with Dudley and Willie (family pets) and everyone she's ever loved who she lost, and although she is no longer with us with her body, she will always be with us in spirit. She left a part of her self in each and every one of us. She will live on forever and that is in our hearts. I'm so grateful to have had her as my mother. I don't think anyone could've taught me as much as she had. No one could ever have done a better job. It's going to be so hard to go on without her presence, but I can't be selfish because she's in a much better place now, free of pain. I love her more than anything in this world and always will. The hardest thing for me will be that she won't be at home every day when I come home. She won't be in the kitchen cooking breakfast, smiling because it's another beautiful day. I won't be able to cry in my mommy's arms when I'm scared, but I will always remember the times that I did get all of those things and all of those moments will forever be in my memory. I am so lucky to have had Carol Anita Brunner as my mom. She represents so much good in this world and I'll never forget anything she ever taught me. She'll be with me everywhere I go and that is what will keep me going on. I love you mom.

August 29th, 2017

A Reflection

While of course I have many beautiful and happy memories of my mother growing up, I also have the looming memories that my Mom was always sick. After reading this entry from thirteen years ago, I was a bit shocked and taken aback at first by the acceptance in my words as a 17-year-old regarding the death of a parent. However, thinking back on my lifetime with her, it is a clear indication through this journal entry, I really had accepted my mother was going to die. I was ready to stop hoping for a miracle, ready to stop holding onto her when I knew I needed to let go of her eventually. This was a constant fear I had while growing up for as long as I can remember. The weight of fourteen years of worry and fear had finally lifted. This acceptance saddens me, but it also makes sense to me. Until I read this again, I hadn't remembered how long this whole process took. In my memory it took fourteen years, and in a way it did, but factually, it was only a Tuesday through Friday--only four days I knew with certainty that I was going to lose my Mother. Only four days to really accept the reality of my life and the changes that would take place. Four days of watching my Mother change from one form to another. I still grapple with the feeling that I was lucky to have had time to prepare for this event, yet completely unlucky to have gone through this at all, for so long, and at such a young age.

Thirteen years ago I didn't know the stages and forms grief would take hold of me throughout my life and how it can affect each person so differently. After my mother passed, each new exciting or sad experience has caused conflicting feelings and thoughts about how and where my life could have gone had she still been alive. In particular, I didn't know that one day shy of the eleven-year anniversary of my mother's death, my daughter would be born and when I myself became a mother, I would experience grief in an unimaginable way. There was a sadness and mourning for my mother which felt almost worse than the day it happened. A sadness that, at the time, I didn't think I could get through, but I did. At the end of these darker and sometimes unbearable forms of grief, I have learned more about myself and about life. Grief has taught me that I am strong, that I am capable, and it has taught me that this precious life is worth fighting for.

In rereading this entry from thirteen years ago, my current self feels guilty and sad, but also grateful. Guilty for welcoming this event so willingly, at the time, yet sadness for the pain of loss which all humans will go through, and grateful. While I never could have imagined feeling grateful as a result of this unimaginable event, I have found it through this loss and the journey my life has taken because of this experience. Looking at this entry and reflecting on the path my life has lead me on, I can see the roller coaster of grief that I've ridden. I can't know when the next dip will come or when it will ride smooth again. What I do know is that my grief has lead me to be the person I am today. It brought me a closeness with family and friends that had never existed before. Ironically, it also brought me love. I met my first boyfriend through a mutual connection of losing a parent. It also brought me the love of my life, my husband. We met at a wedding that I was involved in because the bride and groom gifted a donation towards an organization I was working with, in honor of my mother. It has also influenced my approach as to how I live my life and how I care for my daughter and my family. It has taught me to love harder and to cherish more the family and friends that surround me.

I would bring my mother back in an instant if I could, but I can't. So, I will take the strength I have gained from this experience and move forward and continue to appreciate the wonderful life that my mother gave me and the lessons my mother is still teaching me, even today.

To my 17-year-old-self... “She will always be with you, she is still teaching you, you will get through this. One day at a time.”