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“Don’t forget to be happy”

Losing a mother is like feeling completely lost specially for the only daughter. But it will always be possible to find ourselves again. With wisdom and creativity – that’s what the journalist Julia Ribeiro teaches us. She has turned her grieving, a life learning experience

Statement to Laura Capanema

personal files

Dear Mom: I haven’t had children, I haven’t financed an apartment, I didn’t go to MBA or Doctorate and didn’t win percentages in the profits of any company, I wasn’t a millionaire before 30. I didn’t win medals or paid a wedding party at 12 installments. I didn’t buy a Labrador or an off road car or a bigger TV.  I haven’t yet written a book or planted trees. The courage and freedom planted by you in me germinated other fruits. I decided to take the dreams off the drawer and go against all odds. My house is my backpack and the whole world is now my home. Today I have seen a shooting star in the sky. It was you making me cuddle and whispering ‘don’t forget to be happy.‘ The best news is: I’m on the way. 

Julia Ribeiro, 34, posted this text to honor Mother’s Day. For this special day we have invited some girls who have lost their moms and asked them to give their mothers good news. Since then I have kept her words in my mind; not for the courage to leave everything behind and follow her dreams (in fact there are many people doing this…) but for the sensitivity of writing such a delicate, “light” and also beautiful message in a date that can be specially tough and gloomy without mothers around. Besides that an immediate bond was made: wen, who have lived or studied the grieving process, realize when others understand what I call “life insight” – a clear awareness of finiteness, not only existence, but our daily routine. It is when we decide, all of a sudden, to change our lives, not wasting time with things that don’t matter that much. Some people take this time to write a book, make a movie, launch a website, leave monotony and face fears. Julia packed her bags or… backpack and has started her journey. For 1 year and two months she has been travelling and trying o elaborate her mom’s death. We talked by Skype, she was in Costa Rica, and she cried and made me cry. If I could summarize the story in few words I would say: Losing a mother is like feeling completely lost specially for the only daughter. But it will always be possible to find ourselves again and grow even stronger. 


“Me and my mother have always lived together, just the two of us. In fact, we were a wonderful family of three – me, her and one of our Siamese cats (we have had several cats along the life). I am the only child of divorced parents and the most concrete realization of a woman who took so long to get pregnant. When I was born, she was 40, which represented, at the beginning of the 1980s, a woman ahead of her time. Psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, she lived intensely.

personal files

Her story with cancer began at the age of 50. First, the breast, a lonely battle won with so much effort. Then came the Parkinson, a terrible disease, silent that starts quietly and fills the spaces to the contrary, leaving empty what was once full. My mother loved to work and only stopped when she realized that she exchanged names of patients. Then a broken leg never healed and with the diagnosis, a new tumor. In her bones. When doctors stopped talking ‘cure’ to say ‘quality of life’ instead, I realized that I needed to adapt my life in order to help her. I lived with three friends, but I moved to her house. And everything changed.

I set shifts: nurse 24 hours, psychologist, phonoaudiologist, and physiotherapy. And the first grieving processes came up: the death of the protective mother, the super hero. Then my best friend, my greatest adviser. But there was no time to waste and I needed to make it happen. And I did. Let’s go out? To Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas? To the Botanical Garden? To the balcony? Let’s open the window and turn off that TV? It took four years of a tireless journey of affection, care and sensitivity. I’ve always been very disorganized, I found myself obsessed with medical spreadsheets, medicine timetables, dates of appointments, tests results. I became, overnight, my mother’s mother.

She was a very healthy patient – doctor’s own words – and lived active, despite the limitations that grew painfully. Over the days, I was transcending anguish to bring more bossa into home. Literally, music has always been an important link between us. Together, we learned that a good drive was like a magic potion and a beautiful melody had untold power to make a cloudy day, sunny and special. Music is better than cure, and I began to understand it as therapy after watching the documentary Alive Inside (2014), which shows patients with advanced neurological diseases reacting positively when they hear songs that marked their lives. The memory of the music is very deep, even for the more brains deteriorated. And so I tried, every single day, to make her wake up happy, asking for a beautiful soundtrack.

Gradually, I was elaborating her passing. Like a good daughter of psychoanalysts, I never abandoned therapy, an essential step for me to best process daily losses. I spent nights writing on my mind all I wanted to say at the funeral. This is not to say that a death foretold hurts less. Death is always brutal and painful, misunderstood and inexplicable. It is intangible.

She was going slowly. One day her les didn’t work well. Then she was speaking too low. She did not eat. Then came the disease and, ultimately, the hospital, which lasted a week, enough to turn my serene anticipated grieving in an excruciating pain. It was too hard to see, unconscious, my greatest example of consciousness. But I still wanted a gran finale, to say goodbye at the right time, saying beautiful things. And I thought, ‘God, if it is to be, than take her today, it is Saturday and the day is so beautiful.’ Nonsense. It took time for me to realize I had no control of anything. In one afternoon I went out to get some air and the doctor called. It was May 31, 2015.


As spent years preparing psychologically for the moment, the funeral was all drafted already in my mind. I wanted something cheerful and serene as in the film Dreams (1990), Akira Kurosawa. Wear a yellow shirt, yellow flowers, I took a Frank Sinatra album – the song My Way, which she loved, played endlessly, filling the silences and caressing souls. As we are not religious, I made music the tool for our transcendence, our prayer.

In the following days I found myself filled with a strange peace. The seven days of work went off almost numb; there were so many bureaucracies to solve. Strength? I had strength to fight while my mother lived. After she rested, I collapsed. That’s when I realized that the pain comes with the certainty of absence. The gap between existing and not existing is inexplicable. We spend a lifetime without accepting our finitude. We are so disconnected from nature that we forget the natural cycle of things. We live surrounded by machines and found ourselves invincible. And we are not.

She had not gone traveling, the phone would not ring, and she would not be anywhere. I realize it all. Everyone around seems invisible. You get nearsighted, weak and even selfish. You get fat, close yourself to the world. But it is important to emphasize: friends, do not give up on us! In this phase we need to have very strong support networks to not go crazy, not to get lost.

‘This shall pass, soon it will’ these are very hard things to be heard. Sadness does not need to go away fast. And I do not think it should – we just sublimated death after living the pain in its entirety. I decided to let it overflow. The entire Rio de Janeiro was going to drink in Baixo Gávea and I felt devastated. What I was doing on the street? People were happy, but I was not. And I found my comfort in fiction. I saw many, many movies. I clung to the most tragic ones, the saddest stories in the world. I spent nights and nights lying on the couch, alone. I identified with that fictional pain, as if only those characters could understand me. I wanted to see where it hurt. I wanted to see if the tears were over.

But after months under the blankets, I decided be surrounded with yoga, therapy and homeopathy. And without realizing, the joy quietly began to return, to find place in the dark. However, it was still needed to learn to deal with the guilt of getting to see the world more colorful.


Six months later, the emptiness of the routine was being filled by small rituals. And grief turned into fight. The struggle to keep the possible presence in the inevitable absence. The struggle to spread the generosity, empathy and love, the greatest inheritance I received. Each cake dish, each sewing box, each picture frame was donated, as well as anthropology and psychoanalysis books, her greatest treasures. But before donating them, I was rereading one by one, with her remarks on them. I filled many gaps in this process. That’s when I realized that memory was a beautiful way to exist. And the more the person exists, the less the absence hurts.

Death is delicate and cruel at the same time. And facing it – without masking the pain – can bring a lot of will to live. Understanding what is loss gives us a great desire to win. Winning the chance to live well, to be cheerful everyday. Suddenly, this was a gap and life became very important for me to live just waiting for the weekend, vacations and holidays. I began to have trouble spending the day moving from the mobile screen to the computer screen. I thought of my mother who worked for years waiting to retire and finally … enjoy life. And dammit, it went wrong. We are slaves of our expenses and we are increasingly trapped. Trapped in the new things we buy, installments, the apartment installments, without flexibility and suffocating systems of work. We begin to get exhausted and don’t realize it.

I can no longer expect to retire. I do not know if I live up to it, you know? And that’s when we decided to change, me and my husband, the course of our lives. On April 4 th , we began a journey around the world. We do not want only to travel, but also to work in other countries, find new ways of being and relating to people. It is cliché: happiness is in the details. Beautiful day, good juice, a different bird that lands in front of you.

The fact that the person who is gone lives inside us is very real. Even away from Brazil, away from all her references I have that comfort of knowing that she is in me. In fact, we have never been so close. I do not know if I’m happy, but I’m desperately trying to be. And in this search I will find myself. It is valuing life, which is very precious to us, for us to keep only watching.