It’s been 4 months since my mom died. It’s been a shock, because she was literally the healthiest person that I’ve ever known. Even though she was 73, she could do anything. She gardened with a machete, spoke 5 languages fluently and had just started driving a motorcycle! She was the strongest person I have ever known.

When my dad passed last year, I was beyond devastated and bereft. But when my mom died, I felt very different: I was completely lost. I remember 15 years ago, I had a dream where my mom died and I woke up sobbing for an hour. An hour! But when she actually died, I couldn’t even process it. I had to be strong for everyone and there were so many relatives to tell and so many logistics to organize, and so I put my feelings aside for the first week. But then when I was driving to her wake, I was completely overwhelmed and had to pull over on the side of the road. I started sobbing again – a surreal experience for me, as these are the only two times I have cried in the past 20 years. I was so scared to see her – if the idea of her passing could make me sob (twice!), what would actually seeing her do??

But when I finally got to my mom’s wake, I realized that the person in the coffin: that wasn’t my mom. It’s hard to explain, but my mom had such a presence and so much life. She was under 5 feet and weighed maybe 90 pounds soaking wet, but when you saw her… she was a million-feet tall. It wasn’t just me – probably 100 people have described her to me in the same way. We all just felt lucky to know such a larger-than-life character. I remember in second grade, she came to my class and taught everyone how to sumo wrestle. When I was in third grade, she took my twin brother and me to Bloomingdales to walk in a fashion show (?!). She was constantly introducing the impossible into my mundane life.

Throughout it all, she had such a profound faith in me and my abilities that I developed completely undeserved self-confidence. I was truly her creation; she willed me into existence. I remember reading that Julius Caesar quote about greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. I read it and thought: and some have greatness willed into them. I don’t know if I ever lived up to her hopes and dreams, but I did know even then that if I ever achieved something truly great, I would owe it all to her.

So when I saw my mom’s coffin at her wake, I knew that there was no way that such a huge personality could fit into a tiny wooden box. I didn’t know who was in that box, but it wasn’t my mom. That allowed me to survive the wake, and gather enough strength the next day to deliver her eulogy.

But after her funeral, I was still beyond lost. It took me over a year to process my dad’s death, but I know that it will take me much longer to come to terms with my mom. Part of it is the way she died; she was murdered in her house by 3 men who broke into her home. Part of it was the way we found out: she wasn’t answering her phone and so we went over to her house and found her body on her kitchen floor. She had been stabbed 11 times and I remember thinking, how it is possible for so much blood to come out of such a small lady? And part of it was that we could see her killer on my mom’s ccTV camera, but no arrest has been made yet – even though it’s been over four months.

I struggled with all of this but finally started to find closure after I started reading about losing your parents. One month after my mom died, Roger Cohen wrote a beautiful tribute to his recently-deceased dad, where he said, “There is no preparation for the loneliness of a world from which the two people who put you in it have gone.” That loneliness stretches from here to eternity, and just understanding that gave me the first piece of solace I needed after my mom’s passing.

But the missing piece for me was a blog post called, “The Death of the Final Parent.” Dr. Susan Corso took Roger’s loneliness a step further, and said, “[G]ive yourself even longer to process what it means to live on the planet with no living parents. The principle effect is, of course, that the only approval you need is your own. That’s a life-changing truth.”

The truth is, so much of my life has been about making my parents happy. I am half Asian (Japanese) and half White (German-Irish), so at the risk of over-simplifying, I have always had two sides to me: my Asian side wants my parents to be proud of me, and my White side wants to follow my own heart. I’ve tried to thread that needle, but in the end I’ve always felt closer to my Asian side. So when my dad got sick with Parkinson’s a few years go, I asked Bee if we could move to the Philippines to help my mom out with her business so she could focus on my dad. When my dad passed a few months after we moved here, I felt more than ever that we had made the right decision in choosing to be close to family.

But when my mom passed a little over a year later, I felt completely unmoored. I finally understood why when I read that quote about losing your final parent: “the only approval you need is your own.” Not needing parental approval is a completely alien experience to me: my Japanese upbringing taught me to always consider – and prioritize – my family. I remember studying traditional Japanese Noh drama in college, and the plays always had a tension between ninjō (personal feeling) and giri (duty/obligation). Centuries later, and that’s been the primary plot driver of my life. Should I quit my job as a management consultant – even though my mom loved it – and start my own tech startup – even though my mom didn’t approve? Sometimes the answer is ninjō and other times it’s giri. Choosing which one wins on a particular day has never been easy.

But now my mom and my dad are gone, and there are no more duty/obligation in my life – at least for now. And even though it simplifies my life oh so much, I still feel torn by the constant ghostly pull of giri/duty. A small example from this week: my parents started a resort, which Bee and I took over last year. The resort has a gorgeous view of the ocean, but my mom built a fence blocking the view, so that the resort would be safe. Every architect I’ve talked to says we should tear down the fence, since nothing could be more beautiful than a gorgeous view of the sunset. But I keep hearing my mom whisper in my ear: “I built the fence to keep you safe.” I hired armed guards to watch the resort 24-hours a day, but I could still hear her whispering in my ear. Going against her wishes felt like heresy.

I was randomly reading Apple CEO Tim Cook’s eulogy of Steve Jobs, when I came across this: “among [Steve’s] last advice he had for me and for all of you was to never ask what he would do. “Just do what’s right,” he said.”

My mom never used quite those words, but one day when we were debating what to do about something, she told me, “I’m an old woman. Just do it my way, please. You can change it whatever you want when I die.” So recently we tore down that fence and I watched the sunset sink below the horizon, unimpeded by any manmade obstructions. It was beyond beautiful and I told myself that this time at least, I had made the right choice.

So I’m trying to come around, and do a better job of prioritizing my own needs in life. But I can’t help it: I keep asking myself what my mom would want. It’s why I’ve felt so lost at sea since she’s died. How do I make my mom proud when she isn’t here anymore? And is making her proud even something I should be doing at this point? I honestly don’t know. It’s something I wrestle with every day.

But I do know this: I miss her every day. I scroll down my text messages every day and read her last messages to me, over and over. My phone is 95% full and I bought a new phone with a lot more storage and memory. But I just can’t let go of my old phone with all the texts from my mom. I want to just hold onto this phone forever, so I can always have the messages from my mom. I type “mom” into my texting app and click on her name, and she’s still here with me. Sometimes I even write a response but even in my delusion, I know better than to hit send.

But I know that someday, I need to let go. I need to let go of this old phone, and let go of my trying to make my mom happy, and just embrace the idea that now is the time to focus on myself and my own family. It is just so hard to let go though. I don’t know how to honor my mom and also move on. I try to just do what is right, but it doesn’t feel right to me. Maybe with time, it will feel more right.

In the meantime, Mom… I miss you so much! I am sorry that I couldn’t keep you safe, and that you were gone before your time. I still listen to your favorite song all the time:

When I saw the break of day
I wished that I could fly away
Instead of kneeling in the sand
Catching teardrops in my hand
My heart is drenched in wine
But you’ll be on my mind

But I’m stuck where I was the day I found out you were gone. Like it goes in one of your favorite songs:

Another day that I can’t find my head
My feet don’t look like they’re my own
I’ll try and find the floor below to stand
And I hope I reach it once again

And I’m feelin’ the same way all over again
Feelin’ the same way all over again
Singin’ the same lines all over again
No matter how much I pretend

So many times I wonder where I’ve gone
And how I found my way back in
I look around awhile for something lost
Maybe I’ll find it in the end

And I’m feelin’ the same way all over again
Feelin’ the same way all over again
Singin’ the same lines all over again
No matter how much I pretend