I never saw it coming. Perhaps I should have. I knew the statistics; I just chose to forget them. On the day we learned some minor back pain was actually cotton ball-sized lesions all over her lungs, the oncologist said flatly, "Well, you know, 85% of patients with your mother's diagnosis will have a recurrence in a year". We were three weeks shy of a year. So, yeah. Maybe I thought she was in the clear. Maybe I just pretended that statistic didn't exist. But when my mom's cancer came back, it came back with a vengeance. And we were totally unprepared.
"What are we talking about, Doctor?" I inquired, my mom looking straight ahead at no one and nothing. What I meant was "What can be done, how can we stop it?" His somber reply was simply, "I don't recommend further intervention. My advice is to make the most of the 2 to 6 months that she has left". A single tear fell from my mother's eye and made a dark spot on her khakis, the pair that was now three sizes too large. He left us to reconcile both pieces of news. It was back. She didn't have much time.
I wailed. I know that I did, and I know that it must have sounded primal, but I didn't care who heard me. I don't recall the drive home or if we spoke. What I do recall is the awful way we had to leave the building. No one spoke to us. They just stopped what they were doing and moved aside. No one made eye contact, or touched us, or offered a kind word. I remember thinking, "They're treating her like a dead man walking" and I was disgusted. I felt like screaming, "She isn't dead YET!".
If that experience left me frigid, dealing with hospice is what thawed me. The men and women in the hospice industry are sainted people. They took such loving care of both me and my mom. Perhaps the best gift they had for me was the gift of preparation. I read the pamphlets they provided about what to expect when your loved one is transitioning, and it really helped me be less afraid. I even found it to be beautiful in its own way.
WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT LOSS
Grief happens for all of us, but it may happen differently. As is so often the case, we don't know what other people are experiencing when they are in grief. Try not to judge others based on their outward behaviors. Not everyone cries. Not everyone needs time before they return to "normal life".
You can experience grief before a person passes away. When I think back to the year before my mom died, I realize now I was already grieving the loss of "the way it was supposed to be". Having just retired, mom was supposed to be enjoying her golden years and traveling to all the places she'd put off until now. My mom was supposed to live into her 90s, like her mother and grandmother did. It wasn't even a question; it was a foregone conclusion. When that certainty was threatened and she got weaker and weaker from chemo and radiation, I know we both felt tremendous loss.
The process of dying is a normal one, and one I feel privileged to have witnessed. Someone likened the dying process to the process of giving birth. At first, I was taken aback by that comparison, but when I became a witness to and participant in it, I understood. I did my best to provide comfort and support to my mom as she moved from this realm into the next.
You can say all you need to say and STILL wish you'd had more time, spoken more feelings, asked more questions. As a close-knit family not afraid to speak our mind, we did not shy away from difficult conversations over the years. So, every day since that ill-fated doctor visit, I made sure I told my mom something I was thankful she did for me growing up. "Thank you for making me change clothes before church. I had terrible style when I was young" or "Thank you for making my halloween costumes every year". But as soon as she was done, I wished I'd asked more questions. I remember wondering "What was my great grandmother's maiden name and why can't I remember it??" WIth almost everyone on that side of the family gone, I have no one else to ask anymore. I've had to accept that with my mom goes a part of my past.
You can know you did your absolute best and still feel guilty. When it came to caring for my mom I assumed I'd have years to repay all the wonderful ways she had cared for me. Having that opportunity taken from me made me feel short-changed. And I felt SHE got short-changed. My mom only needed me for 2 months, but she'd given me LIFE! How was that anywhere near repayment for the debt I owed? I had to let that feeling go. Feeling guilty couldn't change the situation. I had to accept it.
Grief counseling is a gift you give yourself. Maybe not everyone needs it, but if you feel like you need to talk to someone, do it. Often the people around us (co-workers, neighbors, family) don't know what to say. In its absence they frequently say nothing. But for anyone who has lost someone special, we need to talk about our loved one and our feelings. A counselor is there to listen, without judgement. I felt that my one-hour appointment each week was an opportunity to remember my mom without any limitations.
Taking time to figure out your next right move is important. People often make rash decisions when they are experiencing profound grief. And that's ok too. Just be gentle with yourself, either way.
WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT LOVE
I am grateful that I had a mom worthy of the pain I feel. How lucky was I to have a mother who gave, taught and expected so much of me?!? When I got overwhelmed by the sadness I had the choice to become angry or bitter at what I'd lost. But I chose instead to be grateful for 46 years of what I had received.
I will show up for funerals. I will show up for meal trains. I will show up for mourners I don't even know. I will remember that people rarely talk about their grief and assume everyone has experienced some form of loss.
Friends and loved ones wanted to help me. I let them. How many times do we try to muscle through on our own? I was very fortunate to be surrounded by a supportive group of girlfriends, one of whom lost her own mother four years prior. She was such a tremendous help emotionally. But there were others who lent trucks, some who lent their organizational skills and still others who hauled boxes up to my attic. I simply put out the call and let people help where they could. I know for sure I couldn't have done it all without support.
I'm now 9 months into life without my mother. It has gotten easier. But I've noticed how uncomfortable the topic of death makes people, so I hope my experience has helped you feel a little less alone. Loss is like many other life transitions we experience along our journey and if we see it as such, sometimes it's easier to take the changes in stride. If you need help dealing with your grief, please find a local professional or try an online service like www.betterhelp.com.