Christmas day 2013 is when it all began. My very small family’s holidays were centred on Mom and her brilliance in the kitchen. On this day, she was scurrying around to get things prepared for us and fell down in the bedroom, her feet became tangled in the bedspread. She laughed when she told us the story.
From that day on she complained “a pulled muscle in her back.” She started physical therapy soon after but never seemed to kick the pain in her back. March came and her new affliction began: constant nausea. None of us knew it was related. Her pulled muscle and nausea were more than likely caused by her enlarged liver which was full of cancer and had spread from her lung.
Death came for my mom 6 days after she was officially diagnosed with lung cancer. From the beginning of the 6 days, she was very weak from being unable to eat much for the previous 6 weeks. She went from fully aware (still bossing my dad and me around) to unaware of things beyond her bed within that time frame.
We, as human beings, are guaranteed a grieving process unique from all others. Coping with loss is ultimately a deeply personal and singular experience. Nobody can help you go through it more easily or understand all the emotions that you’re going through. The best thing you can do is to allow yourself to feel or lean in to the grief as it comes over you. Resisting it only will prolong the natural process of healing.
Easier said than done. If you are anything like me, you don’t indulge in the pain, you run from pain. I typically dull my discomfort with my obsession to work, alcohol, and food …anything to pull the focus from what really hurts. However, I am a therapist and hopefully somewhat self-aware, so this is what brings me to writing this blurb. I am leaning into my pain by sharing my experiences with you, hoping that you who are grieving can KNOW that this is temporary, and you will heal from this pain, but it won’t be easy.
DENIAL AND ISOLATION.
There wasn’t much time to for me to deny it, but my mom had a couple of days to do so. On the Wednesday before the Oncologist appointment, my mom, dad, and I went to the emergency room of a local hospital because my mom’s doctor noted her yellow color and wanted some tests. After eight hours of caring for my dad who has many more health issues (wheelchair bound) than my mom at this time and my mom who is so weak she has to be in a wheelchair of her own, we were told, “You have cancer, but we can’t tell you how bad it is or in what organ it lies.” Two days later, we were at the Oncologist, and before we went in, my mom said, “We don’t know if I really have cancer.” I just nodded. But I knew it. I just didn’t know how bad it was. In talking with my dad, he says she never mentioned cancer or her dying on the hour and a half back home drive from the hospital. They spent the next day living the way they had for 50 years, except for the physical weakness in my mother and the ever presence of their only daughter moving in to take care of things. The next day is when it all changed forever; hospice came.
My mom’s anger was never voiced because she instantly became too weak to talk. When I looked in her eyes, I didn’t see anger, I saw “This is not what I expected; I don’t want to leave my family. I am disappointed. This will kill your brother.” Although I had little time to be angry for all the things that needed to be done for someone in hospice care and the other very unhealthy parent witnessing the ordeal, I found time to be angry with the initial physician she saw. It took him 6 weeks to send her for tests. My mom was uncomfortable, weak, and couldn’t eat much for 6 weeks because the doctor (or so I thought) was an idiot and “just a country doctor who didn’t care about my mom.” She was terminal, and I knew that 6 weeks would not have saved her, but I was still angry at him, and shortly after her death I convinced my dad to change doctors all together.
In the 6 days, before she died, I cleaned the house (it was in disarray because she had been sick for a month prior to this), my brother and I took care of my mom and dad’s personal care, laundry and linens, bought the groceries and prepared the meals, dealt with hospice, dealt with the visiting community members, paid the bills, located bank accounts and wills, and you name it. Who had time to be angry? There wasn’t much time to be angry and what would I be angry about? I guess I could be mad at her for smoking since she was 15.
In retrospect, I haven’t really been angry. I continue to grieve my mom’s death and my dad’s current dying process, but calling it anger never really nails it. I mean, isn’t this the natural order of things? Parents get older, they die, and you live life without them. This statement does NOT make it any easier for the person grieving. And the next person who tells me that…GRRRRR.
Bargaining is the normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability and is often a need to regain control. For some control-freaks like me, this will be a more difficult stage because there is NOTHING you can do about saving your mom from death. Nothing. Secretly, my mom may have made a deal with God to postpone the inevitable. But probably not, my mom probably did not bargain with God in her last days. She had said to me many times before on days when her COPD had gotten the best of her, “I’ve done this to myself.” So I don’t think that bargaining with God for more time with her family was on her mind. Regret maybe.
My mom and I had a complicated relationship. So this phase has done a number on me in many different ways. This phase showed up as:
If only I had tried to be a better person toward her…given her a break on whatever we disagreed upon.
If only she had had another “better” doctor who would have treated her more effectively.
If only I had not been so wrapped up in my career, I would have paid more attention to her and got her the help she needed much sooner.
My heart is broken because I never could agree to disagree on what we didn’t see alike. I just want one more day with my mom to apologize or to make it up to her. I will never know if she forgave me or knew how much she meant to me or knew how much the holidays will NEVER be the same without her.
Again, it wasn’t obvious that my mom was experiencing depression because it happened so quickly. I am not convinced my mom ever truly believed she would die so soon. Depression has been mine to bare. There were so many things to do and get done that my depression lingered backstage for several weeks, and came center stage a good two or three months after her death, and remains there. My depression has more to do with the change my little family has undergone and what it continues to go through due to my mother’s death and father’s illnesses. The concept of the finality of your family members leaving is pretty tough. You will never say another word to your mom, you will never get the joy out of buying her a gift, you will never be comforted by her chicken soup when you are ill, and you will never be able to apologize about not being the perfect daughter, and soon enough your father will be gone forever as well. Some get through this with prescriptions; some weather it out…but it ALWAYS comes in one way or another.
The only words uttered by my mother in her last day was, “I want peace.” I believe that this was her voiced stage of Acceptance. This stage is marked by withdrawal and calm and a tightening of the visual aperture. Loved ones that are terminally ill or aging appear to go through a final period of withdrawal. She in her last day, appeared to be unaware of things occurring beyond her bed.
This stage is not afforded to everyone. I have not reached it as of yet, and she died 8 months ago. Of course, I have accepted I have spoken my last word to my mother and of course, I have accepted that my father is not on this earth for very much longer; however, I haven’t accepted it without a lot of emotion, and I am all but calm. I continue to lean into the pain every single day, and yes, I numb my pain with food and work, and calm still has not come.
When you experience grief, it is best to experience it with others (if it is a healthy support group). I share mine with my ever supportive husband, grief stricken brother, a couple of dear friends, and a group of intelligent and compassionate therapists (yes, therapists have therapists.) I believe I am doing it in the healthiest way I can…less numbing of the pain, and more leaning into it. But here I am in the final edits of this article, and I am weeping like she died yesterday. I miss her.
There will never be another holiday with her, and we will miss her huge spectacular turkey and dressing and delicious pies, her charm and sarcastic whit and beautiful voice and spirit. We are the lucky ones though; we got to meet her, even be born from her. She mothered us with all of her might. The holidays will still come, but they will never be the same. Eventually we will get through them and remember how lucky we are to have had her in our lives for almost 50 years. If you turn to God in this time, this is the scripture that gets me through the darkest of days. Psalm 3:3 “But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.”
Wendy J. Poole