Here we are at Part 5 on this cancer journey. Some of you may be wondering if this story will ever end. Some may have found this story too depressing and quit reading long ago. And that’s o.k. I recently was asked by someone pretty close to me why I would choose to “put myself through this” by writing about my mother’s death from cancer. So I thought I would try to answer that question and explain WHY I am writing about this journey.
Yes, obviously, this story does have an ending. Why have I chosen to write this series? I’m not really sure I can explain in a way people will understand, but I’ll try. When you lose someone close to you (someone who you loved), around Christmas time, Christmas is never again the same for you. Every year, at Christmas, I think about what my sisters and I were going through with my mother during the Christmas of 2006. I think about it night and day. One of my best friends from my childhood helped to care for her father many years ago when he was dying from multiple myeloma. I remember talking to her and hearing about her journey and about what the stress of caring for him was like. I remember her telling me that she was amazed at just how much the human body could endure. But still, I didn’t actually understand what she was going through. I THOUGHT I did, but you see, until it happened to me, I realized I didn’t have a clue. It wasn’t until my father became terminally ill with colon cancer that I knew the hell that my friend had been through. Then I felt sad that I hadn’t been there for her when she was going through it, and I regretted that I hadn’t understood. It is my hope by writing this story that others who are going through what I went through, will not feel so alone. I hope they will learn something,… anything… by my story. I hope they will know how normal it is to feel a multitude of emotions when going through a cancer journey with a loved one- that the feelings of being on an emotional rollercoaster are normal. I want them to know how important it is to get support when dealing with a terminal illness. I want them to know that when dealing with cancer, there will be good, bad and ugly things to deal with. While writing this story, I have often been tempted to leave out much of the “ugly parts.” Many times throughout this series, I have had to step away from writing. Sometimes I stepped away because the sad memories overwhelmed me and sometimes I stepped away because I was uncertain on whether to include certain “ugly parts.” But after much consideration, I decided I want to tell it all. I don’t want to leave anything out. I don’t want to sugarcoat anything. I know my sisters read this blog, and so writing the end of this story is going to be even more difficult and challenging because there are parts of this journey that weren’t so pretty and I somehow believe my sisters would rather me just leave those parts out. And believe me I was tempted. But that wouldn’t be telling the whole story, and the whole story is important.
I have always had somewhat of an abnormal obsession with grief. While practicing veterinary medicine, I dealt with grief on a daily basis. It was always an area that I never really felt “adequately” trained in. I always thirsted for more training, more knowledge, and more expertise in helping people to deal with the loss of a pet. At one point, I even returned to school with hopes of becoming a pet loss grief counselor. It is an area I am still very much interested in and an area of veterinary medicine that I feel is extremely important, yet often overlooked in veterinary school curriculums. I have read many pet loss grief books which I believe helped me in my grief over the death of my parents. I read Betty Eadie’s book, Embraced By the Light, while my mother was in the hospice residence and have read it about three times since. My mother read the book soon after getting her cancer diagnosis and related to me how comforting the book was to her. My oldest sister had checked the book out at the library, read it, and let my mother borrow it. My mother told me she found it very comforting to find that Betty Eadie reported in her Near Death Experience, that God had a sense of humor.
While my mother lay dying in a hospice residence at the end of her life, she slept much of the time. So I had a lot of time to read when I visited her. I became even more interested in reading about death and dying and grief and dealing with grief. Some people may have found this a little morbid, but I looked at it as a way of trying to prepare myself for the inevitable. I had read On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler- Ross when my father died and I re-read it when my mother was dying. I also read the book, On Life After Death, also by Elisabeth Kübler- Ross, which brought me a lot of comfort. The hospice social worker had recommended Final Gifts to me, a book written by a couple of hospice nurses. In this book, they share their own personal experiences with dying patients and what those patients have to teach the living. I recently read Glimpses of Heaven, also written by a former hospice nurse. I also discovered Alan Wolfelt, PH.D. and his series of books on grief.
One of the things I learned in my reading was that sibling relationships almost always become complicated during a parents dying/death. I learned that disagreements, fights, arguments, and resentments over the parent’s care, funeral planning, and belongings are extremely common during this time. We were no exception. That was definitely part of the ugly that is very difficult to write about.
I feel very strongly that an important part of healing in grief is being able to tell your story to whoever will listen. Sometimes that involves telling the story over and over. I think sharing memories, both the good and the bad, is an important part of healing. Telling the story somehow makes it more real and maybe, just maybe, it helps us to accept what has happened with a little more ease.
I have received several messages and e-mails from friends since I have started writing about this journey. Some have told me they have been through it themselves, and that it has brought back memories for them. Others have told me they have not been through it but that they know their time is coming. Others have just written and thanked me for telling my story, that it has inspired them. I want these people to know that the death of a parent is never easy. I’ve always heard that no matter what kind of relationship you had with your parents and no matter how much you try to prepare for their death, you will miss them like crazy when they are gone. This is true. And you WILL grieve. Grieving is a different process for everybody. I learned that very important lesson when my father was dying, and then again when my mother was a hospice patient. With grieving, comes many surprises. While grieving the loss of my mother, I was also grieving the loss of my childhood house- the place that was always home to me. This grief over my childhood home, while different from the grief I had over losing my mother, was very powerful and the depth of it caught me off guard. In some ways, it was harder than the grief of losing my mother. (See One Last Sleepover… For Old Times Sake). The feeling of suddenly being an “adult orphan” was also very powerful to me. I have always felt that no one in the whole world will EVER love me like my mother loved me. NO ONE. Our mothers are the ones who carry us in their bodies for 9 months, give birth to us and give us life. Mothers are usually our primary caregivers who tend to love us unconditionally, want nothing but our happiness and tend to most of our needs. When they die, all of that is just gone in a poof. Just knowing that the one who loved me most in the world (besides God of course) was gone, gave me such a tremendous feeling of loneliness- a feeling I had never experienced before.
My father was the first person close to me who died. I didn’t handle my mourning and grief well after he died. I spiraled into a severe clinical depression, believed to be triggered by his death. While I don’t think psychotherapy/grief counseling is for everyone, I greatly benefited from it. I began seeing a therapist shortly after his death. She helped me more than I could have ever imagined. I think I just hit the jackpot in finding this particular therapist as she was the most caring and compassionate therapist on the planet in my opinion. I soon grew very attached to her. I sought her care during my mother’s illness and death too. Her office became my safe haven for me to share my innermost thoughts and feelings with her. Not only was she an experienced therapist but she had recently lost her own mother to cancer so she “knew” from experience what my journey was like. Looking back, I can honestly say, I don’t think I would have survived without her help. She was there for me when I needed her. She called me often just to “touch base” as she called it, and to check on the progress of my mother (and me). I talked to her almost on a daily basis at the end of my journey when things really got tough, and she was a comfort. Besides calling, she sent me cards and notes. One day, after having a particularly bad day with my mother, I went home to find a card from her in the mailbox. I had cried the whole way home on the drive home from the hospice residence. I opened the card to find a note that said simply, “We will get you through this.” I can’t tell you how comforting that one little sentence was for me. It was as if, in all my drowning despair, that someone had suddenly thrown me a lifebuoy. It felt lifesaving and was just what I needed to hear. It’s no wonder that my therapist was the very first person I called after my mother’s passing.
So that is why I am pausing here near the end of this cancer journey tale. I felt I had some explaining to do. To my sisters: I hope and pray that I tell the end of this story in a compassionate and respectful way that will not bring discord between us. While there were some very difficult days we experienced together, what is important to me, is that we survived and we came out stronger and closer than we ever were before. In the days of our mother’s illness and following her death, we were forced to spend more time together than what was “usual” for us. Now we cherish and look forward to the times we spend together. From our mother’s death, I learned what it means to love my sisters and not take them for granted as I had been. And above all, I learned what is important to me: My faith and my family. I was grateful to have you both by my side during that very difficult time and I love you both with all my heart.