Thirty years later, my mother would die of cancer. It was not sudden, it was a process. Death and dying are two distinctly different experiences. After she had “survived” breast cancer, melanoma, thymoma, and kidney cancer, she had cancer in her liver, of which little could be done. Her cancers previously were simply cut out. None had spread, all were contained. Her post surgery treatment was minimal. This occurred over 12 years and she did an amazing job of “living”.
When we learned of the cancer in her liver and what few options if any were available, the realization of what we had not been confronting slammed into our consciousness in a way we weren’t prepared for. On the one hand it was a good thing, as we really did live during all those years. On the other hand, I felt so naive and insensitive to what she must have been dealing with on her own all those years. I felt guilty that I had been bumping along as if she had been having worts cut out of her body or something.
As is often the case, how “others” are dealing with it becomes part of your experience. My younger sister was a mess and in full blown denial about what was to come for our mother and for us. I wasn’t able to just care for our mother WITH her, but had to deal with her emotional upheaval in addition to trying to keep things calm and peaceful for our mother and our children. It was not an easy road. I was struck at how distinctly different it was when I lost my Dad, but also struck by how much the same it all was.
I noticed that I was experiencing profound grief and loss, and yet my mother was still with me. We were still talking and doing things together, yet knowing our time was short was ever present. Grieving the impending and undeniable loss of her, had me vacillating between grief and profound guilt. Going through all the same stages of grief I had with my father;
My sister became stuck in denial, anger and bargaining. I had moved through all of those and was at acceptance. This created an unintended rift between us, which thank goodness we have worked through. But at the time it was an added burden in the role I was engaged in, in caring for our Mom, and it did not go unnoticed by our mother, so it added to her burden as well.
This is not unusual, I have observed. It is rarely a universally peaceful journey when you have other family members involved. Each bring their own experiences, strengths, weaknesses and viewpoints to the story unfolding. Most of you know this. The one who is caring for them can get barraged with the opinions of those at a distance, in their efforts to have some say in what’s going on. They aren’t a part of the day to day struggles of the one who is actually caring for them and their lives being disrupted, for lack of a better, kinder word. It can create turmoil that never resolves, or it can bring them closer together in their efforts of offer support. Lack of understanding grief in general is often the culprit. It disguises itself with opposing views of the job you may or may not be doing, but underneath it, is often the frustration of personal grief and often guilt, which can breed resentment and frustration. This can run the gamut of light disagreement to full on frontal attacks. I’ve witnessed it all, and will often do my best to try to educate those who will allow me, as to what is actually occurring. Sometimes I can bring some sanity to the situation with understanding, sometimes its a lost cause, for now…
What became very apparent to me, was the grieving process. I had taken a class on Death and Dying in College. I had read the material, I understood it in an intellectual way. But I had experienced a sudden death at the time I took that class. I had not yet experienced, intimately, the dying process. Reading about it and experiencing it are quite different. However, knowing how grief presents itself, was in some small measure, helpful to me. It didn’t ease my suffering, but it helped me to better understand it. It did give me strength to communicate directly with my mother about matters that were of paramount importance to her. It was certainly one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t about me, but her. What she needed. What she wanted. What she was most concerned about. The more I had these difficult and heartfelt conversations with her, the more agitated my sister would become. Remember, she was in denial/anger/bargaining, and I was totally messing things up for her. In her world, this just wasn’t happening. The more I “dealt” with it, the more real it became and the angrier she got. Knowing the typical components of grief helped me to console her and to not judge her, to do my best to bring her to some understanding about what I was doing and what was important for our mother. I continued to keep her abreast of what was happening and what we needed to do. It wasn’t always awful, but it wasn’t smooth and easy either.
I was suffering for her. She lived with my mother, they were like frick and frack, ying and yang, Abbot and Costello and sometimes Jekyll and Hyde. They had a symbiotic relationship, and I fully understood that my mother was worried about what would become of Lynn and I was fully cognizant of the fact that Lynn was terrified about her life without our mother. I tried not to worry about what it might mean for me, I tried to stay focused on my job at hand.