There are few more painful events in life than a loss of a loved one. Though my maternal grandmother died in 1998, she was seventy-five years old. Grandma lived an amazing life and in the days following her death I missed her. My mom spent sixty-one short years on this earth. The feelings of loss for her are completely different.
Grief is an individual process depending on the relationship between the one who grieves and the one who is lost. I did not have a typical childhood. By age 15, I was a two time cancer survivor. Because treatment for cancer often involves chemotherapy, immune systems tend to shut down. Until my blood counts reached a certain number I could not attend school. I spent much time at home with my mother. She was a nurse and took care of many things at home such as flushing my port-a-catheter and running me on IV fluids when I was dehydrated. In this process, my mother and I became very close. I knew she worried about me and tried to calm her fears while having the same fears. Would I grow up and go to prom? Would someone marry me in spite of medical bills? Would a miracle happen and I have children? So much was unanswered but these questions led me to live my life looking forward to possibilities. My prognosis was good.
My mom’s prognosis was bad.
My mom went in for treatment believed to be gallstones in May. An ultrasound of the liver showed masses. A few days later the doctor gave her the bad news. My parents stopped to pick me up as I still cannot think of anything more painful than my mom enduring any suffering. I will never forget the words as she stepped out of the car. “At least he didn’t send me home to die.” The doctor was going to try to treat the cancer the best way he knew how-shrink the tumors and liver/colon resection in 2011. My mom did not make it to 2011.
An emotion unique to cancer survivors needs to be discussed. During the time my mom fought so hard for her life the visits were brutal. I gave her credit for helping me through my own battle and did not know how to help her. I felt guilty for being relatively healthy when I knew she realized her battle would be for the rest of her life. My mom loved life and I didn’t (thanks in part to clinical depression). Why her and why not me? Why, why, why?
When someone faces a potentially fatal illness they go through similar steps. Elizabeth Kubler Ross was the first to truly explore this experience. The first stage is denial. Even as a nine-year-old I denied having cancer. I could not fathom little children being ill and dying. My mom’s denial came out in seeking a second opinion. My mom was always healthy and the cancer was an incredible shock.
Anger is the next stage Kubler Ross spoke about. I am angry. I went through phases of being unable to work due to physical health limitations and losing friends to cancer. I am angry at my mom’s situation. The doctor estimates she had colon cancer ten years before it was found. Why wouldn’t she have had a scan? She might not be here anyway but she might. Our lives truly are in God’s hands. I am angry my mom had to hurt along with all the emotional pain from other problems within the family. I am angry because it feels like I took advantage of her too many times. I never saw my mom express anger over her situation. She was concerned when I showed anger. She always told me not to put her on a pedestal. How could I not when I had the best mom there is?
If my mom went through Kubler Ross’ stage of bargaining, I am unaware. By this point, my mom trusted in God enough to know bargaining would not work. When I went through cancer, I tried bargaining. I did not want to lose my hair as a 15 year old. I did lose my hair and when it eventually came back it was more beautiful than previously.
Another stage of Kubler Ross’ diagram is depression. It is difficult to believe any human who has been through a trauma has not been depressed. Even with my positive prognosis, I suffered depression. During treatment cancer patients are isolated from germs to keep from getting sick. A consequence of this is also being unable to see those they love.
Acceptance cannot come without cycling through these stages. When I cannot do something because of limitations caused by cancer, I feel angry and depressed though usually I am at acceptance. Everyone does not cycle through every stage and that is completely normal. Grief is an individual process that takes time to recover from. Sometimes people get stuck in their grief whether permanent anger, depression, or repeated bargaining.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross left a quote that brings me peace two weeks after the loss of my mom. She said, “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if their light is from within.”
I last saw my mom about four hours before she died. She still had that light in her sky blue eyes. She was the
most beautiful person I have ever known.