Monday, August 23, 2021

In Grief: Anticipating The Death of My Mother

Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation. ~ Rumi 

A reader writes: I am new to this. My mother is dying. She has breast cancer and now only a few months left. I am falling apart watching her die .... slowly .... I don't know how to do it. I fall apart at work, in the car, all the time now. I don't want to eat or smile or do anything. I just want to cry and sleep.

If I am like this now how can I possibly handle it when "IT" comes. I am so scared. How do I function day to day? I can't keep cyring and I can't hide it as easy as I used to. I hate this so much. I hate crying. I hate the loss of control....I am sad and angry. If you have some ideas on how I can get through one day at a time I would appreciate it. I have to keep going and I don't know how....Just drifting....

My response: I am so very sorry to learn of your mother’s terminal illness, and can only imagine how difficult it must be for you to feel so helpless in the face of this vicious, unrelenting disease. It is extremely difficult to witness your loved one’s health and quality of life deteriorating this way, and as time passes you will find yourself experiencing all the emotions of grief in anticipation of losing your mother. This is known as anticipatory grief, and the physical and emotional reactions involved are the same as those experienced in normal grief.

You say that you don’t know how to do this, and you worry how you will continue to function as you face whatever lies ahead. I think you will cope by just going ahead and doing what you are doing already, even though you are scared and you think you cannot do it. Somehow we think real courage is about soldiers being the first ones to charge up the hill, or about firefighters running into a burning building. Yet real courage is simply facing that which we're most afraid of, and doing it anyway despite our fear. Somehow you will find the strength to do what you need to do in the weeks and months before you, and you will be glad you did. Think of how you would feel if you were unable to be with your mother, and missed this opportunity to be there with her at this most difficult time in both your lives.

You don’t say whether your mother is aware of her condition, or if you’ve talked about it openly with each other, and I’m wondering if that may be part of what’s giving you such pain right now. I can assure you that your mother probably knows a whole lot more about her illness than anyone else does, even if she does not acknowledge it to those around her. Keep in mind that this is her life, and her dying, and she will do it the way that she needs to do it. Also remember that we human beings are relatively well defended ~ we hear what we want to hear and keep out the rest. That is how each of us just gets through the day. Your mother will face her dying as she is ready to do so, and for all you know, she may have begun doing that already. As your mother, she may be feeling a need to protect you by not expressing freely and openly what she feels and knows. I encourage you not to assume what she is thinking and feeling. The only way to know for sure is to ask!

When you're with her, you might ask her what she makes of her illness or what she thinks is going to happen to her ~ then take your cue from her. If she's ready and willing to talk about it and she knows that you are ready and willing to listen, she will let you know what's on her mind, and she’ll want to know what’s on your mind as well. The greatest gift you can give to your mother right now is just to be there with her ~ to be open to whatever she needs to say to you, and to be open with whatever you may need to say to her.

I’d like to recommend to you two wonderful books that I think you might find helpful at this sad and difficult time: The Four Things that Matter Most, by Ira Byock, M.D. He is an international leader in hospice and palliative care, and in this book he discusses how four simple phrases can guide us effectively through whatever interpersonal difficulties may stand between us and another person (and most especially when that other person is dying) to help us finish whatever unfinished business may be getting in the way. The four simple phrases are “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.”

The second book is Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs and Communications of the Dying, by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. The “final gifts” of the title are the comfort and enlightenment offered by the dying to those attending them, and in return, the peace and reassurance offered to the dying by those who hear their needs.

Most of us find it very difficult to think about planning ahead for the death of our loved one. We act as if merely thinking or talking about a person’s dying will somehow make it happen ~ or we act as if not thinking or talking about our loved one’s illness will somehow make it go away. Yet the reality is that none of us has the power to cause the death of another being merely by thinking or talking about it ~ and illnesses aren't prevented or cured simply by choosing not to think about them. Facing the loss of a loved one is just as difficult whether it happens suddenly or over an extended period of time. But having time to prepare for what lies ahead can be one of the more positive aspects of anticipatory grieving. You can make the most of the time you have now by talking openly with your mother about what is happening to her, and by making your remaining time together as special as possible, as you make those treasured memories that will offer you comfort later.

Make sure, too, that you are taking care of yourself while caring for your mother (by getting enough nourishment, relaxation, rest and exercise). And know that as you face the difficult days ahead, you are not alone. I know that every person reading this is thinking of you and holding you in our collective hearts. 

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Image by Gino Crescoli from Pixabay

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