What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here. Today’s guest post is by Kerri Cox.
“My mother taught me everything, except how to live without her.” Every time I see this quote, I feel it describes my experience of losing my mother. Losing a parent as an adult is part of the natural flow of life. Since this is an expected loss, our society often fails to recognize how difficult it can be. I want you to know that losing a parent as an adult can knock the wind out of you and can cause grief for many years after the loss. My mother was my best friend. It’s funny to say that because I never would have considered that while she was alive since she was always clearly in the mother role. Even though I was an adult with a family of my own, my mother still “mothered” me. This never bothered me too much, and she was the only person other than my spouse and children that I talked to every single day. My family lived a mile down the road from her, and she took care of my boys when I returned to work after they were born. I was always glad to see the love and close bond that grew between her and my children. Knowing my mother was a heavy smoker all of her adult life, it was not a shock to learn she had developed lung cancer in her mid-sixties, and yet, it was. We learned fairly quickly that her prognosis wasn’t good and carried the possibility of fighting and surviving for a year. I was mentally prepared for the steps ahead, after watching my sister and my aunt fight cancer before both passed away from it. I felt like I knew the routine. I expected my mom to be sick in the months ahead...but I still expected her to be here in the months ahead. I want you to know that even when you think you know what to expect, you really don’t. My mom’s fight wasn’t like those I had watched before, unfortunately, and she became very sick very fast. Her first chemo treatment debilitated her; however, I thought this was temporary. I expected her to get sicker before she got better. I expected some time to spend together and to talk. I want you to know that even when your loved one is physically still here, they may not be themselves. Pain medications were prescribed to make my mother more comfortable, which was good; however, these clouded her alertness. She was not able to communicate much and often seem disconnected from this world. Very quickly, I realized we would not be able to have the time or conversations I thought we would get to have. She didn’t even make it to her second dose of chemo. A little more than a month after my mom was diagnosed with cancer, she died. She was at home, surrounded by our big extended family. The last days were torturous, but my mother went out surrounded by love and laughter. I want you to know that you can laugh even as you face the saddest situation in your life. In the months that followed, the depth of my grief surprised me. As I stated earlier, losing a parent as an adult is part of the natural flow of life, so it seems like something we should be able to process a little more easily. However, that isn’t necessarily the case. At first, I felt like I was drowning. My heart would race, I would cry, and I often felt numb. On my first day back to work, I couldn’t quite figure out why I was there or what I was supposed to do. I want you to know that your grief isn’t the only grief you’ll have to manage. As I was facing my feelings, I was also trying to prop up my father as he dealt with his grief, and most heartbreaking of all, my older son was drowning in his own sea of grief. They say this sadness is the cost of love, and it is so true. There were days I felt like I could hardly take care of myself as I tried to help my dad and my son. Luckily, my husband was there as a firm support system for me and my family. Months passed, suspended in devastation. I would mindlessly think about picking up the phone to call her, or think about something I needed to tell her, only to realize I couldn’t. The fact that death is forever was hard for me to wrap my brain around. However, day by day, we each grew stronger. We first made it through days without crying, then the days became weeks. And yet, as this healing was going on, I never knew when a wave of grief would knock me over again. A sight, a smell, a memory could trigger the sadness. Sometimes, it passed quickly; other times, it lingered for weeks. I want you to know that even when you feel you’re finally doing better, sometimes, you just aren’t. Eventually, I began to feel as though I was standing on firm ground again. The anxiety would creep up, but I learned how to help get myself through it. For me, finding something positive to focus on made a huge difference. A death leaves a hole in your life. Some people fill it with addictions or unhealthy activities. Personally, I've found myself taking bigger risks and thinking more about what kind of life I want to live. My family bought a travel trailer and began exploring the world, and I started a doctoral program--two things that might not have happened if I had not have lost my mom. I want you to know that, in the face of loss, you must find positive ways to take care of yourself. Now, it’s two and a half years later. I still feel a pinch of pain when I think about how much I miss my mom, and sometimes, that pinch explodes into tears, but overall, the overwhelming grief has subsided into a lingering sadness. The holidays are a particularly hard time because most memories I have of every holiday in my life involve my mom, so her absence is strongly felt when traditions and routines have been altered. I look for little ways to honor her, even though she isn’t here with us. I want you to know that losing a parent can be a overwhelmingly painful experience, even when you are an adult with a family of your own, but it does get easier, day by day. If someone you know loses a parent, take a moment to earnestly ask how they are doing or to talk about the person they lost. You can't take away the sorrow, but these social connections will offer more support than you may recognize.