Losing My Mother – I Was Supposed to Be Ready

I lost my mother to breast cancer in 2008. In some ways I miss her even more since my cancer diagnosis because I know what an amazing support person she would have been to me. She felt quite a bit of guilt for potentially carrying the BRCA 2 gene mutation on to her children. Mothers like to fix things, not be the source of unsolvable problems. Of course, I feel no resentment toward her for indeed passing this mutation on to me. In fact, in an odd sort of way, I feel even more connected to her; our cancers bind us  together even further. Somehow it makes me feel like we get the last laugh over cancer, if that makes any sense. Cancer could not divide and conquer us, in the sense that really matters anyway.

I was supposed to be ready when my mother died. I was supposed to be ready to say goodbye. After all, she was in her seventies. I was not a child or even a young adult. It is assumed that losing your mother at a younger age is more traumatic and detrimental. That’s probably true. At my age I was supposed to be ready. Her cancer had been diagnosed four years earlier, so I was supposed to be ready. Her health had been rapidly declining before my eyes and she was living out her final days in a nursing home, so I was supposed to be ready. I knew the end was coming, so I was supposed to be ready. But I was not.

Society gives few messages and the ones that are given seem mixed about how to “appropriately” grieve for parents. In his book, When Parents Die: A Guide for Adults, Edward Myers states, “Loss of a parent is the single most common form of bereavement in this country. Yet the unstated message is that when a parent is middle-aged or elderly, the death is somehow less of a loss than other losses. The message is that grief for a dead parent isn’t entirely appropriate.”

When we lose a parent, we are supposed to be prepared for this normal life passage, or at least be  more ready to accept it when it does happen. We are expected to pick ourselves up, close the wound quickly and move on. We should not require so much time to “get over it.” This loss is expected and in the natural order of things.

However, just because losing a parent is so common place and in the natural order of things, this does not mean a person can or should be expected to simply bounce back. On the contrary, losing a parent is extremely difficult for most adult children if you have had a good relationship with your parent and even if you haven’t. In fact, sometimes the latter makes it even more difficult due to unresolved issues or conflicts.

So, remember that losing a parent can be unexpectedly devastating and cause considerable upheaval in even an adult son or daughter’s life. Maybe that sounds like stating the obvious, but I think it’s worth saying anyway. The magnitude of this loss can take you by surprise and helpful resources are not that plentiful.

HERE ARE A FEW SUGGESTIONS FOR COPING

1. Don’t expect to be ready, you won’t be.

2. Never let anyone belittle this loss or hurry you through your grief. You need to experience all of its intensity.

3. Grieving for a parent, just like all grieving, takes considerable hard work emotionally, physically and spiritually.

4. All of this work takes time, the process must not be hurried.

5. Even as an adult, don’t be surprised by your feelings of abandonment and uncertainty.

6. After they’re gone your parent will continue to be a part of your life, just in a different sense. You are still their son or daughter.

7. Remember once you do emerge on the other side of grief, you will be forever changed, but in some ways stronger and maybe even better.

Have you lost a parent (or do you know someone who has) and how did it affect you (or them)?

42 comments


  • 60 going on 16

    October 14, 2010

    It’s definitely worth saying, Nancy, and that bond between mothers and daughters is so strong (at least for must of us).

    My own mother died 15 years ago, when she was almost 88; an amazing woman, who had had a long, hard life and who had stared death in the face on more than one occasion. When I was having the ultrasound biopsy, just before my breast cancer diagnosis, and then at the time of the diagnosis itself, she was the person I wanted to see, be with, turn to. At the most painful point of the biopsy, I had a very strong sense of her presence; it was the most comforting thing in the world and it made all the difference.

    • Nancy

      October 14, 2010

      60 going on 16, Thank you for sharing those thoughts about your mother. Sounds like she led an interesting life. It must have been a great help to you sensing her presence during your biopsy. Just goes to show the relationship does not end with their passing.

  • Tracy

    October 14, 2010

    This is lovely, Nancy, and I’m so sorry you lost your mom. Mine is a 10+ year survivor, and it definitely does help being able to talk to her about all of this. And you’re so right about the mom guilt. Mine tried to blame herself even though I tested negative for BRCA! I think this whole thing is harder for her than it is for me.

    My father-in-law passed away earlier this year – in his 80s, after a period of declining health – and it doesn’t leave less of a hole than losing someone suddenly at a younger age. Thank you for pointing that out.

    • Nancy

      October 14, 2010

      Tracy, Thank you for sharing your thoughts about your mother. You are indeed lucky to have her still with you. As you said, I’m sure watching you go through all this is indeed really hard for her. At least she doesn’t have to keep feeling guilty about the BRCA stuff. And I’m very sorry you lost your father-in-law.

  • Kim

    October 14, 2010

    Nancy, this is amazing! I am going to show this to Mackenzie because I do think she does understand but at times it is hard for her knowing that Great Grandma went through this and now so are you.

    • Nancy

      October 14, 2010

      Kim, Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting! Yes, sometimes it’s hard for any of us to figure this stuff out, so no wonder it’s confusing for Mackenzie.

  • Aaron

    October 14, 2010

    Thank you for everything that you write you truly have a magnificant talent. I find myself swelling with different emotions each time I sit down to read and comprehend what you have shared with us. This one was especialy difficult for me to read, but it is very well written and the list at the end was a great way to close. Your writing style makes it seem like you are actualy talking to me rather than me just reading it. Keep up the superb writing and continuing to help heal yourself and the rest of us. Once again, thank you for everything that you do.

    -Aaron

    • Nancy

      October 14, 2010

      Aaron, Thank you for reading my blog and commenting! You have very kind words to say about my writing. Writing, reading or just talking about lost loved ones can be very difficult and emotional, but also quite healthy, too, and I think doing any of those things honors their memory as well.

  • Beth L. Gainer

    October 15, 2010

    Nancy, this is a poignant, beautifully written piece on a subject so near and dear to your heart. I am so sorry for your loss.

    Your insights are right on the mark. Somehow society does condition us to think that losing an elderly parent is not as devastating because he/she is elderly.

    I love your blog and plan to Twitter this posting and promote it on my Facebook page. I’ve also added you to my blog roll.

    • Nancy

      October 17, 2010

      Beth, Thanks so much for visiting my blog and taking time to comment. I really appreciate your positive feedback and support!

  • Emmy Belding

    October 20, 2010

    Your blog is so inspiring. I lost my beloved mother to Ovarian Cancer in 2009. She was 58 and I was 22.

    Here is my blog about grief…..

    http://www.emmybelding.tumblr.com

    God Bless You

    • Nancy

      October 20, 2010

      Emmy, Thanks for finding my blog and commenting. I am truly sorry for your loss. I understand about how much you miss your mother. I will check out your blog soon. I have been looking for other grief blogs. Take care.

  • Rose Mary Saraiva

    October 26, 2010

    Nancy, we are never ready, even if someone has been sick for a long time. When my Dad died, we weren’t ready, and he had battled cancer for 9 years. And as for knowing what we are going through, or how we should grieve, no one knows that, only the person going through it at the time. Your grief is just that, your grief. I still have my Mom thank goodness, but I have a family friend that lost her mother over 20 years ago, and she still misses her, still mourns her absence. She is your Mom, she gave you life, she was your world, and you hers. So you have ever right to feel sadness, grief, and allow yourself to cry. Like a 4-year old once told me after my daughter’s death, ‘Crying makes the hurt go away.’

    Blessings, and my prayers are with you as you cope with your cancer, may you find strength in knowing that your Mom is watching over you, taking care of you. Love never dies.

    Rose Mary

    • Nancy

      October 27, 2010

      Rose Mary, Thank you for visiting my blog and taking time to comment on loss. You are so right in saying that we are never ready even if the person we lose has been sick for a long time and most especially when one loses a child like you did. Good insights on grief.

  • Sami

    October 28, 2010

    Nancy, thank you for reading and commenting on my blog. I have been looking for other blogs on this similar topic, but haven’t found many! It’s nice, in a sense, to be able to read other journeys and know that I am not alone.

    Losing my mom to Ovarian Cancer when I was 19 was very difficult, but a strong support system is what got me through (as well as inheriting her positive outlook and strength!). Initially, a good therapist and a lot of tears is what got me through. Now, three years later, it is my blog. It’s like a deep cleansing of the soul every time I sit down to write. And it’s a blessing to share my story and have that reciprocated as well. Thank you!

    Also– I can only imagine how hard it is losing a parent as you get older. Although a lot of my sadness came from, and continues to come from, knowing my mom won’t be here to see me get married, have children, etc., it would be just as difficult after having 50 years of making memories with her and having to let her go. There’s just no way to prepare yourself even if you’re given time to. It’s impossible at any age!

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Nancy

      October 28, 2010

      Sami, Thanks for sharing your comments. I agree it is helpful to read about the journey of others. And you are so right, it is impossible at any age.

  • Ruby Taylor

    November 17, 2010

    There are no words that will give comprehension or enough comfort in this situation. An idol mind is the devil’s playground” a saying I heard once but apparantly a very true statement. An idol mind give us too much time to reflect and remain in our mourning and stagnation. It also allows negative thought in and this can be a very hard cycle to break.
    It’s important to keep yourself as busy as possible when overcoming your grief. As you deal with loss, there may be some days when you feel like you have made progress with healing. You will be able to enjoy life again. Hang on to hope, as it is the most important thing you can do.

    • Nancy

      November 17, 2010

      Ruby, Thank you for your comments. Yes, words are sometimes inadequate. I agree hope is important to hang on to in many situations.

  • Renee Palisa

    November 29, 2011

    Your words were never truer. It has been almost one year since I lost my mother and I cared for her alone despite having family who walked away. What helped heal unresolved issues was the 9 months I took care of her and dealt with the illness along with her. It was the most intimate experience I have ever had with my mom and wouldn’t have changed that time we had for anything. I no longer speak to my sister or her kids and never having married myself, feel like an orphan. I feel as though her spirit has entered my body somehow and I am becoming like her more and more, taking up hobbies she enjoyed that I have never done until now, in middle age.

    • Nancy

      November 29, 2011

      Renee, I’m so glad you found this blog post and thank you so much for the feedback on it. I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m glad you were able to care for your mother and I know what you mean about that shared time being so intimate and special. I feel the same way about time spent with my mother at the end. Some of those memories are the most dear to me. Thanks for commenting and for sharing your thoughts. My best.

  • myown

    December 31, 2011

    I thank you for this entry. I am 29 and just lost my mother in August a week before my birthday and buried her the day after my birthday. I have so manuy emotions going through my head because my mother and I were like PB &J, you saw one you would def see the other. I miss her tremendously. I have to mention that I am an only child so I can’t even share this feeling w/another sibling. And to make matters a little harder my grandmother had passed away 4 months prior of a massive heart attack unexpectantly. Not only that but we buried my aunt which was my moms best friend, the year before on the same day as my mother. So I have so much going on in my mind. I take strength in knowing such a wonderful woman and that she was able to see me get married and her 3 grandchildren before passing. Thank you so much for your advice and just hearing that someone else who has lost their mother and is feeling the same. Question, how has it been since time has passed?

    • Nancy

      January 1, 2012

      My Own, I am so sorry for your loss. Losing a parent is a very difficult thing. You need to give yourself time. It hasn’t been very long at all yet. Compounding your grief are your other two losses, also significant in themselves. And I’m sure being an only child makes things even tougher. You are definitely not alone in your feelings. I hope you have someone you can talk with about how you are really doing. You shouldn’t have to try to cover-up your emotions. I’m glad you found this post helpful. There are other blogs out there you might want to visit too. As for your question, things do “ease up a bit” with time. I think the first year cycle is especially difficult and then it gets a bit “better.” I still miss my mom and think of her every day. Again, I’m sorry for you loss. Thanks for sharing something so personal. Keep me posted on how you’re doing. I care.

  • Sarah Craft

    February 25, 2012

    I lost my mother 19 years ago to brain cancer, and I am now just trying to reach out to other people. I feel so sad without her here, and I feel like I have reached an age where I should be more “accepting” of her death. She died when I was 15, and i am now 34. I miss her terribly, and would like to talk to other people about this loss as a possible bridge to help me heal.

    • Nancy

      February 27, 2012

      Sarah, I’m so sorry about your mom. It’s a life-long loss isn’t it? Of course you still miss her. I would recommend the book “Motherless Daughters” by Hope Edelmen. It’s a good one. I hope you find someone you can speak with face-to-face with about your mom and your feelings about your loss. You deserve that, even all these years later. You really do. Thanks for sharing so honestly here. Feel free to do so any time. Sending you wishes for peace and healing.

  • LibbyLou

    April 9, 2012

    I lost my mom from breast cancer when I was 14. It was the hardest thing that has ever happened to me. I am 17 now and instead of doing drugs and drinking I am working my but off in highschool and getting ready for college. I have a bright future ahead of me. I love God so much. I know what he has done has a purpose. I am thankful for what I have and am a positive person that has learned to appreciate so much and be a better person.

    • Nancy

      April 9, 2012

      Libby Lou, I’m so sorry about your mom. Going through all of that must have been so difficult and you must miss her so much. I’m really sorry. It’s wonderful you are working so hard and preparing for your bright future. Your mother would undoubtedly be so proud of you. My best to you and thanks so much for taking time to comment.

    • Regina Boose

      April 14, 2013

      Libby Lou. So sorry to hear about your mother. My mother died when I was 13 so I understand what you are going. So happy to hear that you are going to school n your mother will be very proud of you. Wish I had gone to college or some higher learning. Keep up the good work n feel free to write if you desire. Will keep you in my thoughts n prayers. God bless you. Regina.

      • Nancy

        April 14, 2013

        Regina, Thank you so much for your compassionate words.

  • Mark Bodenstein

    March 5, 2013

    Thank you Nancy for being so supportive and loving in your approach to grieving even in the case of “natural” deaths. Though my mother died 20 years ago (at 75) and my dad 3 1/2 (at 95), there is more healing to do and reading what you’ve written took my healing a step further. In each case there were things that helped. My mother, who had a hard life, was still her feisty self just before she died. When she died my first reaction (to my surprise) was a strong feeling of triumph for her that she had successfully finished that life, that it was complete. With my dad it helped that I had a wonderful visit with him (with my 3 sons) a few weeks before he died, and he made it clear that he was deeply ready to go “home”. None of that is to say that I didn’t grieve – I did and still do, and miss them. My best to you and thanks again for your writing!

    • Nancy

      March 5, 2013

      Mark, Thanks so much for your wonderful comment and for saying my writing helped you take another step in your own healing. Your first reaction to your mother’s death is very interesting – a feeling of triumph for a life successfully completed. That’s pretty comforting. I’m glad you were able to have that visit with your father, which also included your three sons, before he died. And of course, grief might end or at least lessen, but the loss if for a lifetime. Thanks again for commenting.

  • Stephen

    March 19, 2013

    This was a beautiful article Nancy. I lost my nana, who was the woman who raised me to breast cancer over a year ago. My 25th birthday is tomorrow I so desperately want her to be here. Even for a hug. I remember reading one saying that helped me get through which was ‘when a loved one becomes a memory, that memory becomes a treasure’. All of our mothers our treasures. Thanks for being so honest and open about your experience. It just always seem to make the pain less when you read another persons experiences.

    • Nancy

      March 19, 2013

      Stephen, Thanks so much for your kind words about my article. I’m so sorry you lost your dear Nana to breast cancer and of course you miss her. I wish she could give you that hug tomorrow too. And yes, I call the memories treasures of the heart too. Hold on to your treasures tomorrow and every day. Thanks so much for sharing about your loved one.

  • Lynne Turk

    June 2, 2013

    I just lost my mom 3 weeks ago she was 91. I got the chance to say goodbye in the 6 weeks before I knew she was dying from pancreatic cancer, but yet i cry each day and miss her so much. Intellectually I know that she was 91 and didn’t suffer so i should be happy. I got the chance to see her every day and tell her I love her, yet I keep feeling I didn’t do enough before and I miss her so much because I used to speak to her more than 10 times a day even if for a minute or two during those 10 times!

    • Nancy

      June 2, 2013

      Lynne, I’m very sorry for your loss. It doesn’t matter that your mom was 91 years old and that you told her you loved her; you’re still hurting. Losing a parent is hard and it doesn’t matter how you are or how old they were. As I wrote about in this post, society sometimes sends messages telling us we shouldn’t feel this kind of grief that deeply or for that long as losing a parent is in the natural order of things. It is in the natural order of things, but it’s still a painful and difficult loss and transition. Don’t hurry yourself through it. Again, I’m very sorry.

  • Liane

    June 4, 2013

    Wonderful post. I lost my mom in 2006 at the age of 64 to gallbladder cancer and I was completely blindsided with grief. We knew for a year that she wouldn’t make it but I still couldn’t believe it when she was gone. Having never lost anyone close to me before, I was unprepared for the earth shattering, mind boggling pain that followed. at the age of 45 I was an orphan. Had I not had the support of family and friends around me at the time I’m not sure what I would have done. Exactly 3 months later to the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery and chemo. 7 years later I am well but still miss my mom every day. She was my rock and I feel her presence still. No one should every be rushed through the grieving process. It simply will take as long as it takes. And it ebbs and flows. Thanks again for sharing.

    • Nancy

      June 5, 2013

      Liane, I’m very sorry for your loss. I’m sorry about your cancer diagnosis too, and I understand about missing your mom through all that and even now every day. Thanks so much for reading and taking time to leave a comment.

  • carol

    June 21, 2013

    I lost mum 4 weeks after diagnosis of lung cancer – I buried her 1 month ago – I’m currently not feelinglike I am on the planet – someone pls tell me I will not always be like I am – everythingis hard work

    • Nancy

      June 23, 2013

      Carol, I’m very sorry for your loss. Of course everything is hard right now and I know what you mean about not feeling like you are on the planet. Do you have someone you can talk about your feelings with? I hope so. Give yourself time to feel your grief. Your loss is very recent. Again, I’m sorry. Take care of yourself.

  • Elizabeth

    July 21, 2013

    My mother died unexpectedly in her sleep at 83, until then seemingly in fairly good health. She had just had a checkup a couple of weeks before. She had survived breast cancer 17 years earlier with no recurrences. I realize I was blessed to have her so long, and that her passing was easy for her, but I still miss her. 10 years later, when I held my first grandbaby in my arms, the first thought that went through my head was how my mother would have loved to have seen him.
    One of my grandmothers died when my dad was only 4. It made me feel like something was missing when I was a child as all my friends seemed to have two grandmothers. The last year of his life, when it was clear dad was losing the battle against strokes and heart disease, he talked a great deal about his mother. He had clearly never stopped missing her.
    My other grandmother died of breast cancer when I was 14. I remember having a hard time dealing with it because all the adults around me, especially my mother, were pretty absorbed with their own grief.
    One thing that concerns me about being stage 4, is should the time come when treatments fail, how will it affect my children if they lose me while they are still young adults, and how will it affect my grandson, or perhaps by then it will be grandchildren?

    • Nancy

      July 22, 2013

      Elizabeth, No matter when the loss of a parent comes, we aren’t really prepared for it. I know I certainly wasn’t. I’m sorry for your loss. Loss has such a ripple effect too, just as you so eloquently described. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Lovey

    February 6, 2014

    Hi, This my first time talking to anyone I’m Lovey. I lost my mother, my life, my world.. To lung cancer.. We had just moved to GA.. (for about a year she had a cough that wouldn’t go away prior to us moving) when we moved in the middle of March07 the first of April she was diagnosed with STAGE 4 lung cancer. She was 59 and I was 17..

    I went every where with her, I simply would not hear of a nursing home after two months of chemo she had had ENOUGH!! LORD I LOVE YOU SO MUCH BUT I CAN’T GET OVER THE FOUR MONTHS OF torture I HAD TO WATCH A GOOD SERVING SERVANT GO THROUGH AND THERE WAS NOTHING I COULD DO!!!! There was NOTHING I COULD DO!!! A MOTHER TAKES CARE OF THEIR CHILD, AREN’T WE SUPPOSE TO DO THE SAME!!!????
    He gave his only begotten SON, AND YES HE WENT WITH OUT HIS DAUGHTER FOR 59 years, maybe i’m selfish because I WANT HER BACK AFTER I’VE HAD HER FOR 17! She CRIED OUT IN PAIN SOOOOO MANY NIGHTS, I DID NOT SEE HIM CARRY HER, I DIDN’T SEE ANY FOOTPRINTS!!!!
    And than After watching MY HEART DETERIORATE IN FIVE MONTHS I HAD TO BURY HER 11 days before my birthday (August22)..
    I didn’t need A reason to be angry with God. Is this A test, because YOU DIDN’T HELP HER, YOU DIDN’T ANSWER HER CRIES, (AND I KNOW SHE SERVED YOU) THIS HAS PUSHED ME SO FAR AWAY!!! I don’t even pray anymore…
    I feel abandoned, I think about suicide EVERYDAY I JUST WANT TO BE WITH HER!!
    Thanks for listening…

    • Nancy

      February 7, 2014

      Lovey, I’m terribly sorry about all you’ve been dealing with. I hope you find someone to talk with soon.

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