I lost my mother to breast cancer three years ago on March 6, 2008. Ironically she passed away on the exact day I was having my annual physical and discussion with my primary doctor about my own breast cancer risk. At that time I was still cancer free, although I now wonder if there were already cancer cells lurking around in my body somewhere; my diagnosis came only about two years later.
Cancer seems to have a really bad habit of intrusively messing with my life at unexpected moments, like making its initial grand entrance into my family’s life on my birthday as the “uninvited guest.” Then it decided to “take” my mother on the one day I wasn’t around to be with her during those final moments. I certainly would have rescheduled that appointment had I known it was to be the day I would lose her. I would have been there. I had left the night before in order to go to my appointment. That’s what she wanted me to do.
Despite the fact I spent countless hours with my mother at the end and nothing was left unsaid between us, I still feel a little guilty about not being there for her final breath. Actually, it’s not even guilt; it’s more a feeling that I missed out on such a profound moment in time. It’s something I missed, not my mother; she wasn’t entirely coherent at the very end and probably didn’t fully realize who was there, but I do and not being there is a component of my loss.
During the past three years I have learned to accept my loss and my not being there. I have read a lot about the various stages of grief and how one is “expected” to grieve in our society. Often I am given the impression I should be well over this loss by now and most of the time I am. These days I do mostly remember the good memories and I have a lot of them, so I’m grateful for that. I don’t dwell on the more painful, still vividly clear memories of those final weeks, days and hours. I have successfully “moved on,” most of the time.
The generally agreed upon four stages of grief are deemed to be denial, anger, sadness, and finally acceptance. Thankfully, it’s also now widely accepted that these stages are not necessarily linear. Grief doesn’t follow a precise road map or sequence. Sometimes it zig zags around and even goes in reverse. Sometimes you find yourself back at what feels like “square one.” Grief never totally ends. You just get better at reacting to people, things and events that trigger your grief. You get better at creating meaning from your losses and hopefully grow yourself as a result.
You get better at coping, surviving and living your “new normal.” Ah, don’t those words sound all too familiar?
After my own cancer diagnosis I was somewhat surprised to find myself feeling anger again, reverting back to stage two in the grief process. I was angry my mother had died at a time when I needed her most. I was angry she was not around to do for me “what mothers do” at a time like that. I was angry I got cancer at a much younger age than she did. I was angry, even at my age, to be motherless. I was angry at cancer for striking my family again so quickly. We weren’t ready, not yet. Not again. I was angry for the unfairness of it all. I was angry about a lot of things. I was angry with myself for feeling angry.
Cancer remolded my mother’s life. I never fully understood that until I developed cancer myself. Her cancer diagnosis changed her, just as mine has changed me. That’s the one thing I do regret, that I could not fully understand or empathize with her when she perhaps needed me the most. I understand now. I also know it wasn’t possible for to understand then. I can accept that too now.
I guess I have reached the milestone acceptance stage of grief, but I will always remember. I will not forget and I do understand more fully now. I find comfort in that.
Breast cancer continues to take too many women (and men) too soon. That is a fact I do not accept and never will.