Has It Really Been Three Years Already?

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.

Do you have a particular loss that transformed you?

What is your opinion on the four generally agreed upon stages of grief?

Have you lost a parent?


30 thoughts to “Has It Really Been Three Years Already?”

  1. Nancy,

    I’m thinking of you today. Anniversaries are definitely hard. My father died when I was a young adult and over the ensuing years (decades) I have decided that those stages of grief are not all they’re cracked up to be. I don’t think there is such a thing as closure and I don’t believe that we ever really get over anything monumental. I think over time we just learn to live with it.

    And I know for sure that convincing yourself that you’re grieving incorrectly is not the slightest bit helpful.


    1. Katie, Thank you so much for your kind words. I agree with you, we just learn to live with the monumental stuff that happens to us, the tricky part is learning how to do that. And I’m sorry you lost your father way too soon.

  2. My mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm four years ago on March 12th. I can sympathize with your loss, definitely.

    About two weeks ago I had a small epiphany. I realized that I was carrying around this huge weight of grief, and that I needed to set it down, as it was so, so heavy. It was affecting everything in my life.

    I sat and tried to connect with my mom (harder for me than for some friends it seems.) I think my mom would not want me to be unhappy and to feel like I was carrying around a 100 lb stone with me everywhere I went (which is how it feels.) I’m sure your mom wouldn’t want that either. But I know we all travel this road differently, and just wanted to share that it is somewhat of a relief to set the stone down.

    I still miss my mom, of course, every day. Her death was so sudden (alive one moment, dead five minutes later), and far away from where I was. I wasn’t with her when she died, didn’t see her body, couldn’t kiss her brow goodbye. All I had was a phone call, a plane flight, and a box of ashes to carry. Which seemed to turn into that 100 pound weight.

    Most of mom’s ashes have been scattered in places she loved, but I still have some with me. But step by step, since the other day, I’ve been able to leave the stone of grief behind.


    1. Laura, First of all, I am sorry you lost your mother, and so suddenly too. It’s good you have been able to “set that heavy stone down.” Our moms would not want us to be unhappy. I think of my mom every day too, and always will. It’s nice you had a chance to scatter some of her ashes in a few of her favorite places and that you still have some with you. Thanks so much for sharing about your experience with losing your mother.

      1. I am very sorry for your loss and read about some of the experience in your book.
        I lost my mother to Breast Cancer at age 12. There was no discussion of it during the treatment, and basically none after that. She was just gone. I raised myself as my sister who is 9 years older, didn’t feeling like care-taking. She still doesn’t accept my having “feelings” about breast cancer or asking questions so my contact with her is miminal. Some said to me once, well she must me scared! Oh my, maybe she should try being the one with BC going through treatment, single and alone. But I’m supposed to empathize with her. And I do after all. But I really cannot stand the way my family has EVER handled cancer. (rest of family doesn’t bother to contact me at all). Best, . KAE

  3. Nancy, your post resonated for me in many ways. My father, Frank, died (from lung cancer) at the end of summer 1999. I was 35. During that summer he knew he was terminal and he was actually a delight to be with, just so accepting of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. (I learnt a lot from that). When he died I was working away, and wasn’t contactable (this was before the days when everyone had a mobile phone). So when I got home he’d been dead for two days. Sometimes I felt I missed out on the profound ‘moment’ of death; I’d almost wanted to experience it, knowing that it was definitely coming. But in fact as time has passed I realise he showed me that the ‘bit’ that matters is the living bit. I’ve often felt that – death is ‘just’ the end bit. All the moments, the thousands and thousands of moments that come before, are the ones that matter.

    As I lived through my grief I found like you it wasn’t in linear stages. Shards of grief would spring from nowhere, suddenly. And my breast cancer diagnosis in 2007 has often reminded me of those stages… they are not linear either and resonate in my life still.

    Thank you for this post and for the feelings it triggered. I ‘enjoyed’ having this memory about Frank.

    1. Sarah, I’m sorry for your loss. You are so right, all the moments that come before a loss are the ones that matter the most in that relationship. Great observation about cancer not behaving in a linear fashion either, so true, so true! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on losing a parent. I’m glad it triggered some good memories of Frank.

  4. Hi Nancy, my thoughts are with you on this unwanted anniversary. My mother died on March 11, eleven years ago. I was with her when she died. In that moment I was ready to see her pain come to an end. What I didn’t expect was the immediate feeling that part of my life was over. A clear before, “I had a mother and now I don’t.” That’s faded somewhat over the years and my life is what it is. I am mother without a mother. I never stopped to think how she’d take care of me if she were here when I was diagnosed. To which I’m actually thankful. If I started to really think about that, I’d think I’d melt into a blubbering mess. It would have been nice to have her for that, but then again, it would be nice to have her for so many things. I know you get that.

    1. Stacey, We have yet another thing in common then, losing our moms in this month of March. I, too, was ready for my mom’s pain to be over, but still I wasn’t ready to let go. I also found the transition from being a daughter with a mother to one without to be quite life defining. I’ll be thinking about you this week too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about losing your mom.

  5. Nancy my younger sister died in 2007 in very sudden and tragic circumstances. I was living on the other side of the world, dealing with a cancer recurrence, and it took me 3 days to get home. It was one of the most gut-wrenching experiences of my life, and I don’t think I was quite prepared for how profoundly her death affected me. Although in the last years of her life we weren’t the closest, I still can’t believe she’s gone. I took such great pains to make sure the details of her funeral were just right, even down to the color of the nail polish I felt she would want. We played a Guns n Roses song at her funeral and every time I hear it on the radio, I think of her and that void in me that will never be filled. As weird as this might sound, my sister quite often visits me in my dreams. There are always two versions of the dream – one we are fighting about all of our unresolved differences, or the second one where she is the sister of my childhood and we just sit and calmly talk enjoying the bonds of sisterhood. I can’t explain any of that, except that is perhaps how my mind chooses to deal with the grief of losing her well before her time.

    1. Anna, I don’t even know what words to say that could possibly be adequate, so I’ll just express once again that I’m sorry you lost your sister, well before her time as you say. Being so far away during that time must have been unimaginably painful, plus dealing with your own cancer recurrence at the same time, it’s just too much. I hope you got some comfort from planning the special details and then carrying them out for her funeral. I think that was an important part of your healing. As for the dreams, I don’t think that sounds weird at all. Your dreams represent the special connection you will always have to your sister and I hope they bring you comfort. Thanks for sharing this, Anna.

  6. I miss my grandma very much! Thanks for this post about her!

    Noticing Anna’s comment, I dream about my grandma quite often, maybe once a week or so. It is obviously a way for me to grieve and to “connect” with her in some way. Usually I can’t talk to her, she is just there, but I do love these dreams.

    There are a lot of things I should’ve told her before she died. I definitely have tons of regrets there. But I have come to accept that this is OK. I tell myself that she already knew and she already understood how I felt about her, so it doesn’t really matter what was unsaid.

    1. Lindsay, I know you still miss your grandma, I miss her too. I had no idea you dream about her and so often too. I’m glad you find these dreams comforting and special. Don’t worry about having regrets over things unsaid. Grandmas never want their grandchildren to carry around any guilt burdens, especially over them. I know this, because my grandma taught me this. I think a grandma’s love is so purely unconditional; that’s why it’s missed so much when they are gone. I still miss mine (my other grandma I don’t remember well since she died when I was only four). I do know this, your grandma thought you (and all her grandchildren) were the best!!

    2. You know I dream about my grandma too. In times of great stress I dream that she comes and sits at the end of my bed, pats my hand, and tells me not to worry. But I think thats what Grandma’s represent. A place of safety and serenity. Of happier times when we were children. Well at least that’s what my Grandma meant to me. Thanks for reminding me of my happy memories of her.

    3. Anna, I think that’s probably why I dream about my grandma too. And as a way to reach out to her because of the guilty feelings I had. I also have found that many, many of my dreams take place at her house. It’s just a place of comfort and consistency.

  7. Hi Nancy, I have not had to deal with the death of my parents yet. My parents are approaching 90 and their health is starting to fail. What makes things even more difficult is that the fact that my parents live a long way from my home in Toronto. I worry that I won’t be there for them when they need me and I worry that one or both of them may die when I am far far away. I can therefore relate to your feelings about being there when your Mum passed.

    1. Jennifer, I’m glad you still have your parents with you, even though they are far away in distance. Remember you can be with them in many ways, so try to not to worry about your physical presence too much. I hope you enjoy many more years with them! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  8. My mom died in Nov, 2009, and I wasn’t with her when she died. We knew she wouldn’t make it through the night, but I needed to go home to sleep because I still had to take care of my two little girls the next day. I did what I had to do, but I also wish I could have been there.

    Even now as I am crying, I’m laughing because Anna Rachnel reminded me that when my grandma died two months after my mom, the funeral home put finger nail polish on her. We told them to take it off — Grandma had never worn finger nail polish in her entire life!

    1. Ginny, I understand your feelings about not being there. Yes, you did need to take care of yourself and your little girls too. That’s what I was doing when I left for my own appt, taking care of myself. That’s what my mom wanted and I’m sure your mom wanted you to do the same. Still, it’s hard to have missed that moment. Funny story about the nail polish! That’s the kind of story that will live on and on and bring fond memories to everyone that tells and hears it. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Nancy,
    My thoughts and prayers are with you on this day of rememberance. Your post addresses grief and loss in a very real and comforting way, offering others the gift of acceptance in their stage of healing.

    Thanks, k

  10. Nancy,

    I’m so sorry for your loss and pain. The death of your mother and a cancer diagnosis for you are two major stressors in life. My thoughts are with you at this very tender time in your life.

    Cancer has made me grieve losses….

    Loss of my fertility, loss of my breasts (even though the fake ones look good), loss of ever feeling invincible, loss of bone mass; the list goes on and on, but I am grateful that I’ve gained as much as I’ve lost: a renewed appreciation for life.

    1. Beth, Thanks for commenting. Yes, the last few years have been quite stressful, as you said. I am moving beyond, but these experiences have been very life-changing. You’ve had your share of losses, but yet remain optimistic and appreciative. I admire you for that, you’re a great role model!

  11. Oh Nancy, I’m sorry your mother was not physically there for you. Your mom was with you in spirit, in your heart, and that is what matters.

  12. Nancy, I think the loss that transformed me the most was my father’s death. He was the last of his generation of closest relatives, outliving my mother by three years. We were very close.

    I believe generally in the four stages of grief, but I know they are not linear. Sometimes I think I have come to acceptance only to realize that I haven’t actually “mastered” that stage.

    Your post has made me focus more on what it means to grieve. I can’t imagine going to a doctor’s appointment on the day of a parent’s death. As you said, your mother wanted you to stay there the night before; she was fully behind what you did. I pray that you find comfort in the good memories you have.

    1. Jan, Thanks for your kind words. I’m not sure the acceptance stage is ever completely “mastered.” And acutally, I think that’s a good thing.

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