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I Wasn’t There…

March can still stir up lots of emotions for me. It’s the month my mother died from metastatic breast cancer. I shared about my experience being a caregiver to my mother during her illness and death from metastatic disease in my memoir. I also shared about the fact I was not there during her final moments and how I felt about that. I was, and still am, mostly okay about this. We did not leave things unsaid. I felt, and still feel, at peace about our time spent together at the end of her life and during her whole life for that matter. But still…

I wasn’t there.

You probably already know how I dislike reading and hearing the phrase, so and so lost her/his battle with cancer. Hearing this is like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard to me. I find it downright insulting.

Another phrase that always stings a little is this one, so and so died peacefully while surrounded by her loved ones.

It stings, of course, because…

I wasn’t there.

My mother was surrounded by loved ones when she took her last breath, but I wasn’t one of them.

I wasn’t there.

Even though I was, and still am, “okay” with this, it’s something that still gives me a twinge of not regret necessarily, but more one of envy. I envy the members of my family who were there to witness such moments.

As I shared in my memoir (chapter 28), I felt left out:

My sisters were both there at the end and I was not. Why couldn’t Mother wait for me too? Why did she feel like she could go ahead and die without me?

I was envious of Susan and Kay (my sisters). They were able to watch Dad hold Mother’s hand as she slipped away, and I did not get to share it. My face was not one of the loving faces Mother saw in her last moments. Was she looking for mine? Did she wonder where I was? Did she ask for me? Such thoughts were pointless and selfish, but I couldn’t stop them from entering my mind. I hoped they knew how lucky they were to be there. Mark (my brother) had not been there either, and I wondered how he felt. In a cruel twist of irony, I had gone back to Wisconsin for my annual physical. As my doctor and I sat discussing my next mammogram (and my genetic testing decision), my mother was about to take her last breath. Cancer is fucking cruel.

I am sharing this with you, my dear readers, because it’s important. Sometimes due to a lot of reasons, we cannot be there at the end of a loved one’s life. Sometimes there is tremendous guilt put upon ourselves when this happens.

And guilt is mostly a waste of energy. And very often hurtful.

So if this has ever happened to you, or if it ever does, be gentle with yourself.

Because as is so often true, being there doesn’t just mean being there in the physical sense. You can be with your loved one without being there at all.

I’m pretty sure even though I wasn’t there in the physical sense, my mother still knew I was “there”.

I wasn’t there.

But perhaps in the way that matters most, I was.

Because that’s how love works.

Have you ever been a caregiver for someone at the end of her/his life?

Have you ever been physically present when a loved one died?

Have you ever wanted to be present with a loved one at her/his EOL, but were unable to be for whatever reason?

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33 thoughts to “I Wasn’t There…”

  1. {hug}
    I too have a lot of emotion in March. It’s the month that my mother died, (March 11), the month of my cancerversary, (March 7), and the month that my father was diagnosed stage 4 prostate cancer.

    In March of 2013 I was still reeling from my own cancer diagnosis when I got on a plane to be with my 88 yo father after he was admitted to the hospital for surgery for a spinal mets. His prostate cancer had metastasized to numerous areas of his spine. My youngest brother Matt beat me there and we both spent the next 7 days at the hospital caring for him. At night we would go back to my father’s place and sit and talk for hours over shots of Tullamore Dew. My sisters, (I am #2 of 6 siblings. Matt is 6of6, I am 2of6 🙂 ) rotated through to also assist with my dads care and to be with me during my initial crisis. My family has been a wonderful support for me but I still feel alone in my cancer journey.
    It’s odd right? To have so much support but still feel alone. One of my last conversations with my dad before he passed alone in his hospital room in July of 2013 was him telling me “Kerry, you keep your spirits up!!! Do you hear me!”



    1. Kerry, Gosh, I’m sorry March is such a loaded month for you too. It’s not really odd at all to have so much support, but at the same time, feel alone too. Cancerland can be very lonely at times. Please know this site is always a safe place to turn to, to hopefully help make you feel a little bit less alone. Thank you for sharing and again, I’m sorry.

  2. Nancy, I remember this so well. It was one of the parts of your memoir that touched me the most. And what you did still amazes me. Like you said, “…that’s how love works”.

    I still have dreams about my grandma being sick. The most recent one was about me coming to see her and being unable to find her. My grandfather had decided to bring her to the hospital to accelerate her death because she was in pain. I fought with my grandfather in my dream and demanded answers. I asked him why he would make such decisions without consulting me first. My poor aunt, my grandma’s daughter, was crying on my grandma’s bed. I ran to the hospital, and when I got there, she was gone. I did not see her again. Then I woke up from the dream.

    I hate the fact that I wasn’t there when my grandma died. I didn’t take care of her the way she took care of me all those years. I did get to spend some time with her, just not enough. I def. have guilt about this. But like you also said, I think she knew “I was there” in some way. God those dark days! Yes, cancer is fucking cruel. I’ve never been physically present when a family member had died. I wanted to hold my grandma’s hand the entire time she was ‘transitioning’. But I too wasn’t there.

    Thank you for writing about this topic. I am sure many people will relate. And thank you for the reminder to be gentle with ourselves. (I am still in the process of forgiving myself for not being there.)

    I hope these days are kind to you, Nancy.

    1. Rebecca, I’m sorry you weren’t able to be with your grandma, but I’m sure she knew you were “there” in the way that matters most. She knew how much you loved her. Thank you for your kind words and for sharing so openly about your experience.

  3. Oh, Nancy. I knew something would be coming from you to mark this time. Amazing that we have March in common, too. My mother’s death anniversary is tomorrow and I don’t have a post ready, but it plays out in my mind. I’m so glad you’re at peace despite not being there. You’re lucky to feel the right words were said. I guess in the end that’s the important part of all this. That’s what you should remember. I was with my mother. I watched her slip away and you know what? I have tons of guilt because we did not talk about what was happening. We never faced it, even though she knew. I so wish we could have talked about it. Anyway, that’s probably why I haven’t written about it. Rambling! I will stop now. Please know I’m thinking of you as you remember. Beautiful post, my friend. xoxo

    1. Stacey, I remembered that your mother died in March too, but I didn’t know the exact date. I am at peace with not being with my mom, but of course, I’m still sad I missed those moments. I’m sorry you have that guilt, but I’m pretty sure your mom wouldn’t want you feeling any of that. I’m sure she knew you loved her and that’s what mattered most. It always is. Thank you for sharing. So lovely to hear from you and to know you’re always someone who really gets it. I am thinking of you too, my friend. xo

  4. It’s hard to not be there physically at the end, even if you are there in other ways.
    To me, it seems to be one more memory stolen by death.
    But, there are so many other memories to hold onto, and you were there for your mom as you say.

    1. Brandie, It is hard. And the fact I was at a doctor’s appointment talking about cancer risk, etc is like another jab from cancer. My mother had told me she wanted me to go to that appointment and so I didn’t change it. I do have many wonderful memories, and the ones I have of her final days are some of my most precious, though painful, ones. Thank you for reading and sharing.

  5. Wow, many of our mothers died in this month. For me, it will be 24 years on March 29th. She had survived breast cancer two years before but succumbed to throat cancer. However, I often wonder if that was a side effect of the radiation treatment she received since it came on so quickly and aggressively after the breast cancer.

    I also was not there, but I had been there up until the night she died. I only lived about 30 miles away, but I had stayed at my parents for a while with my 5 month old daughter up until the night of the 28th. My husband had been nagging me to come back to our apartment in the city and care for our 5 year old son.

    So, I left my parents intending to stay the night at my home and come back the next day with both the children (nagging husband would then be silenced). But my mother died in the early hours of the 29th. I drove back with both kids, thinking I would do what I could for my dad. I did not see my dead mother until the wake 3 days later —April 1.

    I remember hoping she would pop up in the casket and say, “April Fool!”

    1. Nancy, Thank you for sharing about your mother. Interesting about the possible connection between her throat cancer and her radiation treatment. I understand your feelings about not being there at the end. Thank you for sharing.

  6. My best friend (Kim) died many years ago in March of breast cancer…one never forgets.

    My story began in the fall of 2014 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It shattered my world and everything I believed in – having been physically active, a non-smoker, a non-drinker and at my ideal weight. Then boom!

    I began re-evaluating my lifestyle choices, my eating habits and my environment. It took me on a very different journey.

    Scented candles have always been a part of my life and after discovering a large majority of mass marketed candles contain harmful chemicals and additives in their products, I was unwilling to simply walk away from using scented candles. Instead, I set out to design the perfect medium in order to create a highly fragrant, clean burning, pure and natural product that was safe for my family, my pets and the environment.

    My pets were an integral part of my healing process and after nearly 18 months of research, I created a proprietary blend of 100% certified organic waxes. I sourced the highest quality essential and fragrant oils that are phthalate free, creating captivating scents of wax melts designed in the shape of a paw. Why the paw? To pay tribute to our furry friends who help us through life’s difficult times. We also donate a portion of our profits to animal shelters.

    I don’t know whether the frequent use of scented candles had any influence on my health prior to my diagnosis, but I do know that I will NEVER again use any scented candle/wax melt that isn’t 100% organic and natural. My health and that of my family and pets is far too precious to take the risk.

    Thank you Nancy for creating a forum for women to share their stories. Please check out my new Paw Melts website and let me know what you think =>

    Carpe Diem
    Sarah xx

  7. I never got to say a proper goodbye to my mother and it still haunts me. She was in a coma the last two weeks of her life and though I said my goodbyes, I longed for her to say those words to me. When she died I had just left the hospice to go home to get a change of clothes for my Dad. I feel cheated I wasn’t there at that moment. Thanks for writing about your Mom – it helps me and I sure many others who miss their mothers too.

    1. Marie, I feel cheated too. Cancer is such a thief. Thank you for sharing this about your mom. I didn’t know you weren’t there in her final moments, but of course, in the way that matters most, you were. xx

  8. Oh Nancy. I wasn’t there when my mother died, either. She was touch and go, and I was on a business trip when my sister called my cell to tell me that my mother was in hospice and it seemed like she only had a day or two. I was in the bathroom stall of an office building, begging to be put on the phone w/my mother so I could tell her I loved her and wished i was there. I’ll never be sure if she heard me, by that point she was barely able to speak. I was planning to fly to see her when my sister called to tell me she had died that night. I hold on to the memories of a few months earlier when I stayed with my mom and dad while my older sister (they lived w/her) was away. I spent a long time with her, sitting by her side, telling her it was ok to let go, that we would all take care of my dad for her. So, I hope she remembered that week when she died a little over a month later. I think your mother knew you were doing what you needed to do when she died. And she knew that you were there in spirit. xo

    1. Claudia, Oh gosh, that must have been so horrible to get that news while at work, and in a bathroom stall no less. I’m sorry. Like you, I hang onto the memories of the days and months I was able to be her caregiver, as well as all the other memories as well, of course. I know my mom knew I was “there” and I’m pretty sure yours did as well. Thank you for sharing. xx

  9. Hi Nancy, Thank you for sharing this with us. I was with my father when he died. He fought his death. It was not peaceful. It stays with you. Sending gentle hugs your way. (((Shannon)))

    1. Shannon, It does stay with you. I’m glad you were able to be with your father, though I’m sure it was a difficult thing to witness. Thank you for sharing too.

  10. Hi Nancy,

    This is an excellent post about such an important topic. I have a friend who missed her brother-in-law’s death by 10 minutes. He was surrounded by loved ones when he took his last breath, but she wasn’t one of them. I think the most important thing is how we treat our parents during their/our lives. Your mother knew how much you loved her. I loved that part in your memoir (I’m not finished reading it yet, but I have been reading it). It is a very poignant part among many poignant parts in the book. xoxo

  11. Nancy, this was one of the most heart-rending parts of your memoir for me. I so agree with Beth. It’s how we behaved toward our loved ones during their lives that matters, and of course your mother knew how much you loved her. That was never in doubt, because “that’s how love works.”

    I’ve had similar experiences with people I loved who were dying, that I was there near the end, but not at the end. I’ve also had the experience of a loved one needing to be alone at the very end and being reassured by that this was okay. For some people, it’s easier to let go when they are alone. Still, these memories of not being present just add a sharp edge to our grief, don’t they? Love you, dear one. xoxo, Kathi

    1. Kathi, Important point you make about some wanting to be alone at the very end. I hadn’t really thought about that. I was with my grandma when she died, she’s the only one I was with at the very end, so far. It was comforting to me to be there with her, though hard too, of course. I know my mom “knew” I was there at the end in the ways that matter, and I am okay with the fact I wasn’t present physically speaking. But still… it’s such a life-changing moment and I wasn’t there. Thank you for reading and commenting. And thank you again for reading (and reviewing) my memoir. xo

  12. Nancy, for the first time in months, I feel like I have found one person who “gets it”…. I am so grateful to have found you and your words. However stating that is to me, I know, means you had navigated these ugly, trying waters and STILL want to share your grief, annoyances, and joy with us- with ME- when I desperately needed to hear authenticity. I am fighting BC, in the middle of chemo, worn to a smooth stone. I have a mother with BC and both parents have very debilitating diseases. I love them so much, but the stress of finding how to care for them really depleted my health. Others- neighbors have stepped in to help, and I am grateful.
    I will be thinking of you as you miss your mom, but please know how grateful I am that you genuineness and ability to navigate and put a voice to all the craziness has blessed me more than you can know.

    1. Holli, I am sorry you are dealing with so much. It’s horrible to have cancer yourself and top of that, to see your mother dealing with it too. And your dad isn’t well either… Again, I’m sorry. I’m humbled by your kind words about my writing. You made my day. Sharing does help; it’s why I wrote my memoir too. I go into greater detail there with some topics. Good luck with everything and thank you for reading and commenting.

  13. My mom died of metastatic breast cancer in 1990. My grandmother and I spent many hours with her at the hospital but when we went home to get some sleep, she passed away. I was her only child so it was really hard that it happened when she was alone. I don’t know if she woke up at all or if she just went peacefully. A kind social worker said sometimes it’s easier for someone to die when they’re NOT with their family because it’s harder on them to leave. So I take comfort in that.

    1. Leslie, I am very sorry about your mom. It’s hard when we aren’t there at the end. The social worker who told you that was very wise and very kind. What a comforting thing for her to say. Thank you for sharing that.

  14. I wasn’t there either, when my beloved mum died. I live about 600 miles away but had been going to stay with her regularly over the last 6 years of her life, every couple of weeks. I couldn’t take my children out of school or give up my job, as a single parent, but I feel so much guilt that I let her down at the end. We spoke on the phone every day but one Saturday morning her carer rang me to say she was very ill, I spoke to her and she wasn’t making any sense, seemed to be speaking in tongues, or in a foreign (unknown) language. Has anyone else ever heard this from a dying loved one? Anyway she was taken to hospital and instead of booking my flight straight away, I booked it for the Monday morning, and spent the weekend with my teenage sons, I took them shopping for their Christmas presents and had my hair done that Saturday (what was I thinking?) and on the Sunday I did things around the house like preparing food to leave them as they still had a week of school and I was leaving them alone. Anyway on the Sunday night, when all was left in order for my sons, my suitcase was packed, and I was sitting alone having a quiet moment before going to bed, I heard my mum say clearly to me ‘I can’t breathe’. I spoke back to her, saying, ‘Yes you can, breathe in, through your nose…out through your mouth…in through your nose….’ basically talking her her through a breathing process. Then I felt an incredible peace and closeness to her. A few minutes later the phone rang, and the nurse I had been speaking to several times earlier told me she had just died ‘She gave a long breath out and died’.

    In a way I was there….but I wasn’t there.

    One of the last things she said was that she wanted to talk to me. The nurse had told her I was coming in the morning, she replied ‘Oh, she doesn’t have to do that, she can’t leave the boys’

    I feel terrible guilt that I didn’t just get on a plane that Saturday morning, because in my heart, after hearing her strange speaking, I knew she was about to leave us. Why didn’t I go?

    A year later, I was there to look after my beloved uncle in the last 8 weeks of his life. I was with him right to the end. It still traumatises me, how difficult his passing was. I nursed him at home, and was alone with him when he died in the middle of the night, The last 40 minutes of his life still haunt me, the violence of the struggle he had before giving up the ghost. He was the best man, so kind and good, and nothing could have prepared me for his final hour. I was unable to help him in any way. But hard as it was, at least I was there, and he knew he wasn’t alone, and that he was loved. I saw him out of this world and it was the right place to be. I only wish I could have been there for my mum too. I made the wrong decision and I am so very sorry.

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