When my father died unexpectedly and traumatically, my brother and I entertained a philosophical discussion on whether it’s easier for family members if death is sudden or if it is anticipated. At the time, we agreed that while we would wish a swift death for the sake of our parents, we would prefer to have the gift of time, to be able to converse openly about their wishes, and to mine their memory for family history.
You may have heard the cliché “be careful what you wish for.” Here I am, 5 years after my father’s death, facing my mother’s. She was recently diagnosed with inoperable Stage IV pancreatic cancer. The “inoperable” tag came after 2 hours of surgery intended to remove what was thought to be a small, isolated, resectable tumor.
As my brother and I sat in the surgical waiting lounge listening to her doctor, hopes for several more years were destroyed in an instant. Shock and numbness descended. The following days were spent in her hospital room, encouraging her to get up and walk in order to heal from the surgery.
It was not until Mom returned home that I began to process her diagnosis. As I sat on the sofa chatting with her about inconsequential matters, my mind was jumping to thoughts of what it would be like not to see her sitting in her favorite chair. By her second week home, I knew that I needed to find a way to balance living fully in the moment with preparing for how to deal with the progression of her illness.
Anticipatory grief takes many forms. It is much broader, and more complex, than anticipating the inevitable death of a loved one. It also involves a myriad of losses along the way, letting go of dreams, mourning immediate changes, and redefining goals.
Anticipatory grief encompasses learning how to honor the past, celebrate the present, and relinquish the future. Two months prior to her diagnosis, my mother had attended the high school graduation of her oldest great-grandchild. She had lovingly told his sister, who had just completed her freshman year of high school, “You’re next.”
It is unlikely that my mother will attend my granddaughter’s high school graduation. She will not be led down the aisle like royalty at any of their weddings. Although this is the practical reality I must live with, I don’t want these to be the thoughts that dominate my mind. I don’t want my ability to enjoy time with my mother to be overshadowed by the knowledge that she is dying.
My mother and I agreed to have some time each week that would be “cancer-free.” During that time we are mother and daughter, chatting about great-grandchildren, her garden, books we’ve read. There are many times when we need to have difficult discussions and make decisions we’d prefer to ignore, but we’ve tried not to let those conversations take over our time together.
We look through photo albums and I jot down notes as Mom reminisces about the extensive traveling she and my father enjoyed. What Mom doesn’t realize is that, along with discovering my parents as people, I am building new memories that hopefully will sustain me through the dark nights I know lie ahead. I order the proverbial elephant in the room to sit and be quiet, and I let my mother’s stories wash over me. I prompt her with questions, a subtle way to accomplish life review without labeling it as such.
Along with balancing medical appointments with my work schedule, trying to decipher Medicare statements, choosing hospice services, and maintaining my own home, I am learning much about how to live while dying.
Nina Bennett 2012