Nothing and no one can prepare you for losing a parent. In fact, a friend likened it to having a baby, in that they are both life events that alter you completely, and no amount of advice or research can adequately prepare you for what the reality will be like.
This is my Mom and me on my wedding day. If I had known that two and a bit years later her smile would have faded, that her hair would have all fallen out, that the twinkle in her eye would have gone – all due to the beast that is cancer- I would have held on to her tighter on this day. But we don’t have foresight like this. And hindsight is a terrible thing.
When people die, you debate a lot in your head. You bargain with whoever your God may be. You pose ridiculous scenarios, ask endless what-ifs, total up lines of regret and blame blame blame. Would it have been better if she’d died in an accident? Would it have been better if I died instead? If I never do a bad thing in my life again, will you make her better?
You ask an infinite number of pointless questions because there is battle going in your mind, a battle where no one wins. I didn’t want to make this a piece about my sadness. I wanted to make it a helpful post about the practical things you can do if you’re losing a parent (or in fact any loved one) to a terminal illness. Because we’re getting to the age now where unfortunately these events are very real.
These are a few things that helped me cope:
- Talk to a professional: Whether it’s a free counsellor at Hospice or a psychologist you see regularly, TALK TO SOMEONE. Some people think therapists are only for people “with issues”. I don’t get this. You go to the dentist for a filling, you see a doctor if your arm is broken, but when something in your mind breaks, you think you’ll just fix it yourself? I see therapy as a facial for the soul. And I’m not sure I would have got over losing my Mom if I hadn’t seen someone.
- Look after your physical health: I remember someone telling me this and I kind of scoffed. And then I got sick. A lot. Allergies I’d never had before, stomach problems, flu – they were all minor things but they added up and I was continuously run down and in bed. My whole self had taken such a knock and it took me a year of some super duper vitamin taking to get myself almost back on track.
- Keep YOUR life going: There is a temptation to drop everything and want to be with the person you are losing ALL THE TIME. And in some cases this may be necessary. But if you have the option, I recommend carrying on with your work, or with raising a family, because sometimes distraction is all you have to stop yourself falling apart. Make a lot of time to see them, take unpaid leave, go down every weekend if you can, but continue to try keep some semblance of normality in your own life.
- Do things with the person you’re losing. Don’t sit and stare into the wall and wallow in your sadness all the time (although I can advocate crying together sometimes too). Take their wheelchair out into the sun, make some popcorn and watch your favourite movies, look at photo albums together or bake a cake. Life is precious and memories count and you may as well try and make them good.
- Adjust your mindset (and focus on becoming stronger mentally): I like how I slipped this in at point 5, like it’s something you can just tick off, like taking your vitamins. In one of my favourite mommy blogs, Stacey Vee talks about developing “mental toughness”. I couldn’t have put it any better. She speaks about it in reference to raising a special needs child, but also acknowledges that mental toughness will help you survive “just about any tragedy”. I was soft before – and losing my Mom made me tougher. You may as well start training your mind now.
- Accept that it is a rollercoaster: There are “good” days with cancer (or other terminal illnesses). Days when a test comes back better than the last one, days when the person you love feels better and gives you a smile and says something just like their old self. Hold on to these days and celebrate them. Because the bad ones are coming. And the sooner you accept the bad with the good, and learn to “lean into it” (as Freddy the ski instructor said), the better.
- Know that it will pass: A lot of people tried to give me advice when I was losing my Mom. And just about the only really TRUE piece of advice came from a very close friend of hers, who had lost both a sister and a father in a short space of time. She said: “Belinda – this will pass. No matter how dark, how terrible these times are, you won’t always feel like this. It will get better, I promise”. Because you see, when you’re feeling like that, you imagine you will feel like that for eternity. But you won’t, and the knowledge that you won’t, was the only thing that kept me going.
I’ve cried buckets writing this. But I have many many days in a row when I don’t cry at all. When I feel so happy, so lucky, so loved. The gap in my life is still there, the gap that was my precious mother, but what was once this gaping hole in the sails of my life has been slowly patched up, bit by bit. The sail of this ship is older, yes, and damaged. But it is strong.