Over the years, I've talked about breast cancer a few times. My mom's initial diagnosis years ago was a huge turning point in living more conscientiously, and spending time on what matters most. After battling cancer for 10 years, my mother was given a terminal diagnosis of six months to live. She died four months into her diagnosis.
All my life, without saying a word, my mother taught me lessons about life. This time she did it while dying. I want to share them with you. We are the sandwich generation, after all, caring for our small children and our parents. My hope is that these seven lessons can help you care better for others and yourself.
I now understand what holding space for someone is. While my mother lay dying, I curled up beside her. Laying silent for long periods of time, bearing witness to the transformation that was happening to her. I nodded off beside her more than once. Heads touching, hands holding. Our breath in sync. For the rest of my life, I’ll cherish these naps. Physically showing up and simply being there is reassuring for anyone going through great change.
A few hours before my mom’s death, I warmed up cream in my hands and rubbed her feet. I knew the end of her time with us was near. Her breathing had become rapid. I took care to make sure she was “even.” This was the last loving act I was able to do for my mom. I rubbed her feet and legs for hours during her final few weeks. I helped comfort her as she eased her journey from this life by doing something she loved. Grand gestures aren't necessary.
My mom was protective and loving to the end. She was a homebody who talked about going to a palliative care facility so we wouldn’t have the memory of her dying at home. She was worried about my young boys seeing their Nana in an increasing debilitative state. We all took comfort knowing that we were caring for her at home, the place she loved to be the most. In her last few days, my mom suddenly grabbed my hand and kissed it, murmuring I love you after being silent for half a day. Moms always want us to know we are loved. Hold on to those kisses, hugs, and hand squeezes. Give them freely yourself.
I do talk a lot to the people I love. Non-stop really. But I could speak for 30 more years to my mom. When I first found out she was given a terminal diagnosis I made a list of questions and things I wanted to learn from her. But I soon realized that even if I had all the answers, saying goodbye to my mother wouldn't be any easier. Letting go of the need to know everything including the family shortbread recipe made my time with her better. If you always have an agenda, you can't go off book. That's often where the best talks happen.
The last few months were the first time of my life that I wasn't wishing away the present day. I knew my mom and I only had a few months left to spend together, so I spent treated them like a precious gift. I took a leave from work, I left the city, and I moved up North. Whenever I caught myself thinking too far into the future, trying to hurry along time for our unfinished renovation or even waiting for the boys to go to bed, I’d haul out the emergency break. I hope to continue to learn to just be more often. In my mom's final days when I wanted each hour to last forever, the clock relentlessly moved forward. We really don't get our days back.
I hated learning this lesson, but it’s true. I needed to take care of me with some space to think and sleep. I didn’t realize the toll caregiving takes until I stepped away for a few days. I slept and slept. We were renovating a house, taking leaves of absence, and moving all while my mom was dying. Huge life stuff. I was exhausted on all fronts. If people are offering you help during this time, accept it or ask for what you need. I wish I had done more of this, and in the future, I'll do better at saying what I need.
At first, I wondered how I could go on being an adult, and a parent. Laundry continues, lunches need to be made, and stories must be read. It seems unfair that the world doesn't stop when someone you love is dying. It's okay to wave a flag and surrender to as much as you can. I called a time-out and took a leave of absence from work, and my siblings modified their schedules. Do what you can to give yourself some grace.