Breath of Heaven – One year after losing my mom to cancer

December 2, 2017 was the last day I spent with my mom.

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You know how after you have a baby that you say, “No one told me half of the stuff that was going to happen.” The movies don’t show puking during labor, blood clots afterwards, no one tells you that after your third baby the postpartum cramping can be worse than the labor contractions themselves.

When someone you love is dying, there’s even less advice given. Most of us haven’t helped ease someone from one life to the next, so we base the dying process on what we see in movies. Forrest Gump’s mama sitting up in bed propped by pillows saying she’s sick. Susan Sarandon calling in her kids one at a time on Christmas in Stepmom. In movies they speak weakly from bed some poignant words and then close their eyes and simply stop breathing.

Everything about my mom’s last ten days on earth was the complete opposite of what Hollywood paints death to be like. It was much more like caring for a new baby. We took shifts, we were melting down medicine and measuring out syringes to push in her feeding tube, we snuggled up next to her while she slept. But this wasn’t the beginning of a new life, it was the ending of life of a woman in her prime. 61 and just a few months earlier biked around Dublin on our trip to Ireland. 

Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints

It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway

Every day she faded from us more, while at the same time trying to get up and “go” somewhere, and telling us she needed help. We would ask her over and over, “What do you need help with, mom? We’ll do it!” and the night before she died she finally answered,

“the dishes”

“the dishes are done, mama”

“the bird feeders”

“they’re full, mom! the birds have food, they’re taken care of”

But still, she wasn’t ready or able to leave us, and it was pure hell watching her struggle to stay here with us, while her body was failing her. She stopped talking, making eye contact, responding to touch or our voices, but she stayed.

At the worst part of it, the night before she left us when she was so restless and upset, and I was sleep deprived and incredibly mad at God and cancer, and fell to my knees at her bedside and ugly cried. Hard. We had been trying to not cry around her for the past week but I couldn’t help it. My mom was gone, her heart was still beating and lungs still working, but what was left of her wasn’t here. Or so I thought. As I was pouring out my grief with my face buried in the mattress by her side, I felt her hand lift and rest on my head and my breath caught. She hadn’t touched or looked at me in days. My head flew up and I grabbed her hand and she looked right at me and brought my hand to her lips and kissed it.

That was the last bit of mothering I’ll ever have, and it was such a powerful moment to me. Death was so very near, she was barely conscious but hearing her daughter cry summoned her enough to push back that veil for a brief moment and console me. Mothers are powerful forces of nature, and I witnessed just how strong a mother’s love is on my knees by her side, and less than 24 hours she would be gone.

In the Harry Potter movies (which ironically my mom hated), only certain people can see these creatures called Thestrals, winged horses who are terrifying to look at but extremely gentle. The only people who can see them are those who have been touched by death, and if JK Rowling didn’t nail it on the head with that analogy. Once you’ve been inducted into this horrible, awful club…there’s a sort of brotherhood/sisterhood between you and others who have walked the same desolate path. Death changes you, being a part of someone’s dying process changes you. You see the world differently, and there may not be Thestrals, but there’s a definitive shift in your world and life. There’s the before and the after.

Thankfully, my after has been surrounded with the most amazing people. From Nick who ran our household for eight months as a virtual single dad, and let me ugly cry on him daily while I never even once considered his loss and sadness over losing my mom. To my friends who had lost parents before me and knew exactly what to do, whether it was to let me word vomit every awful memory I had from her dying or completely ignore the fact that my world had been flipped upside down and take me out for a beer and watch football.

Our family went from a family of five to the closest knit family of four you’ve ever seen. After reading The Dead Moms Club (a book I highly recommend to anyone who has lost a mom, especially to cancer) that’s now our slightly-morbid nickname for my sisters and I. My dad, I can happily report, is doing absolutely fantastic. Like really good. He’s heading off to Ireland next year for a month by himself just because he can, and he’s okay being alone.

It’s been one year since that middle of the night kiss on my hand and looking back at that Rachel, I wish I could tell her it was going to be okay. Because the thing is, when you lose a parent, or someone so vital in your life, in that moment the future seems awful and impossible. My mantra all year has been that I’m going to live the absolute heck out of my own life, because she didn’t get that chance. She would have given anything to be here, to see the sun rise and hear the birds sing, to watch her grandkids grow and travel the world. So I refused to let myself sink into a pit of despair, and instead opened my eyes to anyone around me who was suffering. It’s amazing how focusing on helping others is the best way to find healing for yourself. 

This blog post has been bouncing around in my head all week, and it came out this weird, jumbled up mess of feelings, but that’s exactly how the last 364 days have been. <3

 

  1. Jayne

    September 19th, 2019 at 1:18 am

    I’m honestly not sure how I stumbled on your site (hello, internet!). But I did and read this post and I just wanted to thank you for sharing your heart and your story. It was perfectly written. I lost my mom when I was 29 in a similar “it happened so fast I couldn’t catch up” type of cancer as well. That was 14 years ago April 1. I remember the season you’re in so vividly that it’s hard for me to believe my boys (her grandkids – one she never met) are teenagers now and time has traveled that quickly. Anyhow, your post spoke to me. The periods of suffocating grief are much fewer and far between these days, but your story is a beautiful reminder that there’s beauty in every season even those we would never have wished for.

  2. traci Skaggs

    September 19th, 2019 at 1:22 am

    Thank you for sharing your pain and the beauty of those priceless moments. When my dad and brother-in-law passed just three short months apart, I would often tell people that sent condolences that though I’d felt sympathy for those who’d lost loved ones I didn’t know empathy. They’re different and until we personally feel the impact of our own losses we don’t really know empathy. Once we do, we share a common bond and in that we will never be alone for it’s an experience we all will share at some point. Your words resinated with me and we’re poignantly written. Sending you prayers of continued healing and comfort.

  3. Cindy

    September 19th, 2019 at 1:22 am

    I work in palliative care and guide families in their final days with loved ones. I encourage them to share their feelings with their loved ones and give them assurance that it is ok to go. As much as we want to hold on as long as we can.
    Your blog caught my eye, brought tears to them and reminded me why I do what I do.
    I lost my mom in 2005 on Mother’s Day. Regardless of what day it was I miss her every day.

  4. Tiffany Hemsath

    September 19th, 2019 at 1:23 am

    Beautifully written Rachel. Poetic and raw and vulnerable and so damn spot on. I lost my mom 2.5 years ago to cancer as well, fast and ferociously at 57. Never knew what hit us, we were so blind sided. Those last weeks and days and moments are grossly burned in my brain and like you said, no one can prepare you for that hell. It feels like an out of body moment. Looking down at yourself thinking, this can’t be my reality. Our mamas left us strong women though, just as they were and we will carry that strength with us for life. Love and hugs to you on this tough(er) day. 💕

  5. elana

    September 19th, 2019 at 1:23 am

    I lost my mom to cancer just over three weeks ago. Thanks for writing this. It found me at just the right time.

  6. Katya

    September 19th, 2019 at 1:24 am

    Oh, you made me cry…I even don’t understand all your words, because of my basic English. Thank God my mom is alive, but that cancer…I hate it, I’m afraid of, as I lost few close people…All that you said makes me so emitional, I imagined the picture…Please, be strong and remember your mom is looking at you and would like to see you are fine. ❤❤❤

  7. adriana

    September 19th, 2019 at 1:24 am

    Rachel this is beautifully written. I was also there when my mom passed away and watching her suffer, not knowing when she’d go was by far the worse. Most of her children were able to be with her on the day she passed. It’s been almost 6 months and it’s still hard. It will always hurt but we all learn to heal differently. Hugs to you and your family

  8. Jessica Parrish

    September 19th, 2019 at 1:25 am

    My mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer 12 years ago. Her doctors told her she had 2 years to live and when my mom told me I grieved from the moment I heard the news and every day thereafter until, by some miracle, six months later we received word that her doctors were wrong. My mom was so much like your mom, the center of our family, a godly woman and so full of love, life and laughter. How I hoped your family would have the same outcome as ours. I’m so sorry for your enormous loss. ❤️

  9. Martina Ergin

    September 19th, 2019 at 1:25 am

    My mom deceased 2.12.2013.. The pain is really difficult to discribe..

  10. Kathy

    September 19th, 2019 at 1:26 am

    …..yes @ 65 yrs….those last 10 days….. when my 3 sisters, dad, and I finally want for her to go to be with our Loving Father and Saviour to be out of pain…. no one really talks about those 10 days….we didn’t know until we were there what it’s like…. we don’t really want to remember her like that but…. it is burned into our senses…. thankful for the loving years that we had…. missing her like it was yesterday not 2010…. 💕

  11. Vikki Kourbelis

    September 19th, 2019 at 1:26 am

    Rachel, my mom passed away four years ago from cancer and everything I just read was exactly how I felt. I wrote a year later blog post on the anniversary of my mom’s death and it’s a form of healing I think. Thank you for writing this because somewhere someone who is going through the same thing will read this and not feel so alone.

  12. Jennifer

    September 19th, 2019 at 1:27 am

    Rachel the way you have described the enormity of losing your mum has me sobbing in a heap. Every day I think of you and especially at times like this with the anniversary of her passing. Sending you much love across the ocean xoxoxo

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