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

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

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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

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

  10. Kathy says:

    …..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 says:

    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 says:

    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

  13. Annie says:

    We just met you today and your talent and passion for your work was so evident. My husband ran across your blog after our amazing session and we just sat at the restaurant table crying together. Your experience and tribute to your mother touched us. I loved how you said, “It’s amazing how focusing on helping others is the best way to find healing for yourself.” I pray you continue to heal.
    I lost my father in 2017 to cancer. I know grief comes in waves, but I also know how much my father loved us girls and wanted us to be happy, always. So I honor your mantra and also choose to live each day by making new memories, being thankful for the little things and always remembering him. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Rachel! You truly blessed us today and we appreciate you!

  14. R says:

    Hi Rachel,

    Thank you for sharing. I’m thankful to have found your post. I’m awake at night unable to sleep well. I lost my mom to a very aggressive breast cancer just over a month ago. What hit me the most as I read through your experience in caring for your mom in her last days here was when your mom comforted you and kissed your hand. I had a similar experience with my mom. I had been trying not to cry around her, but while in the hospital when the doctors told her and I that she only had a few days, I just lost it. Because of the corona virus I was the only person that was able to be with her in the hospital, so getting that kind of news from the doctors was devastating. We had only learned she had cancer less than 3 months prior and now I was being told she only had a few days. My world was shattering right in front of me. My mom had begun to not be able to communicate verbally, as the cancer had spread to her brain. But when I began to cry, she turned her head and looked right at me. She held her hand out for me and told me it’s ok. I’ll never forget that. The cancer took her away physically, but it couldn’t take her away from being my mom, even in her suffering. My mom was only 60 years old, and one of the hardest parts now is thinking how long I will be apart from her. I have my whole life ahead of me, milestones that I envisioned her being a part of. This hurt will never go away, but I am comforted in knowing I will see her again. I will get to be hugged by her again. I know she is looking out for me and she is proud of me. Making her proud is what keeps me going. I know she would want me to be happy and to find things that I enjoy. She had a hard life, so I too would want her to live what she missed out on through me. She is part of me and her legacy will always live on through me.

  15. Frankie Madlo k says:

    So much of what you said was almost exact to my.moms passing. So hard for me..She passed nine days ago. Doesnt seen real. I miss her so much
    I dont know what to do.

  16. alondra says:

    I think your post has blessed many people who have came across it. My mother was diagnosed a year ago and sadly everyday it seems like the last day I have with her. Im 21 years old and I became my mothers primary caretaker but like many my family is my rock. It breaks my heart to know that she wont be here physically to see my milestones in life but I know she will look down upon me and smile at every thing I will accomplish. Mothers are so very wonderful and incredibly strong and even in the hardest days she still worries about me. I inspire to be so selfless like my momma. For anybody who is reading this you will get through it. You will see the good someday.

  17. Nadine says:

    I just lost my mom two days ago, under very similar circumstances. Almost one year ago, she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer w/ mets in her liver, lungs, spine, & lymph nodes. Doctor told us “2, to 4 to 5 years.” Yeah, what a confusing way of saying he had no idea. I clung on to that so ignorantly. The last eight or so days, she was declining and I couldn’t tell. She had been on so much pain medication, I thought she was just getting more tired. Her eating had always been all over the place, so when she also stopped eating, I thought we just needed to get her back on steroids. Didn’t know these were signs until about 4 days in, we took her to the ER for low BP and oxygen. This was one of many ER trips we made in the past year, and I thought, “ok, we’ll get through this, then get her strength back enough to start this clinical trial our new oncologist said she could be eligible for.” Those 4 days in the ER were hell. Each day, I watched her talk less and less, stop walking to the bathroom and relying on a commode, until they attached an outside catheter on. Where she went from being able to tell me how much pain she was in and to get the nurses to give her more meds, to not being able to open her eyes and see me anymore. Having to watch her take her final breaths is probably the worst experience I will ever go through, and it hurts so much as it constantly plays back in my mind. I wanted nothing more than to lay next to her on the bed and also die. I miss her, and the pain is intense and feels like it will never go away.

    Thank you for sharing your story a year in and letting folks like me know that there may be some light beyond this.

  18. Carol says:

    July 4th 2020 is perhaps my worst day on earth. While everyone was busy celebrating the Independence Day, my mum breathed her last after a brutal battle with lung cancer. I miss her every single day: her warmth, her love, her friendship, her praying with me…..she was more than my mum. She was my friend. To date, I have never felt a love like hers. There are days when I’m truly convinced that I’m no longer scared of death because that will give me a chance to see her again.

    Thank you for articulating every single feeling I had in this post. You’ve made me feel “less-alone”

  19. Amanda says:

    Thank you for posting this. I lost my mom to metastatic melanoma in September 2021, we had no idea she was sick. She went to the ER on Friday August 26th and I watched her day after day for the next 10 days deteriorate until she was placed on a ventilator. Selfishly, I could not let her go. I was so angry and didn’t understand how this could be happening. She was just at my house with my family 2 weeks before completely normal and happy. That week plays over and over in my head. I’m angry that she is not here to watch her grandchildren grow. She was only 67 and passed on the day my son turned 5 weeks, my daughter 1 1/2. I pray everyday that I am making her proud and being the best possible mother I can be, she was my best friend, my biggest supporter and I can only hope to be that for my kids as well. I miss her terribly. Some days the pain is unbearable.

  20. Amy says:

    Hi Rachel,

    I stumbled across your post today, nearly 6 months after my mom passed days before her 60th birthday. She had breast cancer, which she “beat” once, before it returned and metastasized in her liver. She fought for almost 2 years before returning to her maker at home, surrounded by her family. I’m 21, and came home from college the week before she left us to help take care of her from home.
    What you wrote about the end of life being very similar to the beginning of life is so true. It was heartbreaking to flip roles with my mom, trying to help her to the bathroom or coax her to just sip a little bit of water down. Because of an insurance mixup, the hospice nurse didn’t show up until the day before she died, so we were undermedicating her for fear of overdosing her. Near the end, I had to be the one to convince my dad to let me give her the full dose of pain medication, knowing that if we did, she would likely not wake up or be conscious again, but she wouldn’t be in pain anymore.
    Your story of your mom kissing your hand really moved me. We had a similar moment with my mom the night that my older sister flew home from school and all four of us were finally together. Mom couldn’t even raise her hand to her mouth or really open her eyes, but she opened her arms to give us all a big hug, and mumbled a joke about her arms not being big enough for all of us. Even at the end, when her body was failing her, she did all she could to say goodbye to the people she loved.
    I miss her everyday, every hour. Sometimes it’s easy to pretend that I’m just away at school, and that I’ll see her at Thanksgiving or Christmas. But some days, when I’m feeling under the weather, or I’ve got a long drive alone in the car, or I’m trying to remember some moment from my childhood, it’s impossible to pretend that she’s not gone. That she won’t be at my wedding, and she won’t ever know her grandchildren. And that reality is sometimes too much to bear. I listen to the voicemails she left me because I’m terrified I’ll forget the sound of her voice. I’m so afraid that I’m losing the faith she raised me to have because I feel so far from God’s peace.
    I’m not entirely sure why I’m sharing all of this, but I only hope that it can reach someone in a similar place who needs to know that they aren’t alone.
    Thank you for sharing your mom’s story, and for creating a space for other’s to process similar losses. Your mother sounds like she was an incredible woman, and one who is missed every day.

  21. Maci says:

    I lost my mom 3 months ago and it is the worst pain . I am still angry at the whole health care system for not helping her more . No one understands the pain we are going through unless they have lived it . For me sleeping is the best part of my day but then I wake up and realize my mom isnt here . I feel so lost and the days are so hard . I have 2 children that need me but the love and support that came from my mom
    Is now gone and it’s hard to handle .

  22. Nakia says:

    Wow, your words left me speechless. I don’t know how I found your blog today… but the title caught my eye as my Mom passed away on December 2, 2021. I like you made the painful decision to take her home so that she could live her last (what I thought would be days) in peace. She passed less thar 24 hours of getting her home, settled and on hospice. My heart aches for her daily. Sometimes I’m just going through the motions trying to keep it together. May God bless you and your family. Your words are encouraging. 💕

  23. Annette martinez says:

    I’m currently this situation nothing prepared me for the sight or thought of losing my mom 6 months ago she was healthy until she went to the hospital thinking she had a UTI instead she had stage 4 uterine cancer that metastasis to her liver and now to her lungs she’s currently in hospice unable to move talk stay awake much less eat or drink 0anything this whole thing felt like a nightmare to me I can hardly sleep at night not knowing when my mom’s last breath will be,we were really close everyday we spoke laughed talked spent time together now I’m going to be alone in this world with nothing and no one my dad oddly passed away the day after my mom’s cancer diagnosis I also lost my sons dad then the following year my son,that’s why I’m taking everything so hard i lost more than I could have ever imagined! Now my mom the pain in undescribable!

  24. Kennedy says:

    Thank you for posting this. My mom hasn’t passed yet but she’s declining rapidly and hospice is in and out. She has stage 4 brain cancer and it’s been so hard on my brother and i (i’m 21 and he’s 18) reading this made me look at her soon to be death differently. i have a feeling i’ll be reading this again soon unfortunately but thank you.

  25. Tarun Shetty says:

    Thank you for sharing. I lost my mom to ovarian cancer, a year to this day, and could relate to a lot of this. My mom was my everything so life is very empty now. My only solace is that life goes by fast and I will see her again soon.

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