Death of a Parent: When Your Mom or Dad Is Dying of Cancer
Was Your Parent Diagnosed With Terminal Cancer?
When I was in my mid-20s, I could say that life was pretty good. I was traveling a lot and was about to start a technical school program which I was very much looking forward to. I remember coming home from a 10-day trip to my parents' home and seeing not just my mom and dad there, but my sister, too. I thought that was odd. That's when they told me that my dad had been worked up and they saw something in the images.
"What do you mean they 'saw' something?" I asked.
That's when I found out that my dad had been diagnosed with stage IV esophageal cancer. This was in August of 2014. With excellent treatment, he later passed December 19, 2015. He was my teacher and the person I looked up to most, so let me tell you, I know your pain.
I'll be brutally honest. The whole entire year was so shitty. I have no other way to describe it. Having been through all of it, however, I hope to offer some advice to help others who are faced with such a difficult life experience in front of them. I hope I can help you to keep going and take care of yourself and celebrate the life of your loved one while they are with you. You will be okay, but it will forever change you.
Stigmatizing Cancer and Terminal Illness
First things first, get the garbage out of your head. Terminal illness does not unroll in the same linear way Hollywood portrays it. You are NOT expected to cry, mourn, divulge all of your regrets, stop your life in its tracks, or quit drinking like you had always promised. It's great if you can make peace with some heavy aspects of your life and forgive, forget, or repair fractured relationships, but honestly, there's no right or wrong way to experience your new normal.
Rule #1: There's No Right or Wrong Way to Grieve
I remember I texted two of my closest friends and cried into my pillow almost hysterically the night I found out about my dad. The diagnosis didn't even really soak in, I just remember my pillow being sopping wet. As for the first week or so, I felt the distractedness of my thoughts as I tried to enter school again. I was functioning as normal and you can imagine people were surprised by this. Don't think twice—some people are uncomfortable with the news and may expect you to be morose. Let yourself be you. The emotions will come when they have to. Don't be how others expect you to be—just do you.
Rule #2: Find a Good Counselor
The very best thing I did for myself was enter counseling right away. If you have it available to you, find a good counselor (even one who specializes in grief and terminal illness). You need an outlet separate from your family members, your spouse, your best friend, where you can be brutally raw and share thoughts and feelings you may not feel comfortable discussing within your normal circle.
Rule #3: Don't Give Up Being Positive
When my dad first got sick I remember bringing food to him 24/7. He was always the chef of the family. Before he started showing symptoms of illness I would still show up offering him his favorites. As his cancer progressed, he started to complain about not being able to taste flavors. He eventually, too, lost interest in cooking. This was horribly devastating. At some point, I stopped offering him food because it was very painful to see him turn food down.
My advice here is to continue to support the best way you can. Even if this means they have a new favorite popsicle or can only do liquids for the time-being, embrace the task as you would with the same excitement. Don't let the sadness bring you down so much that you give up. I did, and that's one thing I can say I regret.
Rule #4: No Self-Judgement
One thing I couldn't bear to see was my dad's weight dropping and the side effects of the chemotherapy. No one wants to see a loved one or ANYONE for that matter go through chemotherapy and endure the horrible side effects it can cause. Terminal illness is unique in that you are living knowing someone is going to pass—it's inarguable. Miracles with stage IV inoperable esophageal cancer are unheard of from what I'm aware of.
It's important to know that you will experience a wide range of emotions. Everything from simply wishing they weren't suffering anymore to being angry at the most ridiculous things. Don't judge! Your thoughts are your own and they are happening for a reason. Learn some self-acceptance. You are allowed to experience the highs and lows. In fact, it's better to let your mind be free than to shape it into what you think it should be and feel guilty.
Rule #5: Offer Support Your Way
I had an interesting relationship with my Dad. I was super busy in school, not wanting to let him down, but feeling guilty too about not spending time at home. I offered him support in the littlest of ways.
I often had dreams of him and many of them were of him swimming in the ocean, much like when he was younger, in his 20s, and vibrant. I used to write up these dreams and email them to him from class just to share. I think it meant a lot to him and it surely meant a lot to me.
You will never get another chance to do that "something," so don't spend your life thinking about how you could've.
Rule #6 Confront Your Demons
If you can muster up the strength to deal with unresolved issues, now is the time but it also doesn't have to be the time. Remember, there are no rules here. I am terribly afraid of singing in public. I just don't do it. My dad had always said he wanted to hear me sing and thought I had a good voice. I thought he was crazy!
I remember about two weeks before he passed he was in bed at home. He wasn't getting out of bed at this point and was slipping in and out of consciousness daily. I finally decided to sit by his bedside and sing to him. I don't know how conscious he was for it, but it felt good to finally show that vulnerable side of me. You will never get another chance to do that "something" so don't spend your life thinking about how you could've.
Rule #7 Don't Abuse Substances
I like beer during the holidays. When my dad first got diagnosed I used to go with my sister to a German pub, grab a beer, and talk about our problems. While it is very therapeutic to talk, I want to caution you against drowning out your sorrows in substances—booze, food, pills, you name it. Keep yourself in check.
You're in a vulnerable space and can so much more easily lose control. Don't mess up your health, your body, or your life overindulging. If you're an emotional eater like me, keep that in check and make sure you're eating for nourishment and not to stuff up your emotions. Trust me, 15 pounds later you will likely regret it. It will do nothing to make you feel better when you are mourning the loss of your parent.
Rule #8 Don't Give Up on Self-Care
As mentioned before, if you are an emotional eater, watch yourself. If you regularly exercise and lost interest to run every day, find your motivation. It's hard to see the surviving family members after a death looking like they've just been to hell and back—it happens if you don't take care of yourself! Care for yourself! It's what your parent would want! Get sleep, eat well, exercise. Don't make yourself suffer.
Rule #9: Figure Out the Legalities
No one wants to talk about it, but you need to have that difficult talk with your family members and make sure all the legalities are in line. This is a messy subject I don't even really want to touch upon. This kind of stuff happens to even the tightest of families. You should have the hard conversations with your sick family member while they are still mentally there. Once chemo and disease starts to take its toll, don't burden them with the heavy questions. These questions include how they would like to be cared for after death.
Rule #10: Ask Them Their Preferences
We were lucky enough to know that my dad wanted to be cremated. He used to joke that he wanted to be flushed down the toilet. He has a sick sense of humor so perhaps he wasn't kidding but eventually, he had mentioned scattering his ashes in his three favorite places and we were able to fulfill that for him—the coast/ocean he grew up on as a child, his favorite river in Idaho, and a natural space close to our home.
Rule #11: Ride Out the 5 Stages of Grief
You've surely heard it—the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I am clearly in the acceptance phase, though sometimes I experience depression when I revisit things in my mind. There's no linearity to grieving! There's no time frame or order to it. Whatever you experience, ride it out and feel it to the max. Let yourself get angry (without causing harm), let yourself feel deep sadness, let yourself bargain. You have to do this or else the emotions will come back to haunt you later.
Rule #12: Take Time for Yourself
Make sure you get away from time-to-time. Surely there will be many visitors coming in and out of the house, many people resurfacing to say their goodbyes, many relatives coming by to check on you, many doctors, nurses, etc. Make some time for you. Get away from it all and collect yourself. Go for a hike, go float in a pool or a tub—you need to be alone so you can process your emotions without the chatter.
Rule #13: Don't Punish Yourself
Don't deprive yourself of joy because you feel guilty that your parent is not enjoying the moment with you. I often felt like I wasn't allowed to go out with friends, go to parties, and do the usual because my dad was at home sick. This is a terrible, vicious thought process to get stuck in. Put yourself in your parents' shoes—would you want your family member to isolate themselves and deprive themselves of joy because you are unwell? Likely not. Don't stop enjoying the moment.
Rule #14: Embrace Your Spirituality
Whether you are religious, spiritual, agnostic, or atheist, there is something to connect to within for everyone. You can be atheist and take the time to meditate and connect with the natural world around you. You can be religious and attend prayer groups and pray for your family member.
I found that holding a rose quartz crystal in my hand brought me great comfort. Rose quartz is a stone of love and heals the heart. I obtained this on Amazon and carried it whenever I started to feel overwhelmed by emotion—hence the term, worry stone. Find what works for you. rose quartz crystal
Rule #15: Moving Forward Doesn't Mean Forgetting
When the inevitable happens and you are faced with losing your parent and they pass, understand that this is the new normal. You don't have to move on at any pace. On the flip side, you don't have to not move on at any pace. Moving forward doesn't mean forgetting. Be sure to honor your parents' memory in every authentic way possible.
I made a habit out of "experiencing" the memory of my dad while traveling. As mentioned my dad loved food, so whenever I travel, I try everything and anything out of the norm and think of how much he would enjoy being in the moment with me now. Sometimes, I even feel him there with me energetically.
Be sure to honor your parents' memory in every authentic way possible.
© 2018 Layne Holmes