Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My mom has Stage 4 cancer and I’m grieving already. What do I do? I know you say one day at a time, but my heart is broken and I don’t think I’ll ever recover. To put the cherry on the sundae, I’m in my late 30s and very single with no children or family to speak of. I thought I had another 20 years with my mom. This is breaking me. How do I go on? I’m seeing a therapist but nothing will ever make sense again.
It will make sense again, I swear.
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Or, it’ll never make sense and you’ll look back and realize nothing ever made sense to begin with, it was all just expectations. Which is actually not as dark a sentiment as you might think. Losing someone so important changes everything – it’s a profound and permanent shift.
But as someone who has lived it (I was mid-30s at the time, separated, no kids, realizing those 20 years I had counted on wouldn’t happen), I’m comfortable saying it’s better on the other side in every conceivable way besides my mom’s absence. Going through it made me less self-conscious, less competitive, stronger, kinder … or maybe just less mean, more aware of my faults, less inclined to wield those faults against others, better at using my time on things that matter to me, better at recognizing my good fortune, more patient with other people and their faults, more able to laugh/point at myself and call BS when my behavior undermines everything I just typed about myself just now.
The “making sense” stuff you counted on before will seem in retrospect like a history of going through the motions because you just expected to, versus carefully chose to.
I don’t know why it takes having our guts ripped out for some of these things to make sense suddenly (and to those who achieve compassionate self-awareness without it, you have my deepest admiration), but that’s often how it happens – so we must find our way through the wreckage and to this other side.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You have important enough work in just spending all the time you can with your mom, and crying it out. It really is OK not to get more ambitious than that. Leave the other stuff in the back of your mind for when you’re ready, to keep you moving through your more difficult days. You’re feeling broken now and you’re supposed to, but you will also mend when you’re ready to. Not into the person you used to be, but the person you’re meant to be, the one who can look at the same view as always but see twice what you saw there before.
Re: Grieving: My heart goes out to you. Hospice is great with quality of life for your mom, and support for you both. Get help with everything you can. Who are your best friends to whom you can rail? Who will bring you gin at midnight? What can you do to take care of yourself – massages? walks? baking? meditation? You have to recharge. Consider reading Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal.”
Yes to all of these, thank you. And everyone should read “Being Mortal.”
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.