The Gift of Grief




When my mother woke up from her last surgery, a surgery that made it explicitly clear that we were out of options, she asked me if we had time to take one more trip. I found this odd coming from a woman who had become increasingly agoraphobic. Always a homebody, she didn't even like going to the grocery store. As I shook my head and quietly whispered, I didn't think so; I watched her sigh resignedly and say," oh."


At that point, I had to tell her not only would there be no trips, but there would be no food. The tube that was inserted as a palliative measure to get her out of her immense discomfort would only allow for small amounts of liquid—mainly ice chips. Over the last three years since the brain recurrence, it seemed I was always the messenger of my mother's health challenges. A role I neither welcomed nor wanted, but it was my role nonetheless.


As we sat uncomfortable in the discomfort that the dirty word death was now in our lexicon, we had to face the sudden bend in the road. I had fought death so hard and so long that I didn't know how to let go of the fight or hope. When the doctor showed me pictures of my mother's insides, I stared, unable to comprehend. I nodded and thanked him as he looked at me with sad eyes and repeatedly shook my hand. When he was out of eyesight, I immediately threw them in the nearest bin. As I stared at my youngest brother, who said something along the lines of, "what the hell did he think we wanted those for." I realized he knew we needed proof.


The next day with the proof still burned into my retinas, I sat and told my mother what we had seen. I snuck off to order a hospice consult. Like a thief in the night, I slipped out to put in order my mother's death.


I could not face it with her. I just could not.


And then I did.


In the last weeks of my mother's life. She began going to acupuncture to manage her treatment side effects. My mother and I shared an acupuncturist while he was treating her. He was preparing me. He told me I needed to get comfortable with death. To look at other cultures and how they embraced it.


I had fully bought into western culture's messaging to avoid death and anything death-related at all costs. For three years, as we fought to conquer cancer, I would allow no talk of death. Death was off the table. It was not an option.


Until it was, it seemed in my quest to outrun it. I had forgotten you couldn't. That death, like birth, is natural. What's unnatural is denying its very existence.


As I began to roll around death as a concept in my mind, I started to make peace with the idea of death, but my mother's death was still strictly off-limits.


Suddenly and unexpectedly, our dog Punchy passed away. Our kids were grieving. Our son said his heart couldn't catch up with his mind. His definition of shock was the best I've heard.


To grieve, we decided to make a ritual, at least attempt to get comfortable with death. We wrote messages on paper lanterns and prepared to give Punchy an epic send-off. As the first lantern was lit and we gathered nervously around it waiting to send our messages of love into the heavens, a gust of wind blew the fireball straight into the South Beach vegetation. As my husband chased it down, I saw the article in the Press Journal, "Local veterinary practice owners whose main mission is conservation burn down Vero's natural spaces."


As we watched John disappear into the darkness chasing a fireball, my daughter began to giggle, and soon we all collapsed on the beach in fits of laughter. Our Punchy memorial had not gone according to plan, but in the botched send off we found what we needed: laughter, acceptance, sadness, and a new relationship to death.


As I conspiratorially whispered with the nurse about hospice, I realized that the last month had been preparing me for this moment.


I summoned all my strength and marched back to face my mother and ask her how she wanted to die. This was to be our last trip together.


The complications of dying are endless. No one tells you these things. Or perhaps they do. We just refuse to hear them.


As vehemently as I denied and avoided death the previous years, I quickly became versed in the language of dying.


As my son said, sometimes my heart had a hard time catching up with my head.


While denying death, I had denied grief. And in its place, I filled it with, relentless hope, research, busyness, endless doing, endless denying, and anger.


The first wave of grief came swiftly and intensely. It came as I told my children their Sugar was dying. It came as I called friends and family. It came as I spoke to hospice workers.


And as suddenly as it came, it left, and in its place was a blazing ball of anger. I was so angry. Angry at everyone and everything. I was angry at my mother for dying. I was angry that she was not dying fast enough. I was angry and guilty and trapped. I worried this would never end. I worried it would end too soon. I vacillated between anger and guilt while trying to keep an even keel.


Don't rock the boat.


Don't make a scene.


This is not about you.


But I was so pissed, and I wasn't sure why. It all just seemed so unfair.


The doctors had failed, I had failed, we had failed. The universe had failed.


Failing was not only inconceivable, but it was also unforgivable.


And then, as I thought I would burst out of my skin, I began to say loudly and angrily, I forgive you. I said it over and over until it got softer and softer. Then I began to forgive myself. Over and over and over.


Later that day, I sat in the carpool line to pick up the kids, and the grief returned. Suddenly and swiftly and beautifully.


It was such a gift to feel the grief.


I could not go into my mother's death so angry.


I could not be numb. Numbness was torture.


As we sit and wait for my mother to go on her last trip, it is such a relief to feel something other than numbness. It is a gift to feel such overwhelming sadness, to laugh till we choke, to cry silently around corners, and to be present and give her the death she deserves. It is now our time to act as grieving shepherds as she transitions from this world to the next.


Grief is a gift. When it is offered, accept it.