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LUNG FORCE Heroes

Melanie Y.

Holiday season is in full blast, and today marks one year since the passing of my mom. Because of this, I'm apprehensive about the upcoming holidays and am not feeling particularly joyful. felt the need to get some heart words out of my mind and have decided to share them with you. Bottom line: I am not alone, and neither are you.

On May 1, 2017, I received a phone call from my dad informing me that my 64-year-old mother was seriously ill and that she had a brain tumor. I hung up the phone and considered running away, as my mind bargained that none of this would be real unless I told someone out loud. I instead did the opposite by telling my mentor, then my supervisor, then my sister. The events that happened in the hours and days after that phone call were frenzied, astonishing, and painful. I experienced each of those moments as I should have, with my family, colleagues, and friends. We learned that my mom had stage four lung cancer, which had already spread to her brain, lymph nodes, and possibly her abdomen. There was no cure and prognosis was "very poor" to quote the oncologist notes.

Despite an onslaught of radiation and chemotherapy, my mom did not make it to through the 2017 holiday season or to her 65th birthday. She passed away in the middle of the holidays on December 3, 2017 - seven months and two days after she got sick. For this reason, I have carried varied emotions about the upcoming holidays; the excitement and joy of past holiday seasons has been replaced in large part this year by anxiety, heavy reflection, and sadness. I know I am not alone in this, and I am keeping close to my heart those people that are in a similar situation for any variety of reasons.

That year around the holidays before my mom passed, my family explained to loved ones that she was Superwoman; everyone agreed, and in the weeks that followed, they all shared stories that demonstrated the ways she lived up to that title. In hindsight, my family and I had yet to see just how strong she was as we unwittingly neared the end of her physical life. When we told loved ones she was Superwoman, we did not know, and could not have known, how few days we had left with her.

Her attitude, her thought of others, her sense of humor, and her will to continue despite the rapid deterioration of her physical strength masked how little time she had left. We did not know some of her most active moments in October and November 2017 would indeed become some of her last moments in life and that those would make up our final memories of her.

I am fortunate to have had a mother with a quick wit and biting sense of humor, because that never went away, even after she could no longer clearly communicate verbally. She was making herself or someone else snicker during many of the final moments we spent with her the nine days she was in hospice, which began the Saturday following Thanksgiving 2017. Her sense of humor has pulled me through many moments of my own despair throughout the last year. I also know that at present, one full year since she took her last breath, I am likely nowhere near the end of my grief, if such a thing exists.

In her last days I witnessed the level of compassion my mom had for others in her life and a spiritual connection she had that I had not been aware of previously. I watched her become more accepting of her own mortality in a short amount of time. While this was in many ways devastating to see, it was a vital piece in her transition from her body, which had been broken in so many ways.

As so many of us that have lost someone close understand, this kind of experience shapes us as individuals, and we are never the same again. I am forever changed, my sister is forever changed, and my dad is forever changed. My mom was fierce, she would not give up, and she did not leave this earth easily; her tiny body fought hard to stay, but it was time for her spirit to go and be free. It was our honor to be there for her and to be loved by her. While I will not go into detail out of respect for my mom and my family, in my experience there is nothing dignified or comfortable about cancer, its treatment, or its death. I will however, share a little of my own grief with you in hopes someone else might find some comfort or relate.

Early on, in the midst of waiting for my mom's full diagnosis, a brilliant friend of mine understood and related to me how odd it was that we could grieve a person that is still physically with us. I was unknowingly doing just that. The morning I learned my mom was seriously ill, I began to grieve; that day was May 1, 2017, and it was a day that seemed to move in slow motion, full of moments that are now etched into my character. After that day, my mom was not the same person she had been, and from my perspective, she had changed in a matter of 24 hours. She had gone from an independent, friendly, working, intelligent, strong woman to someone who needed help to make coffee and could no longer drive her own vehicle or work.

I lost the mother I had known my whole life that day, and so the grieving began. I was no longer able to call her and ask her random questions that many of us ask our mothers. I could no longer lean on her even as a friend, because now she needed me instead. I grieved the Mom I'd known, but I also grieved the Mom I had expected to have in the future. I was broken as I thought of events I assumed my mom would be present for - a major accomplishment, my wedding if I got married, children if I had any, to name a few. Suddenly I became a caregiver and a protector for the woman who had served in that role for me since I could remember.

On that day, I also became aware of how much support my dad would need to walk through this. I knew I would need to do whatever it took to support my parents, but especially him as his life would continue after my mom's cancer claimed her. It quickly became clear to me and my sister that we had under a year left with Mom while she underwent palliative care to relieve symptoms and discomfort caused by the cancer.

Processing the loss of my mom — through diagnosis, shock, countless driving hours, treatment, emergency room visits, hospital stays, frustrations, personality changes, fear, overwhelming decisions, speechlessness, and heart-wrenching sadness - I have only been able to explain this experience as I imagine it would feel to have a limb ripped from my body. Another brilliant friend explained to me that whether I believed it or not, I would in time learn to walk without that limb and even to dance without that limb. I am beginning to believe her, one year after my mom took her last breath. Yes, one full year, I am only beginning to believe this.

I have lost family members in the past - grandparents, cousins, uncles, an aunt, friends - never have I felt a loss and grieved like this before. While I very much loved the people I had previously lost, they were not my 64-year-old mother and best friend; losing her was my biggest fear in life, and I am attempting to survive that. This is a very heavy weight to carry - a very healthy, normal weight to carry after a loss of this magnitude. And again yes, this is one full year after my mom took her last breath.

When I reflect on the days and weeks following Mom's death on December 3, 2017, it is a blur. That is until the love and support died down and the reality of my new normal began to hit. Shortly before Christmas and two days after the funeral, I went back to work — I work for the most supportive company I could possibly imagine, however returning to work was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my 34 years of life. My colleagues were first-rate supportive, but my world had been flipped upside down. Nothing made sense or mattered to me outside of my family.

Quickly it was Christmas time, and somehow my family and I needed to walk through those days of the year that Mom loved the most, this time without her. We lived through that together, mostly by staying busy writing thank you cards and the like. Then I experienced a jarring of my world like I have never experienced.

I went to a very large social gathering with many of my close, supportive friends on New Year's Eve. After being asked several times how my mom was doing, then explaining that she had passed, I was on the verge of tears. I am accustomed to sticking through things even when it's hard, so I stayed. Shortly after I pulled myself together, I realized I could no longer intake what people were saying to me - the chatter all around me was deafening and seemed completely meaningless. My breath was gone. I realized that somehow these people had moved on already. My world was shattered, I wanted to stay still, I wanted to reflect on my time with my mom, but the world wasn't going to let that happen. I felt completely alone, while everyone around me was celebrating and hopeful about the year to come.

I continued to feel that way, never wanting to move too far away from the moment I saw her take her last breath; I was consumed by a desire to stay right there and never move. I desperately clung to my last moments with her, when she still had life flowing through her body. No matter how much anyone tried to love and support me, I was still in all-consuming pain. I was devastated, exhausted and barely able to care for myself, much less be anywhere near my normal self. Yet another brilliant friend described it as feeling like walking through molasses, where every move I made — even moving an arm to brush my hair - was a chore and a burden.

Despite those torn feelings, I got out of bed, went to work, showed up when I said I would, and talked to family and friends about my feelings as best I could. Some family and friends understood entirely, some offered what felt like insensitive advice, some selflessly listened, some never spoke to me at all, some made it about themselves by comparing, some conceded they could not understand but helped through action. One year out from her last breath, I still frantically cling to just that - her last breath. I want to be as close to the date and time as I can possibly get, while simultaneously knowing that it is impossible and moving forward is the only option.

This kind of grief takes over and rightly so. I loved my mom more than I imagine I have ever loved someone, and now she is gone; I have nowhere to put that love and need to carry on despite that loss. Grief has no right or wrong answer, it cannot be fixed, and that is okay. Today, one full year after she took her last breath, the grief is still unfixable.

The sadness is still unbearable at times, and that is healthy. I see now that most days I am on the other side of the heaviest sadness, and so I know it is possible to walk through that tremendous level of pain - possible, but excruciatingly difficult at times. I have also learned however, that grief can show up at random and often completely takes over my day. When grief shows up, I am often incapable of being present for the remainder of the day. All I want to do when grief shows up is cry and be alone, but typically I cannot do that due to life's responsibilities, long days, and society's veiled expectations.

One of the trickiest things about grief is not knowing when it will hit, how it will feel, or when it will show up. I thought I would be devastated on May 1, 2018, the one-year anniversary of the start of cancer in our lives, so I made sure I had no responsibilities that day. As it turned out I wasn't devastated, but I was unable to focus and felt out of sorts the entire day. I was caught completely off guard a few weeks after that, when I saw a woman wearing a pair of shoes that my mom had owned; I was crushed as I was confronted with the fact that my mom was gone.

Grief has hijacked many days for me, but it hasn't been due to the obvious reasons; it's generally been completely unexpected, and I don't know what day is going to be a tough day for me. The biggest trigger 'm currently aware of has been a very kind, heartfelt, "How are you doing?" It immediately stops me in my tracks as I inventory the truth. Typically, the question sends me into grief mode, particularly when it comes from someone that cares very much and knows that I’ve suffered such a significant recent loss. I welcome the question, deeply appreciate it, and know it's important to share this loss as I cannot run from it or isolate in my pain.

Yet another brilliant friend shared with me that this burden, this grief I am carrying is the size of a giant boulder. This grief boulder is uniquely shaped and belongs to me alone, as it represents my experiences, feelings, and thoughts. My grief boulder is deeply personal and unique to me. It is not the same as anyone else's, and no one else could possibly understand exactly what my grief boulder feels like. She also told me over time it will become less heavy and will begin to wear down. She explained that one day, believe it or not, it will be the size of a stone that I could carry in my pocket. I am beginning to believe this one year after Mom took her last breath. I am beginning to see that, and it is oddly comforting to know this experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. It does not go away, but it changes.

I have spent countless mornings re-assessing reality hoping it was all just an incredibly unfair dream that took my mom away. In the beginning, this happened every single time I woke up, and so I did not want to fall asleep. This has become less and less frequent as time has passed. Every few weeks, I have a dream about my mom and she is alive again, until I wake up. After each of those dreams, I am overwhelmed as I come to realize again that she is gone, permanently and forever. All of this one full year since she took her last breath — continues to rule my life at times. This will go on for an undetermined amount of time, and it is healthy. It is normal.

I am so grateful to the women and men that have shared their grief with me, so that I know my feelings are completely normal. We are not given a guidebook at birth that explains death, loss, and grief; because of this I rely heavily on the experiences of others that have walked through this. It humbles me to know that we all go through this kind of thing at some point, and that it is just my turn now.

Today, I can reflect on my grief and see progress. I spent some time being angry and jealous when anyone mentioned their parent, especially if it was a complaint about their parent. This is not so prevalent in my thinking today. I have been seeing a grief counselor for about eight months, which continues to help me see that I am healthy and okay. I can also see that my dad and my sister are healthy and okay. We are hurting, no doubt, but we should be after such a loss.

About one month after my mom passed, I realized I had not thought of her for several hours. I felt horrible guilt when I realized this, though it is completely reasonable to begin thinking of her less. Today I see that I don’t carry that kind of guilt anymore and that it has shifted to a desire or feeling of responsibility in keeping Mom's memory alive. I try to do things she would want me to be doing, things that make me laugh, things that would make her proud.

Early on in my grief, I could not focus on what other people were saying or on any pain they were experiencing. I would listen but could not take it in to be fully supportive. Today, I am beginning to have some opportunities to share my loss and grief with other women and men that have lost their parents at a young age. This is helping me channel the love I had for my mom into something of value.

I obsessively hiked every free moment I found this past spring and summer pretending I was on a mission to explore as many Minnesota state parks as I could. I typically insisted on hiking alone, and in truth, I was at times lost and afraid hiking by myself. When I began to panic, I would be overwhelmed by calm, protective winds that brought me to a new level of freedom, understanding, and love. I connect those moments directly to my mom, and I sought more as often as I could and felt I could not feel them unless I was alone. I came to realize my mom in spirit was far more powerful and encompassing than she could ever have been here on Earth. So I knew, with her on the wind, around me, I could get through anything and would be protected one way or another. If guardian angels exist, I have the strongest one possible alongside me - my mom! Who could be more protective of me than her?

My mom had a pick-me-up poem above her computer for many years, one that she had shared with me when I was encountering struggle as a teenager. I'll share it with you:

A PROMISE TO MYSELF
I promise, from this day forward:
To accept myself unconditionally
To love myself and cherish my existence
To always show myself respect
To not demand perfection
To stop putting myself down
To give myself the credit I deserve
To be my own best friend, someone I can depend on
To open my eyes to the beautiful promise in me
To utilize my God-given talent to build inner security and to make a positive contribution to the world
Because:
Only if I love myself, can I truly love others
Only if I respect myself, can I respect others
Only if I'm open to the specialness in me, can I genuinely appreciate the uniqueness in others
Only if I cherish my own existence, can I become
The person I was meant to be!

I know that I will get through the holidays this year just as I have made it through the other days that made up this last year. I made it through my first birthday without her, my first Halloween without her, my first major accomplishment without her, and I have felt loved all along. The universe has kept me grounded by putting the right people in my life at the right time; their love and comfort has pulled me through really hard moments, and I suspect that will continue. I plan to take it easy on myself this holiday season and not expect too much of myself. It's perfectly fine if I'm not excited about the holidays and feel anxious about them. I’m grieving, reflecting, and moving forward - that’s more than enough for me. I think Mom would be satisfied too.

First published: November 4, 2019

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