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What Helped Me Through the Grief of Losing Both My Parents to Cancer

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Musings and metaphors come easily as I navigate the months after losing both my parents to cancer, just over two months apart.

My mother was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in January of 2014. My father was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer that November. He refused treatment if it meant he “wouldn’t be able to care for my wife.” It was a bittersweet moment to be in the presence of that kind of strength and devotion.

My mom’s faith was unshakeable, and her words proved to be prophetic when she said, “Now everyone will say Mary and Bela died together.” She passed away on January 13, 2015. And my father died nine weeks later on March 15, 2015. They were married 52 years.

I’m left with feelings of being both orphaned and released from the role of caretaker; I find myself thrust into a nothingness that can be overwhelming at times. The stages of grief collapse one onto the next as a new phase of life begins without their colossal presence in it. The task of clearing out my childhood home looming in the not-so-distant future left me in a place where I could not find my footing. It would take months for me to accept the contributions of family and friends in the task of clearing the household furnishings without thinking I had to hang onto each piece simply because one of them had touched it. I kept mom’s apron and rolling pin, recipes written in her hand, and her hand mirror. The wool coat my father had made during his trip to his homeland and the matching hat have found a home in my closet, the faint smell of his cologne lingering and filling the small space. The pockets still hold the monogrammed handkerchiefs and small leather change purse he carried.

I bristled at the suggestion of putting their items up for sale, instead transforming the difficult process into one of giving as I made donations to refugee and community services. Their bedroom set would go to a young couple who fled their homeland in the wake of war, coming to the U.S. for refuge and landing in an area where they neither spoke the language nor had a family support system to rely on. The young husband would come to collect my offering and kneel at my feet, taking my hands in thanksgiving and gratitude. The power of paying it forward was never so evident to me than in that moment.

All the firsts have passed, holidays have been ignored, and what I find missing now is my direction. Missing them is my reality. Their wedding bands serve as anchors and a way to stay connected. Dad’s on my left hand and mom’s on my right, I touch and turn them when I’m anxious and need that extra support.

So when I saw a dying plant, I knew I had to have her: She was just like me. She was sitting on the clearance rack, marked down 50 percent, her leaves slumped in a tangle over the sides of the pot she had overgrown. A single, withered, orange-throated, pink flower peeked out amongst the mixed and tattered yellow and green of her foliage. Dry, brown tendrils reached out every which way in search of the sturdy support she needed to climb. From my vantage point, she looked defeated. On closer inspection, however, a sprout here and there appeared as if she might have some life left in her. A little TLC, a little direction, some time to heal, and she might just come ’round…

I could relate to her withered version. A climber myself, I felt beaten down after my parents died. Not knowing where to go, who to trust or where I could find support, I, too, reached out every which way, searching for something — anything — I could hold onto. Nothing would prove strong enough to stick… until I discovered I wouldn’t find it “out there.” So the task became to heal myself “in here.” Time does that. And self-care. And pretty soon, before I knew it, I was a little steadier on my feet and a little more aware of what I really needed to grow.

She sits in an oversized pot now, on the buttercream hickory floor of my dining room. A teepee of wooden dowels support her at her base; the double hung windows are hers to explore and fill. Her strong, green tendrils wrap eagerly on the twine strung along the window frame. The crushed voile sheers make puddles on the floor, guarding her sides and creating the perfect backdrop to her deep green leaves and delicate pink flowers. The morning sun beckons her journey as it warms the panes and gives direction to her travels. The old, tattered version is long gone, and she has found the support and stretch she needs to grow. My hope is she’ll reach out and fill the entire space with her elegance and create a living window.

daughter holding her ill fathers hand

Lead image via Thinkstock.

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Originally published: December 6, 2016
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