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Navigating the Winding Path of Grief and Guilt After Losing My Mom to Cancer

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

If you need support right now, you can call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988, or text HOME to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line if you are in the U.S. A list of crisis centers around the world can be found here.

I feel like I’ve lived two lives. These lives are separated by a single day: October 5, 1990. That was when my mom lost her six-year battle with breast cancer. I was 19 at the time, and at 4:27 p.m. that Friday, a big part of me died too. My life changed forever.

My mom and I had a loving, but complicated relationship likely due to not being adopted until I was 18 months old. I came from the foster care system, where I had been traumatized by sexual abuse and severe neglect. My mom was never told any of that information. She didn’t know that my terror came from abuse. She didn’t know I couldn’t attach to anyone right away because I had been abandoned so many times. She took care of me, had plenty of patience, and showed me what love was. I had never experienced that before.

When I was 5, domestic abuse started. One morning after another night of hell, Mom and I were sitting in the living room. She was sobbing so hard, that she was gasping for air. It was a few days past Christmas, and as the tree lights flickered, she told me with a quivering voice what exactly had happened the night before. Those details were immediately seared into my brain like meat on a grill. From that moment on, I was a parentified child. I knew I had to do everything I could to protect her. She often hid in my room at night. We would push furniture against the door trying to keep her safe. There was a lesser chance of a beating when she was with me. However, many times, every effort I tried failed. I couldn’t stop it. I knew at age 5 that I was weak, and a failure.

The guilt began then.

The abuse continued until I was 13 when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. My father screamed at me repeatedly, saying it was my fault she was sick. He said it was because of the stress I had caused her over the years. The guilt I was then burdened with ate away at me long into my adulthood. During the next six years, I missed school to go to her chemotherapy and radiation appointments. I held her head while she threw up for hours. I made her food. I helped with bathing, laundry, and tidying the house. I listened to her cry so many times, the house should have been full of water. I did all I could within the capacity of a trauma-ridden teenager.

There were multiple surgeries and remissions, good and bad times. Cancer seemed to give her a break once in a while.

I had begun reading about cancer when I was 13, and aside from smoking, stress was near the top of the list. The words my father said to me suddenly made sense. I had caused her to become sick.

By the time she passed, I had researched a lot about cancer, and most of the articles listed stress as the number two cause, right behind smoking. My mom and father both smoked too much. After learning that, I could try to discard some of the guilt I carried. I now had something else to blame, instead of me.

One sunny day in April, cancer returned and never left. It spread to numerous places until it finally sucked the life out of her once and for all. I had failed her yet again. Those feelings of guilt and failure have turned into the negative core values I still struggle with daily.

October 5, 1990, at 4:28 p.m., my second life started.

My memories were suddenly split in two. Every memory was now categorized as either before my mom died, or after. I didn’t do this consciously, it was the way my brain handled that part of such intense grief. Even to this day, if someone asks me a question, my brain immediately searches for information on both sides of the line. It’s either before or after October 5, 1990.

The first few weeks after her death, I was numb. Part of me was relieved that her pain was over and that I no longer held someone’s life in my hands. The grief was intense and the guilt was crushing. My mind began releasing the memories of the hurt I had caused in the past. They were no longer tucked in a safe, locked box in the back of my brain. They were now in the front, present, and daily — and with each one came an added heaping of guilt and shame. This added up to an insurmountable amount of guilt.

Life continued on in some form of slow motion. I was living with an emptiness I had never felt before. I avoided dealing with my feelings however, I had to return to work and routine. I went to college and university. I played soccer four to five times weekly. I dabbled in drinking and drugs. I was reckless. I did everything in excess to keep my mind fully distracted. I simply couldn’t cope with the grief, shame, pain, or guilt. It was all too surreal.

As the years passed, distraction became less effective. I had become ridden with depression. I functioned during the day and cried myself to sleep. I had nightmares and flashbacks and became suicidal again. How was I going to live with this much self-hatred and shame? I couldn’t look in a mirror without disgust, and maybe that’s what I deserved for failing to save my mom.

Living with such heavy burdens created negative core values, which completely altered how I saw the world. It was like seeing things through a dark veil. My mind believed the negatives my inner critic repeated, words I wouldn’t dare utter to another human being. Yet I believed them about myself.

I finally made a commitment to healing about seven years ago. I was suicidal again, had survived another attempt, and decided neither life, nor death wanted me. It’s a horrible feeling, not belonging anywhere, and I have felt this way since I can first recall.

The path to healing is not a simple, straight line. It’s more of an unpaved road, with winding curves and hills, as high and low as one could imagine. Please remember healing is not linear. It is a journey and will take you down different pathways, but there is always something that could work for you. You put one foot ahead of the other, taking baby steps. Crawl if you need to, just keep going forward. Take things day by day, or break them into hours, minutes, or seconds. Do anything to get you through the day.

Be gentle with yourself. You are worthy.

Getty image by xijian

Originally published: August 27, 2022
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