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What It's Like When Your Parent Is Dying

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Editor's Note

This post includes details about losing someone to cancer. It may be triggering to those who have lost a loved one.

Our mother was dying long before we received the devastating news on a hot sunny day (I forgot what month). After complaining about constant stomach pain and a nagging cough, our mother’s lung cancer was discovered after we finally nagged her to go and see our local doctors.

As our mother relayed the news to me, I gripped onto her and tried to comprehend what she was saying.

She had cancer, and suddenly, her length of time on earth was very uncertain.

But our mum, chipper and as determined as ever, told me, “I’m going to beat it, don’t you worry.”

Her battle was over before it got the chance to start.

Chemotherapy made her incredibly ill, sore and weak, and surgery wasn’t an option because it spread too far already. Like oil on water the cancer had spread up to her brainstem, like an ever-growing, unwanted weed. Radiation definitely wasn’t working as far as I can remember, and when we looked at the hard evidence, it was clear that our mother’s quality of life was going to suffer a great deal if she put herself through yet another rigorous round of chemotherapy that had little to no chance of lengthening what time she had left.

It was absolute hell to watch our funny, bubbly, larger than life mum disappear into a frail, scared, confused person before our very own eyes and knowing that there was literally nothing that we could do to stop it.

Our mother was dying, and all we could do was watch and try to help her the best we could, as difficult as it was.

A dying parent is exhausting. I would get physically ill as I listened to our mum show the side effects from chemotherapy, the exhaustion, the nausea and the seemingly never-ending confusion, forgetfulness and bouts of incredible Hulk-like rage from the cancer that was slowly eating away at her insides. I’d lie awake at night and wonder if something bad would happen to her if I dared to close my eyes. I’d sit outside of her bedroom door every single night until I nearly collapsed from exhaustion, just so  I would know our mum was still breathing and that I wouldn’t find her dead in bed the next day.

I forced myself to try to focus on other things that I was allowed to do for our mum, such as daily tasks. I longed for the days when our lives didn’t center around the ups and downs of cancer. It was hard going to bed each night/early morning without knowing what the next day would be like and if we would be lucky enough.

A dying parent makes you realize you are selfish. You find yourself hoping and wishing they’d suddenly wake up the next day cancer-free, just so you could go out with them like before, walking arm-in-arm as if nothing ever happened. But life isn’t always that smooth.

A dying parent means it’s next to impossible to do “normal” things like going out. Most of the time I stayed inside and whenever I did get urged to go outside for the day, I would constantly feel bad about it. Why should I enjoy myself on a day out when her life was being eaten away minute by minute, hour by hour?

A dying parent means you have to constantly push through the guilt of feeling joy and happiness because you know your parent expects nothing less of you. They want you to enjoy yourself.

There’s no list you can quickly look to on the days the panic and rage are so, so bad, you think you might actually lose your mind. And while your friends and family do their best to sympathize with you, no one understands the sheer desperation that always threatens to bubble over in the middle of anywhere.

A dying parent means that you will be pushed to your limits, and you will find strength you didn’t know you possessed. You’ll become this weird emotion hiding superhuman, only revealing your inner “weakness” at the quietest of moments whenever you can grasp them.

A dying parent means facing your own mortality with new eyes. In the final days of our mum’s illness, I’d often look towards my own future and worry about my own future children if the same should ever happen to me. I wondered if I could be strong for them, like my mum always was for me in my time of need, and I hoped that I could embrace my own mortality as bravely and as courageously as she did.

A dying parent means your friends and seemingly random strangers will say the wrong things and you will forgive them because you know that deep down they mean well. You will smile and nod when people offer condolences and sympathy, plainly because you don’t want to be seen as a bad person. You will gratefully accept sympathy and condolence cards to put on your windowsill, which will then be moved to a memory box because you know deep down inside of your heart, you won’t be able to read them all again without completely breaking down in the middle of your bedroom.

A dying parent means looking at your mum’s old clothes in her wardrobe and finding yourself holding her favorite scarf close, praying that you can still smell her sweetness, only to break down a little inside because you’re not even sure if you can remember what she smelled of other than fentanyl and that sickly hospital chemo smell.

You find yourself looking at old photos and wanting to go back into the past, telling yourself off for all of the times you and her had a disagreement and you stomped upstairs to your room in a childish huff not knowing most of the time she only got angry at you because she as worried about you and nothing more.

You find yourself crying in the middle of the night because you remember her last words to you — “Goodnight, I love you” — and because you never realized it was the first time in weeks/months she actually remembered you and your name. That it was the first time she actually managed to speak a long sentence without getting angry and confused at herself.

And even though you aren’t ready, you’ll let go of the hand you’ve held
since you were small. It’s only now that you realize just how much you miss your parent as you desperately try molding your own life without them at your side.

Getty image via KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Originally published: February 10, 2019
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