This blog is dedicated to my Mum, to her as a mother, a woman who worked throughout her life, brought up five children often close to poverty, lived within a challenging marriage and until now has battled four major illnesses before this last challenge, one we found out yesterday will be her last. I want to use this blog to record these last weeks, how our family faces this and hopefully how we move forward from the death of the central mother figure in all of our lives. For some, this may be a strange or even uncomfortable topic and they may wonder why I would write about such a personal topic, however, I feel like charting the journey we are on might give insight to others and truthfully I hope that it will also be an opportunity to gain some kind of meaning myself.
I am still in shock over what has happened despite an underlying suspicion based on Mum’s medical history. I can’t understate her bravery as she has faced cancer 3 times already with the current resurgence of her second cancer being metastasized into her liver. Yesterday she made the choice in a family meeting to stop her treatments and to enjoy the time she has left. This is not expected to be very long although I hope that we might have one last Christmas together.
This blog came to an abrupt end after my mother died far earlier than I expected. Although she passed away quietly I just can’t find it in me to write about the aftermath at this point in my life. I may write this later but for now, my grief doesn’t allow for that.
This has been very challenging. My siblings and I have all chosen to tell our children, aged from 4 to 26, what is happening in age-appropriate ways. I have read that some people don’t tell children based on the idea that children are too innocent to know but none of us even considered this. The kids all lost their Poppa last year and so at least the oldest ones know what death means for them, that the person is gone from our day to day life, even if they don’t get the reality of it. We want them to know, to spend their last minutes with their Nana, to understand what is physically happening to her as she goes through the processes of dying however this has been a challenge. For me, I also think the idea of not telling is a bit insulting to the children’s ability to cope and have a proper send-off, however each to their own as people do have different beliefs.
I have a 15-year-old daughter who has only me and my side of the whanau and she has been living next door to her grandparents since she was born making her incredibly close to her Nana and Poppa. Last year she lost her Poppa after a lingering illness and that was only now starting to be being dealt with and she also has her fair share of anxiety, far more than can be considered teen angst all of which makes this newest loss for her is incredibly troubling. She loves her Nana so much and Mum has been a second parent to her, attending school things when I couldn’t, looking after her when I had to work late or evenings, just being there for her. She is losing not just a grandparent but a second parent who and this will be the second of her consistent adults to die in the last few years.
My daughter is struggling to be away from me at the moment and finding school almost impossible. Her very small group of friends have no idea how to talk to her about what’s happening and the classes and upcoming exams are just piling on the stress. I don’t know how to prepare her for this when I am going through this myself. How do we as children, who need to prioritize our Mum still make sure that our children are in the first place? how do I as a single parent find the core of clam needed to address my child’s needs while I fell like falling a to bits myself? This is very much a question I believe I will have ti answer as we go along as I can’t see the how to find the balance right now.
Family support though is I am finding crucial. As I have stated before I have an amazing whanau, I lucked out. My siblings have all gathered the resources and strengths they have and are here as much as they can be to help with Mum and to spend as much time with her as possible. This is also drawing each of us closer together in ways that I had not expected. There had been some slight bumps along the way from the small to the slightly bigger but nothing too big. I do spend far more time than expected hunting for things in the kitchen as with half a dozen people putting away dishes things end up in the strangest places but at least they are helping with the dishes. I did go away for the night for a few weeks ago and came back to find the entire pantry reorganized but after a split second realized that it was a far better job than we had before and so I made the sister who did it agree to come to do mine once this period is finished and I buy a new house.
My sibling’s partners have been, so far at least :-), a great support for them looking after the children, supporting them to come to our home more often and just being a sounding board but being a single parent is far more challenging. I don’t have those things and it is a loss I feel keenly at this time. While I have a kid to cuddle its not the same as having another adult in my life, to be the one being cuddled rather than the cuddler. And that’s not something I normally bother with. I like being alone and independent and normally have no desire to get into a relationship or find a girlfriend or boyfriend but first the first time I do feel the loss of a partner. Not a good reason to get one of course as it would be a bit unflattering I think ‘Hi would you like to be my boyfriend so you can support me in my time of need and maybe do some of the cooking and then get lost’. I believe that we will continue to work as a strong team although as Mum gets closer to death we may need a few more deep breathes and to work at it a bit more.
The truth is that Mum is and has always been the touchstone of our family and we will all feel her loss impossibly deeply. While it hurt to lose Dad it felt different and I didn’t love him any less I think but the role that Mum has always placed has been far more central to our lives and the loss seems unimaginable. I try to remember not to focus too much on the loss yet, my daughter’s therapist told her to ‘focus on the now and don’t start grieving till she needs to’ and its good advice but it is easier said than done.
I noticed that yesterday’s post had the word dying in it and despite this being a blog about our family together as our beloved mother dying this was actually the first time I had used that word in this blog. I led me to ruminate on the power of language and words around death and the dying.
I have been sending several emails and talking to a number of people since I go the news about mum and it’s been noticeable how powerful some of the words that we use are. I have always known about the power of language, in my other life along with work I am also doing my PhD using something called Critical Discourse Analysis as my main research tool, although this is just a fancy way to study the things people believe using their conversations to see what they really mean even if its not what they are saying out loud. Our words betray our unconscious thoughts and our cultural and historical backgrounds.
In the case of death, I have been really conscious of using euphemisms rather than the word death or dying. My mum’s ‘final stage or life’ has been one I have commonly used but I wonder why? Who am I using these euphemisms for? I know that partly the reason I am using these at least initially I didn’t want to believe this myself that this was the end. I mean I knew that there would be no hail mary or miracle happening now but still using the words accepting it as truth was not something I could do straight away. Sometimes using the language is the same as accepting it.
I also think that my use of euphemisms instead of saying my mother is dying is due to our historical taboos about talking about death. We have been brought up to fear death and not to talk about it. However, I don’t want to obfuscate with people and I also needed to get out of some work and withdraw from a conference so I needed to let them know exactly how bad the situation was but I was worried about making people uncomfortable. I think that there is also a worry that I might break cultural sensitivities as I don’t know how other cultures discuss and talk about death so in some situations I have used the euphemisms to avoid any potential concerns. I keep thinking though if we had more honest and clear discussions about death and dying that this would be so much easier.
An unexpected trigger for today’s thoughts on our journey, doing the food shopping. With several siblings and associated aunts and uncles stopping by or coming to stay to spend time with mum I spend a lot of time heading to the supermarket but today’s trip brought several the issues to mind. I’m not sure if it was clear from the earlier posts but I have moved in with Mum to be a helper during this time. I was already in the process of selling my house when she got sick so when I sold quicker than expected I decided to move in with mum. This has meant that I am able to put my stuff in storage and just move right in to help with what we thought was going to be her treatment and road to recovery. Finding time to pack up the house, on the other hand, is not so easy to find.
Right, back to the shopping story. Mum did well yesterday with her eating as she kept all of her meals down including dinner which hadn’t happened for several days so I wanted to keep this going especially as she is eating very little now. Thinking about her lack of appetite and nausea in the store really impressed on me how I use food to show how much I care for people and how much it hurts when this can no longer be done. I also realise how important food and eating together is for our family and how much the process of dying and looking after the dying can change simple things that we take for granted. Mum sits at her chair for meals now rather than the table so for family dinners we either sit around the lounge of separate at the table. Logistic’s like numbers and little children means that eating in the lounge is not often possible and family dinners are now designed separately from Mum rather than including her as she is having smaller meals more often and not normally at the same time as the rest of the family.
Today I walked around the isles of the store today to find something to give mum some food that she would be tempted to eat, something to make her hungry or bring up some happy memories for her. I was very saddened though, and by sad I mean having a quick and hidden cry in the middle of the pasta section of the supermarket, to realise that all of her old favourites are now off the table. We love exploring the world through food in our family and Mum loved spicy and rich foods, Authentic curries, chilli hot Thai, even all of the more traditional creamy Italian pasta’s are a no go. That so much of the foods she loved are no longer enjoyed was a sad realisation and that combined with her already being separated from the family eating together became so much more clear. I spend far more time cooking and far less time enjoying it and I don’t think I’m the only one.
I wanted to add a resolution at the end of this, what we can do to better the situation, but maybe this is more about recognising and accepting the change. But I’m not ready, I don’t know if I ever will be ready to accept the reality even when the reality has actually come to pass I don’t feel like I’ll be ready.
I have been lucky with whanau. Despite a divorce and the death of my father last year after a long battle with cancer I have always considered myself to be blessed. I have a beautiful (but willful and moody) teenage daughter, 3 amazing sisters and a wonderful brother along with associated in-laws and children but all of this had been tied together by my Mum. I think as a family we will maintain strong together, however, I am scared in the lizard pessimistic part of my brain that we will drift apart without Mum to hold us together.
Will the others still come to our town now Mum is not here as really they have no need to. Strange things trigger worries I was shopping at one of the supermarkets today and they were putting out the Christmas decorations and I had to stop and think what will we do now at Christmas. In the past, the other siblings, who have other in-laws, rotated each year but I was always with mum. It reminded me again that as I am the only single parent of the family and there is just me and my daughter, it might be very quite christmas’s in future.
I had always pictured moving Mum in with me once she wasn’t ready to live alone anymore but now I am looking at a really empty nest once the child heads off. It makes me feel a bit shallow and concerned for myself to be crying about my future, however, some of the reading I’ve done does seem to claim that this is normal although I hate that word really, what really is normal?