Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Grief, you're a tricky bastard

A colleague called yesterday to tell me she had just learned that her sister has a brain tumor. It is aggressive, and does not respond well to treatment. The prognosis is poor.

She is 38, and has two children -- 7 and 11.

Her grief is not mine, but her circumstance brings my own right back to the surface. I understand the helplessness she feels, the anxiety of knowing too much but not enough. Cancer is a sonofabitch; brain cancer, the worst. The treatment robs patients of themselves without offering much in return. It seemed to me to be a relentless undoing of a life, a slow unraveling that all of us -- even Mom -- had to witness every day. It was awful for everyone.

Watching my mother die from that hideous disease changed me; I don't know how it couldn't. To this day I have a single, horrible memory of Mom that defines the entire illness for me, one I'm afraid I'll never be able to shake. It was a moment that captured every feeling of guilt and desperation and confusion that I experienced over all those months; but worse still it was the moment I saw my mother losing herself, so far away and yet stranded here in a body that was destroying her.

I still feel the same nauseating helplessness now as I did that day. I still feel the shame of just wanting to leave, because it was easier than facing her. I still feel like the little girl who's been separated from her mother and is crying for her, desperately looking for her -- only I know I'll never find her again.

About two years ago I ran into an old professor. She was speaking at a conference I was attending, discussing the role that emotion plays in how therapists work with their patients and families. Ever since Mom's illness I had been experiencing this first hand. Whether it was discussing feeding tubes with the parents of toddlers or end-of-life considerations with the elderly, my professional judgement was colored by my journey with Mom. I just couldn't handle another difficult conversation that would inevitably lead me to tears.

Hope and I talked for a long time after her presentation. We talked a bit about the "old days" but mostly about our families. It was clear to her that my loss was still fresh despite the time that had passed. She told me I had to work through the grief.

And I explained to her that I wasn't all that inclined to do so, thank you very much.

But I know she's right, even if I don't really know what it means to "work through the grief." Time seems to help some and so does Sara, who talks about her grandparents as though they are simply living in a magical place even further away than Pennsylvania -- which to her is very, very far away. I have purposely laced some of my old family rituals into our lives today, and this seems to be both comforting and comfortable, and feels like an acknowledgement of who Mom and Dad were and what they left with me. As life goes on the good memories outweigh the bad and I can remember the past without feeling robbed of it.

Until I get that phone call, and I hear in someone else's voice the fear and helplessness that is still so close at hand. And then grief gets the best of me again.

I guess I still have work to do.

1 comment:

Amanda said...


I can't imagine how difficult it is to watch your parent(s) suffer in such a way. I do know what it is like to experience a loss that shakes you to your very core. Sometimes I felt like the grief would kill me. I had to let it out in spurts. All of the whys and the why me's can be debilitating. I'm not really sure where I'm going with this - I guess what I want to offer is that it the weight will get lighter the more you face it. It hurts but it is necessary. Throw it down with God - He can take it.