Six years ago my mom died and I Googled how to grieve.
In our Western world, nobody really talks about death, and certainly nobody teaches us how to grieve. How is it that I, then a 32 year old mother of two, raised by a loving, tuned-in and involved family, turned to Google when faced with the premature death of my mom? Despite having a great circle of caring friends, loving husband, family, a hospice society? Reading other peoples stories on how they grieved was like a lighthouse for me. So, world, here is mine.
My mom and dad met when they were knee-high to a grasshopper near Williams Lake, B.C. My mom got pregnant in high school with my older sister. My parents soon married and popped out two more of us Johnson girls within four years. I remember how proud I was in kindergarten telling my classmates that my mom was an aerobics instructor and only 23 years old!
Despite the odds, my parents had a loving marriage filled with family holidays focused around hunting, fishing and camping our way throughout the Cariboo Chilcotin. We were cocooned by aunties, uncles, cousins, and our grandparents. We dropped in unannounced for coffee to visit. We were content. We had very little. I recognize this now as “just being”.
Fast forward 20, 30 years through a life filled with love, freedom, acceptance, and not without hardships for my parents who worked for everything they had. I am close with my family – I was close with my mom.
On October 3rd, 2011 my dad called me to tell me what the doctors thought was pneumonia was instead stage four terminal cancer in the lining of my mom’s lungs. He only had to say hi and I knew something was very wrong. I shut my 2 and 4 year old baby girls outside my bedroom door and buried myself deep in the darkness and quiet of my bedcovers as my dad tried so hard to stay strong on the other end of the line. She had terminal cancer. But she was going to fight. We all were. They could be wrong. There could be a cure. We had to hope. We had to be strong for her. I hung up the phone and mourning wails washed over and through me as I shattered into a million pieces. I felt sorrow for his loss of his life partner, sorrow for his need to have to break this news to their three children. For her, all the stolen years the diagnosis represented. This was the day my journey with grief began, the day I started to hone my grief skills.
It’s Ok. It’s Ok. It’s Ok. This too shall pass. This too shall pass.
I sat in silence and cried on the banks of the Birkenhead river where the salmon were returning to spawn and die. I drew strength from the circle of life – the natural rhythm of all creatures.
Over the next months I cut ties with most things in my life and spent as much time as possible at “home”. My mom was a stoic woman who did not talk about her feelings, never mind her illness and the process of dying. I didn’t know what to say, if I should bring it up or not. We could talk about her medications, treatments, doctors reports, but only those things, not about how she was feeling facing her own death. I struggled with how to act in her presence. I didn’t know if I should bring joy and love and happiness because doing so seemed to counter the magnitude of what was happening in her life. I didn’t even tell her how much I loved her, share my favourite childhood stories, or thank her for all that she had done for me. I could not tell her those things because that equated to giving up, to saying goodbye – and I was absolutely unable to do that.
Further into her illness, something shifted. I started to say goodbye, and say a fraction of the things I should have. Through silent tears and a quavering bottom lip I worked up the courage to tell her that I was choosing for her to bring light instead of darkness because that was the only thing that I had any control over. A life lesson you think you know, but you do not actually understand until you are forced to. Sometimes bad shit happens and we have absolutely no control over the situation. The only thing that we have control over is how we are going to react, what we choose to bring – or what we choose to leave behind.
At the same time, I tortured myself secretly researching alternative therapies. I read case studies and online forums about cancer survivors. Doctors said she had six to twelve months to live. She was undergoing palliative chemotherapy, with the goal of increasing the quality of life for the time she had left. It was a kind of hell I feared very deeply. I feared her pain and suffering and all the unknowns. I felt like she was doing it for us – to have more time with us – and that broke my heart. She was so sick she could not lift her head off her pillow most days. She was more or less in constant pain and suffering for five months. She was actively dying and somehow, I was blinded to that truth by hope. I was so caught up in my head with possible miracles that I didn’t have the life/heart knowledge to realize that her death was imminent. She would tell me “I just have to get through this”. I took that as, this hour. This day. This treatment. But I think what she was telling me was that she needed to get through the dying part – it is not easy work. I struggled to be present and be porous to the pain. To put a label on what was happening, and let it go. It took every bit of courage I had to sit beside my mom, watch her die, and accept it.
The days leading up to her death our immediate family surrounded her. We played the Tragically Hip, Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin and maybe some Krishna Das. We ate in her room. We kept watch. We eased her pain. We were filled with anxiety and sorrow for my older sister who was on a plane back from Brazil.
With her final breaths we held her hand and stroked her face and told her it was OK to go. We would be OK. It’s Ok. It’s Ok. It’s Ok.
In that moment, instead of sorrow I experienced profound beauty. A profound love of life that can only be experienced in giving birth and bearing witness to death. The mingling of beauty of her life, and the absolute relief that she was no longer suffering. I felt strangely honoured and somehow OK.
The days that followed pretty much melted together. No longer trying to hold on, I let go. I didn’t know about keening. It came and went in my darkest moments, a primal release I got swept away by. I waited for the day when I woke up and could not pick myself off the floor.
While the day never did come, I feared it in the back of my mind even months after. I actually still do, thinking about losing someone again – my husband, my dad, my daughters, or getting sick myself. I wonder, in this life that I have been carefully cultivating, balancing – a life that feels like an egg spinning on a stick, high in the air. One bump in the road and it could all come crashing down. But perhaps, hopefully there is a net – or better yet a nest? One that will catch my life again if tragedy happens, mending me, healing me. A nest filled again with love and family and friends, kids, yoga teachers, mentors, neighbours to soften the blow. Chocolate, wine, intimacy. Angry runs in the woods, headphones on and singing to Neil Young with hot tears. My grief skills. I mourned the moments she will never have with my kids, for all the memories of her that will sit blank for their lives. For the hours spent in her company, on a porch drinking coffee. For the mother, woman that she was at 52 and all the moments she still had left to live. For all her hard work to fight to be where she was, a loving grandma entering what should have been a time of abundance and ease in her life. Stolen by fucking cancer.
The summer after she died I felt really stuck. I was searching for permission to be OK. I knew that if she were alive she would give me a sideways glance and tell me to pull my bottom lip in before a bird shit on it. But I struggled with the notion that being OK was not honouring her memory.
One morning I woke up and could not stop crying, so I put on my running shoes and set out for a stand of Douglas fir I feel hold great strength. I cried the whole way up and stopped as I always do, reaching my arms between the two old growth trees. I felt a gust of wind on my neck and jumped back as a barred owl landed in front of me and we stared at each other for what seemed an eternity. I told the owl that I I knew it was my mom! We had a silent conversation. I sat down for a long time and still the owl did not move. Finally, the owl flew a few feet up that trail and I followed. It landed again right in front of me! We repeated this dance as it led me out of the dark gulley, and into the clearing. The owl flew away and I stood stunned, questioning my experience (and googled Owls and omens when I got home!).
The tears after that day came much less often and I started to be able to be happy again. The significance of the encounter was very impactful for me. I still miss her every day and not being able to call her and ask for her shortbread cookie recipe sucks.
Those are some of the lessons I learned and experiences I had in my own journey with grief. For anyone experiencing a similar journey right now, the film Griefwalker is a raw and moving documentary on palliative care that I wish I had of know about when she was dying. It would have helped me with her dying, but now as I watch it again, it helps me with my life, and processing grief even six years later.
If you are experiencing this right now, I am deeply sorry for the suffering of yourself and those you love. You are not alone and I hope you find your way through the maze of grief and find the tools that will help you to deal with it.
“Grief is not a feeling. Grief is not how you feel it is what you do. Grief is a skill. And the twin of grief as a skill of life is the skill of being able to praise or love life. Which means wherever you find one authentically done, the other is very close at hand. Grief and the praise of life, side by side. The honoured guests. The room at the head table. And they are toasting you, the living.”~ Stephen Jenkinson, Griefwalker