For the majority of people, death does not come suddenly, but is a process of time. As such, many families experience lasts, as in last holidays, etc. It is important to cherish those times together. In the following piece, a woman shares about her dying friend’s last few months, which coincided with mother’s day.
On a cool February morning a little over two years ago, a moment before walking out the door to drop my daughters off at school and get my hair cut, I checked my e-mail. The subject line of a message from my friend Lisa in Amsterdam said:
Life Changes, Advice Needed
I clicked it open.
A serious message to you.
It was a wild understatement. The e-mail said she had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and was too late to be a candidate for surgery.
We will tell the children tomorrow and a bomb will go off in our family. … I need you now and need your wise counsel and humor…
What could I do? The moment I got back to my desk I frantically started looking for advice and books. I needed help. I e-mailed another of my closest friends, a social worker with many years of experience in hospice care: Is there anything “right” to say? On her advice, when I wrote Lisa back my message said, ‘I will walk with you, whatever this path is.” Mostly, what the path was turned out to be short. Her daughter was just 10, her son 12, when she died four months later, in June 2010, a few days before her 46th birthday.
So as Mother’s Day approaches, imagine: you have two beautiful young children not even old enough to drive yet — and you know, for sure, that this will be your last Mother’s Day. It is a fate so truly bittersweet and strangely cruel, it seems impossible.
But it happens. Every year.
Lisa’s children, husband, mother, sister, brother, sister-in-law and many friends soaked up every precious, good day she had left, and made some indelible memories. She had time to write a few letters for her children to open in the coming years. She also made a few videos for them, and established scholarships at her alma maters. Finally, her family and friends helped her die gracefully, the way she lived.
During those four months, I could only help her choose and order a few books about the loss of a parent. We made some bad jokes about how none of the books took a how-to approach. You know, where’s the one about the best way for a mother to tell her children she is dying, and how to help them watch you die, and, prepare for their lives after you are gone?
After all, if you are the mom, you have to keep raising your children, whatever that means. Your job is to prepare them for the road ahead, and suddenly, that road had changed. There are lunches, homework, chores — the usual — against the new backdrop of the surreal: soon I’ll be dead. If you are the mom, and you are dying, there is just no handbook, and, there is also not likely to be time for a valedictory “last lecture” à la Randy Pausch. It’s more like the last sandwich.
Two years ago, we were ultimately unable to find a single, solid resource to help her talk to her children. We searched for experts and info, and we knew how to search: we met as graduate students in journalism school, and both worked for magazines in Manhattan during our early fabulous career gal days. We searched, but we didn’t find. Mostly, when this sadder-than-sad bomb slams into hundreds of families every year, after the impact, there is a lot of silence. It’s too sad, experts later told me. No one wants to talk about it, or knows how. But what if you have no choice?
My friend, so smart, so funny, so genuinely kind, loved European novels with complex heroines. In real life, she admired all who pushed for human rights and equity. She was deeply interested in the lives of women. Much of her career was spent writing and editing for the international humanitarian agency with a stated mission of going in where no one else wants to go. She often made women’s issues, and stories, the focus of her work.
When I recovered from my year of grief-driven tries at A+ motherhood, I looked up and realized an assignment was waiting for me: going where no one else wanted to go and impacting the lives of women. I found the advice-givers that Lisa had hoped to find online, and created the Web site she wanted, offering insights from a range of perspectives including counselors, clergy members, early childhood and teenage experts, all of whom have helped families when a mother is dying, and after she dies. The advice is honest, helpful, tough. Anyone can find it, anywhere in the world, at any time of day or night.
One thing I learned: the relationship remains, and no matter what happens next, the mother is always the Mom. Mom, Always. That was something Lisa really wanted to hear, and that is why I chose that name for the site. Also, to me, Mom, Always sounds like Love, Always. Which is all any of us can hope to leave behind.
Jody Becker is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who lives in California, and also the founder of MomAlways.org, where mothers facing a terminal diagnosis can find support.