When Someone Special Dies, a Mother’s experience

Friday was the one year anniversary of my mother’s death. My mother was diagnosed with Cancer on January 21st of last year and died April 24th, just three months later. I wanted to share how I communicated Cancer and death to my daughter, who had just turned 5 years old and things we used to help process our grief, once my mother passed.

Below is an edited portion of what I read at my mother’s funeral mass:

My mother passed away Thursday morning, just before my daughter arrived home from school. I walked into her bedroom as usual, and spoke aloud to her about the beautiful sun that was peeking in and out of the clouds that day, and the rain that was to come, and I told her how beautiful she was. I measured out her morphine, and spoke softly into her ear, with my hand on her abdomen as I always had, and then paused, because I did not feel her heart beating into my hand as it always did when I spoke to her. She was gone. Words cannot describe everything that she was. Even in her dying she was mothering. While caring for her, she was teaching me to be brave, she was teaching me to be a leader, she was teaching me to have faith and gratitude for every day, but most of all she taught me to believe in myself, and find a strength within me that I did not even know existed. And while caring for her she was grandmothering my daughter still, and was modeling gratitude, joy, humor and determination. My daughter watched as we cared for her, cleaned her, fed her. We sang her songs, told her we loved her, gave her gentle massages and always cheered for her. My daughter would give her kisses, talk to her about her days at school, sing to her and surround her with stuffed animals. It was an honor to serve her alongside my brother and my father. Together, we made a beautiful team. The house feels so empty without her and so does my heart.

As a voracious reader, I began where I always do, with books. I ordered 2 books off Amazon purely based on reviews, just before my mother became bedridden.

1. When Someone You Love Has Cancer, A Guide to Help Kids Cope, By Alaric Lewis, OSB

2. When Your Grandparent Dies, A Child’s Guide to Good Grief, By Victoria Ryan

Both of the books helped begin the dialogs I would soon have with my daughter numerous times a day. I did change some of the language as I read aloud, to taylor the books to our personal needs.

One thing that I found so fascinating, was that death is such a natural part of life, yet we don’t often talk about it. I was always very positive about death and Cancer around my daughter and I never hid my tears. If she would see me dabbing my eyes, I would say “Sweetie, like the waves of the Ocean, feelings come and feelings go. It is important to welcome our feelings when they come and know that they will pass and not stay forever.” So I would cry, we would honor that feeling and I would then dry my tears, get up and move on to something silly and fun. I had to model this. Because in her life, she will crumble and fall many times, and I needed her to know, that you could crumble and then get back up, dust yourself off and move forward.

My mother died just minutes before my daughter arrived from preschool. I had to stay calm and think quickly before the doorbell rang. She would always run into my mother’s room, fling her backpack onto the ground and start chatting about her day, singing songs, jumping on the guest bed etc. The doorbell rang, “What’s happening Mommy?” She asked, as our nurses had arrived and things seemed noticeably different. “Do you remember we discussed that grandma’s body was going to stop working soon?” I asked her. “Yes” she responded. “Well it stopped working just a few minutes ago” I said. “Why?” She asked. “Because that was all the time on earth her body had left.” “You can still go in and see her and I can hold your hand.” We sat with my mother and my daughter began to cry, somehow I did not, I just comforted. I was her rock and held her in my arms for as long as she needed me to. When she stopped crying, she opened her backpack and gave my mother a painting she had made for her at school “Goodbye grandma, I love you” she said and blew her a kiss. We got up together, dusted ourselves off and went to the Living Room to play, while our nurses prepared my mother’s body.

The following is a list of books we read after my mother died and a DVD by Sesame Street for children.

1. When Someone Very Special Dies, By Marge Heegaard

2. Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley

3. The Invisible String By Patrice Karst

4. The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, By Leo Buscaglia

5. http://www.sesameworkshop.org/what-we-do/our-initiatives/when-families-grieve/ When Families Grieve, a Guide for Parents and Caregivers Presented by New York Life with a Sesame Street DVD

6. http://www.newyorklife.com/nyl/v/index.jsp?contentId=17798&vgnextoid=1ec16f21189d2210a2b3019d221024301cacRCRD After a Loved One Dies Booklet- How Children Grieve And how parents and other adults can support them. By The New York Life foundation. The website has this as a free download along with much more wonderful information.

Books for me:

1. Motherless Daughters, By Hope Edelman

2. Motherless Mothers, How Mother Loss Shapes The Parents We Become, By Hope Edelman

Aside from reading and discussion, we created a journal for my mother, written by my daughter. Some examples of the pages were:

1. Our relationship was very special… Here I’ll describe things we did together…

2. Our funniest times together…

3. My feelings…..I feel….

4. I feel loved when…..

5. Questions I have for Mom……

6. Words that describe Grandma…..

7. Things Grandma liked…

This year we will be creating a scrapbook together of photographs of my mother’s life.

Other links:
1. “New York Life is committed to helping children who have experienced the death of a loved one. Their website, http://achildingrief.com supports the parents, family, and teachers of bereaved kids and includes a comprehensive, state by state list of local support services for grieving children; book lists; articles; and materials to order, as well as links to other helpful organizations.”

2. National Alliance for Grieving Children “provides a network for nationwide communication among hundreds of children’s bereavement centers who want to share ideas, information and resources with each other to better support the families they serve in their own communities.”

3. Nonprofit, Gilda’s Club chapters offer support for people with Cancer and their familiy. They offer a variety of lectures, workshops, fun social events for adults and children and a variety of classes. They also offer support in Spanish here in Chicago. The club was named in tribute to comic actress Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer. This link is for the downtown Chicago location, you can Google your particular city.

Another thing I’d like to mention is that our play became very therapeutic. My daughter began using death and cancer as subjects in her play with her dolls and in role playing with family and friends. We used our toy doctor kit often. This is incredibly healthy for children, as a way for them to process their grief. It passed, as all things do. But it did go on for several months.

I hope my story can bring you hope and help and comfort in your grief. I am not an expert, (although I know quite a few who were so helpful during this experience). I am however, a mother, doing the best I can with the resources I have available to me and I am happy to pass on what I know, in hopes that it may help someone else. I wish you Peace in your own grieving.

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