The ambivalence of grief
We cry for ourselves when someone is going to die. We cry for the potential loss of them in our lives. When a death sentence is pronounced, we cry for the pain we anticipate. But what happens when against all odds, someone continues to live, in fact they fight daily for their right to maintain a place on this planet? Does sorrow turn immediately into joy? Is the new-found hope uplifting and positive? Or is the process of grieving, already begun and now left undone, cause a myriad alternative emotions to happiness spring from dark corners?
Almost two years ago, my mother was told that her blood was 95% leukaemia and that she may only have 6 weeks to three months to live. This was on February 13. A routine blood test had showed this but we often think now, what if she hadn’t had that blood test? She would be dead. She would have continued to get more and more tired until she faded away, probably in her sleep one day. Today, thankfully, she’s alive and kicking. It’s my unfettered joy that she’s still here. My mother is only 18 years my senior and has always felt close to me in both friendship and age. However, it’s only fair to say I wasn’t alone in being there for her, my brother played a huge part of it too, but this is not about him or our relationship, it was me who lived at my mum’s home, did much of the washing, delivering of clothes, sometimes taking food and supporting her through the four chemotherapies, the intermittent confinements and finally the stem cell transplant.
That’s the good news. My journey, however, was a different one to my mother’s, which was horrific enough, but being the eldest, the only daughter, I disappeared into a self destructive haze, all the while, appearing the voice of calm and the eyes of understanding.
To begin with I didn’t understand anything. No, that’s not true – I understood the statistics, I could rationalise the chances and probabilities but I couldn’t understand the why. I have always been a move forward kind of person. It’s not the why I contemplate it’s the what. Why her, why us? Why our family? I was in complete denial. Suddenly it wasn’t a death sentence for my mother, it was one for all of us. My mother lived a healthy life. She exercised, had never smoked, didn’t overly drink, had travelled on her own and was independent and confident. Why her? What had she done in her life to cause this? I was angry to the point of rage and had to hide it. Nothing has ‘caused’ her to have leukaemia. There is no why or wherefore of AML (Acute Myeloid Leukaemia). It can happen at any age but is most common for those over 60 years old. She was over 60. Her overall anticipated survival rate was 12%. Not 26% as Wikipedia might quote. It had been caught at such an advanced stage that doctors were unsure as to whether she would even survive the first chemotherapy treatment.
That’s when I arrived — at the end of her first chemo and I saw a determined but weakened version of my mother with the exception of one thing. She was scared and it showed. I wasn’t scared. I was numb. Like the way one receives news of a death. The first few moments sink in and empty your insides. I’d been numb for three weeks and here I was, coming to the rescue, to take over from my brother some of the time as I was needed to be part of the team caring for her.
I wasn’t scared of the responsibility – I felt that it was my time to step up to the plate, share the mantle of responsibility for running her to and from the hospital when she was out of isolation, bringing food, enough changes of clothes for when she had soiled herself. It’s not often in our lives that we have the privilege of caring for a parent in such an intimate way. But it’s also not uncommon that many become active parents to our own parents.
That’s where I found myself in the middle of it all. In spite of the little victories day by day, treatment by treatment, I’d return from the hospital and eat and drink my way through guilt of being sad, through guilt of denial and the guilt of bargaining; if there is a god let her live; she won’t/can’t die; what will I do without her? But she is still there, even in her hairless despair, she is still there, breathing, thinking, hoping and loving.
I had started the process of grief when I first heard her odds on survival and was unable to halt the stages, unable to move swiftly through them. When doctors unconsciously pulled faces of despair and sadness, I tried to be the best daughter, with fight in my belly, encouraging and full of love. Together with my brother, I questioned death sentences and helped force the issue for continued treatment. We were a team for success and life. All the while I would return home each day, sobbing on the drive home and castigate myself at feeling so sad or angry. I’d return to my mother’s home, empty, her dogs looking for her daily, and I’d binge eat and drink whisky to dull the guilt of grief in its many stages. On some days, I’d experience all the parts of grief at once, screaming from the top of my lungs at the edge of the ocean where the Irish Sea meets the Atlantic, trying to expel the pain. In eight months I put on 14 lbs and began to feel even more miserable at the life in my own eyes, hidden under layers of fat.
Was it survivor guilt by proxy? In the light of today, I don’t know but I often wonder how many other carers experience this? How many other carers recognise the process and are able to rationalise the different feelings? I’m happy and relieved to say that when my mother finally lived free of cancer after her transplant, I allowed myself, back at my own home, to finish the grieving process, put aside the guilt and join in the celebrations of a life renewed.