“Mothering” my dying Mom

Donna Rice
Donna is a serial entrepreneur focused on serving children and families.
Children And Families

Jan 31,2017

I consider this to be role reversal in its worst form…..experiencing the illness and death of my mother.   I share yet another of the most difficult times in my life, with the most heartfelt hope that some part of my experience will help you or someone that you love. I will outline just a few important things to consider in caring for a dying parent and then I will tell what “really happened”. I take this approach not to point out my mistakes or shortcomings, but to emphasize that there is no real right or wrong way. There may be “best” or “better” ways to respond or cope with what is happening, but it does not mean that what I did was “wrong”. You see, I did the best I could and that is something that I do not doubt. 

My mother was diagnosed with cancer at 46 years young. I was the 20 year old middle child of five, with my youngest sibling in his 15th year. I have already lived longer than my mother did, a fact that is incredibly hard to grasp to this day. A fact that was completely unacceptable even following the confirmed diagnosis. Deny, deny, deny…..more about that later.

I always felt that my Mom was brought into this world to be a mother. To be a mother not only to those that she gave birth to, but to anyone that she could love and nurture along the way. And she did it better than anyone else I have witnessed. So you can imagine that it was a dramatic shift from being the daughter of such an incredible Mom to essentially taking on the role of the responsible, doting and loving care giver. AKA, “the new Mom”. 

I remember everything that my “Super Mom” did for us. She was there for us 24/7 for whatever we needed. She was our rock; our foundation. I am certain that most, if not all of you share similar memories. At least I hope. With five children, close in age, there were many demands, even on the easiest of days! And tenfold on the more difficult days when one or more of us may not have been on our best behavior or maybe not in the best of health. I know what she did day in and day out. Never missing a beat. Never giving up. I was filled with huge appreciation and admiration, all the while feeling so fortunate and believing this is the way that you are supposed to “mother” your children. 

In the blink of an eye, this all passed and my mother became ill and I became the “mother”. Along with my father, I was the one taking care of her. Making sure to prepare her favorite food so that she could have some pleasure on the days where she felt well enough to eat. Arranging doctor’s appointments. Accompanying her to every treatment. Always being close enough so that she could reach out and touch me and I her, if we needed to. Sitting on the floor beside her in the bathroom while she was sick. Almost constantly rubbing her hands and feet to keep the circulation flowing and to try to keep her warm. Laying in her bed at night and rubbing her back until she fell asleep. Sound familiar? Most probably things that all of us have done for our children, without hesitation.  I was the mother, mothering my Mommy. A heartbreak and privilege at the same time. I had the absolute best role model. 

So now I share with you what I know are common recommendations and “what really happened”:

Ø Acknowledge what is happening 

My mom knew that she was ill. There was no denying this. She knew pretty soon after her diagnosis that she would not recover. She still fought as hard as she could yet knowing her time would soon come. Acknowledging this can be very important, however, this was extremely difficult. I failed at this step. I was in complete denial. Was it wrong? Not really. But it can be an important part of supporting the one you love. I missed out on some very important conversations….

Ø Create peace

When in denial, there are some critical factors that are not addressed. I was not alone in my denial.  I believe that my siblings and I felt that if we carried on as normal, things would not change and maybe Mom would not die. This sometimes interfered with the peaceful environment that should have been provided for my mom. Seems pretty obvious, but not always so in a house of teens and early twenty’s.

Ø Ask questions and share stories.

This should be a regular occurrence even in times of health, and it is something that I now do with my children. Take the time to share and learn. To this day, 30 years later, I still think of things I wish I had shared or asked. Not the most, but not the least important, there are many of us still trying to recreate her tasty recipes!

Ø Just listen.

My Mom desperately wanted to talk about the things that she would miss. The moments that she had dreamed about since her first born; birthday parties, sweet sixteen’s, proms, university graduations, weddings, grandchildren and so on… I could not listen, it broke my heart…. 

Ø Respect their wishes.

My Mom was tired. She decided that she did not want the most aggressive form of treatment. She believed that it would probably not help and would affect the quality of the time that she had remaining. My 20 year old mind could not understand. Yet we did support her decision and respect most of her wishes. She was adamant not to have an open casket. She wanted to be cremated; a concept that I could not grasp. It tore at my insides yet I knew that we had to honor that wish. In the end, we did have an open casket for all those whom we knew would want to “see” her one last time. Following the service, the cremation took place. It was only after that I understood. I too be cremated. 

I “mothered” my Mom, the best way I knew how…..with HUGE love and respect. Not perfect…..not wrong.

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