My Mom died.
I’ve repeated that sentence in my head a billion times since January 3rd of this year. After spending the better part of 2018 hoping to save her — she is now gone.
This time last year, my Mom was 83 and, by all accounts, spunky and could still pass for a woman 20 years her junior. But things started to change. She was ambiguously fading. There were falls, broken bones, a new diagnosis of diabetes and a sudden lack of appetite and desire to drink. There were hospitalizations and finally, in May, the diagnosis.
My Mother Was Very Sick
My mother had neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer (think Steve Jobs and Aretha Franklin). People with this rare form of cancer can live for years with no clear symptoms and no diagnosis. It’s so insidious that by the time my mom’s diagnosis came, she was already near the end.
Horrible. Devastating. And yet, the months that followed were magical, spiritual and perhaps, the greatest gift I’ve ever received. I am certain my mom, despite the suffering, would say the same. From May to January I watched my beautiful mother disappear and literally lose every, single ability that her body once afforded her. It was gut-wrenching to witness.
But in the despair of seeing my mom suffer — and knowing she would soon leave this earth — I was able to carve out my mission. My job was to usher her out of this world and onto the next. She brought helpless-me into this world and I was going to repay helpless-her with the same love and grace at the end of her life. Yin and yang. The highest honor.
Thanks to an incredible husband, I was able to take a hiatus-of-sorts from the daily mothering of our four kids. Instead, I helped my dad and the home-hospice team, care for and love her.
The year 2018 robbed us of my mom and stole one of the best grandmothers around. It also gave me something rare and precious that I’d never have if my mom did not get sick. It gave me the courage to say anything: To love her without holding back. Nothing went unsaid. And in that, I have no regret, only gratitude for being able to say it all while she was still here to listen.
What to Do to Help a Parent
I have no credentials (other than just walking-the-walk) but here are my tips — should you someday be the adult daughter of a terminally ill mom.
- Tell her daily that she’s not alone. Tell her that her sickness and her illness is yours, too. You are carrying it to lighten her load.
- Hug her and hold her. Be nose to nose. This is how your relationship started so many years ago and it’s your turn to be the one with the strong arms.
- Talk to her. Not as your sick & dying mom, but as the mom you still need and rely on. Tell her about your kids’ daily accomplishments and their failures. She’s still on earth and even if she’s not responding — believe that she hears you. Your mundane, daily musings may help her feel more like herself.
- And, if you believe, pray. Pray a lot. Pray with her, for her and for yourself. Maybe even pray if you don’t believe.
- And of course, listen. My mom lost the ability to speak months before her death — but while she could talk — I tried to savor the sounds. Record her voice. Ask her questions. Take pictures.
- If you can, bring your kids as often as possible. Our 14, 12, 10 and 4-year-old visited my mom frequently and saw her slowly slip away. They were, at times, more brave than I was. I have no idea what the psychological impact will be, but, our hospice social worker insisted that our kids were learning what it really means to be family — and they, likely, will do the same for us when we are old.
- Play the music she played to you when you were young. Play music she loved when SHE was young. Remind her of her own old stories and friends and moments. Get out the photo albums and hold up pictures. And don’t rush. Let her look and remember and reminisce.
- Praise her for the life she lived and the children she raised and the legacy she will leave behind. Tell her how much you appreciate specific things she taught you. And tell her how you have already taught your children those things — and this is how she will live on in them.
- Tell her any regrets you have in your relationship with her. Things you wish you had done differently. Even the dumb things. Say it all. Don’t hold back.
- And at the end…remind her that she prepared you for this. I wailed (often) and told her how much I needed her to STAY and that I was still praying for a complete miracle. After that, I told her that I knew her body and spirit and mind had fought so hard and it was ok for her to go. I wanted her HERE but it was ok to leave. My siblings and I could manage the future. We would take care of Dad and we would go on. I had learned everything from her. I am her. I hold her in my heart and because of that — she will be with our family forever.
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Patti Smith Barrett is a former broadcast journalist who spent nearly 15 years in the business and earned her master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She was part of the FOX News and MSNBC launch teams before jumping on camera as a local reporter and anchor. Patti is co-founder of The Pickup Line Media which launched in late 2017. She and her husband, Dan reside in New Jersey where they are raising their 4 kids who range in age from 5 to 14. (photo credit: Jennifer Lavelle Photography)