My mother retired a few years ago. For much of her adult life she was a psychologist specializing in grief and loss, death and dying. She wrote her dissertation on the impact a child’s death has on family dynamics. She used a case study method, doing in-depth interviews with surviving family members of various tragic events that happened. In one case, a house fire killed a child; in another, a baby died of SIDS.
They were heart-wrenching stories, and even as a child I could tell this was “heavy stuff.” Of course I couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of a parent’s love for his/her child until I had my own; but, I realized in reading the transcripts that grief is a multi-faceted emotion. And that loss is a process.
Having my mother work in this somewhat unusual profession was excellent training. I learned at an early age so much about sympathy, empathy, guilt, regret, and the discomfort our society feels about the subject of death. Despite the fact that it is the one thing that unites us all, the one common thread in all our lives, most people just don’t want to explore the subject of death. It makes people uncomfortable, makes them squirm, and almost universally makes people change the subject.
When you have had a death in the family, people don’t know what to say. In fact, it is likely many people won’t bring it up. Often, they worry that they will be reminding you of the tragedy, as if you have forgotten it. Anyone who has experienced a death of a loved one knows this isn’t true. The deceased person is never far from your mind, from your heart. And more often than not, you want to talk about that person. My mother taught me this. She taught me that people will never be upset if you remember and talk about the person they loved; it means their legacy lives on. Everyone wants to be remembered. You honor this desire when you talk about a deceased person.
I have said many times that growing up with my two parents was the best training for my string of illnesses through the years. While cancer has been the most serious, it has by no means been the only medical challenge I’ve had. But having a surgeon for a father and a psychologist for a mother was perfect.
I was able to digest complex medical information. When surgeons told me what needed to be done I could weigh my options methodically. I could weigh options of treatment and ask good questions to determine the best course of action for me. I could read pathology reports with ease. And then I could be insightful into my emotional response, being introspective and analytic
And being insightful and analytic about a life-threatening disease means confronting mortality. Often I hear stories of people dying without a will. In fact, often it’s only once people have children that they feel sufficiently motivated to create a will, because their love for their child (and making plans for a guardian) is the only thing that can make them confront this fear.
Often when I was in the midst of chemotherapy I wanted to have conversations about the “what ifs.”
What if they didn’t get it all.
What if the chemo doesn’t work.
What if the cancer comes back.
What if I get another (worse) kind of cancer from the chemo.
What if I die.
No one really wanted to talk about the last possibility even though it wasn’t outlandish. (Interestingly, people are very intrigued with my recurrence likelihood and mortality statistics… they view the numbers as easier to talk about in the aggregate rather than just discussing my own death).
I viewed talking about my death as responsible. I wanted to make sure Clarke understood that if I died, I wanted him to find another wife. I wanted him to be happy and loved. I wanted our children to have a mother to love them. Unsurprisingly, my greatest worries centered on my children.
I sat with a friend at coffee one day and voiced some of these concerns. With 5 children of her own, my friend is an amazing wife and mother in all respects. At first she was resistant to talk about my death with me. She didn’t want to entertain that notion. But I pressed the issue. And finally she looked me in the eye and said, “If you die, I promise I will watch over your children. I promise I will make sure they have the right person love them and raise them. I promise you that I will make sure that happens.” I think she figured it was the fastest way to shut me up. I think she figured she would agree to anything I was asking just so we could get off the subject. But at some point I think she realized that it was really important to me. I wasn’t going to let it go. And I wasn’t going to be able to get past it until I felt they would be safe and watched over. So she told me what I needed to hear. And I know she meant what she said.
Like a balloon slowly deflating, I felt my body go lax. Finally, I could let it go. She had promised me she would do for me what I wanted. I could trust her, and I could move my worry to something else. She did more for me by making this promise than she will ever know.
Here is one of the things I’ve learned from my mother: When someone you love is talking about death, don’t change the subject. Don’t trivialize their worries. Don’t say, “Let’s not talk about that now.” If they want to talk about it, it means it’s important to them, it’s weighing on them.
Focus on the fact that while we don’t need to sit around thinking about death all the time, there unfortunately might be times in our lives when we might not be able to think of anything else. If you haven’t experienced that, I applaud you. But sooner or later, you or someone you love will.