University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, United States
My mom, Tracey, died just over nine years ago at the age of 39. I had just turned 16. Diagnosed with glioblastoma in July 2001, my mother’s last six months were filled with surgeries, infections, and radiation treatments. She rapidly declined in strength, followed by confusion and death. Since then, when given an opportunity to discuss her death, I tended to keep silent. I began to ask myself, why am I uncomfortable discussing my mom's death? I could not come up with an answer.
The answer came when my Death and Dying course professor arranged for four people to share their personal stories of loss with us. The visitors' losses ranged from the tragic death of a young sibling to the expected death of an older parent. All of them described their experiences in the hospital, their own and other family members' reactions to the death, and what came next. Despite recalling and relating the details of their losses, none of the visitors broke down during their recollections; their voices did not even waver. I knew that if I were to speak about how my mother died to my class in as much detail as our visitors did, I probably would not have been able to maintain my composure.
That is not to say I never talk about my mom. But when I do tell people about what happened to her, I do not usually describe details. In fact, I do not remember many of the details. I remember a few specific events, but I would not be able to comment on the care my mom received while in the hospital, my brother’s and dad’s reactions, those last days before her death, or what came after. Why, then, were our class visitors able to remember and relate so many details about the deaths of their loved ones?
As I searched for a commonality among their stories, I realized that they all mentioned using some method to cope soon after their loss. Some attended grief groups, and some kept journals. I did neither. Finding a way to work through my grief never occurred to me. I imagine that the hospice nurses discussed healthy ways of grieving with my dad. Maybe he forgot what the nurses told him, or maybe he thought we could cope without outside help. Maybe nobody advised my dad about anything. Nevertheless, if I had talked or written about my feelings soon after my mom died, it might not be as difficult for me to discuss her illness and death now. I may even have remembered them better.
I am writing about my mom's death now, though, and that is a good start. I have also started talking with my dad, John, about how Mom died. Fortunately, he and I are great friends. I will call him to figure out how to fix the thermostat, and 20 minutes later we will find ourselves gossiping. But when we talk about Mom, I notice that he remembers only a little more than I do. He has mentioned that the nurses provided much needed support while my mom was in the hospital, but he does not recall specifics. He does remember Marge, one of the home care nurses. She was there when my mom died. I don't know why my dad remembers her, but she had enough impact to stick in his mind after all these years.
My brother Johnny is my only sibling. Though five years apart, Johnny taught me how to pitch a baseball, how to snorkel, and how to take a derivative in calculus. We did everything together: umpired baseball games, bowled on the same team, rode home from school, and more. On the day of our mom's funeral, we even read his prepared speech together. He was having trouble getting through it, so I tried to help. We managed to finish the speech, mixing the words with our tears.
Since then, Johnny and I have not discussed our mom's death. I am not sure why. We must have different perspectives about what happened. I was a sophomore in high school, and he had transferred from Florida Atlantic University to the University of Michigan for his junior year in order to be with our mom. I was surrounded with friends while he had left his, including his future wife, for a year. What did he think of all that? I realize now that I need to find out.
Unfortunately, my husband Lars never got to meet my mom. Lars and I met about eight months after my mom died. The better I got to know him, the more I told him about what happened to her, but it still was not that much. Here is what I did tell him: I told him about my mom's life. I told him that she was the most enthusiastic and encouraging fan at my sports events. I told him how she cared for dozens of stray cats that otherwise would have had to scavenge for food. I told him how she would scour the beach on a golf cart collecting baseballs I had hit. I told him how patient, kind, generous, and funny she was. And now, as we consider the possibility of having kids, I tell him how she raised Johnny and me and how I hope to at least come close to the caliber of the mother she was.
I was not aware that I had forgotten so many details or that I would have such a hard time discussing my mother’s death in a course on Death and Dying. But as a result, I have started talking to close family members about the event. Even writing this has been therapeutic. Now, when I'm caring for sick and dying patients and their families, I remember the home nurse Marge and the impact she had on my dad. As a nurse, I will understand how to help my patients and their families work through their grief in a healthy way.
Reflecting upon my mother's death has reinforced the importance of her life. I will continue remembering and talking about her life. And, as I live out the rest of my years, I will strive to embody my mom’s patience, kindness, generosity, and good humor.
KRISTEN ERICKSON received her BS in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2008. She began working as a home health aide later that year and decided to pursue a career in health care. She will graduate from the University of Illinois College of Nursing with a BSN in May 2011.
Read the introduction and accompanying essay in this issue:
Desert blooms an introduction by Geraldine Gorman RN, PhD
Letters to dad by Erin Brady