Note: This series is an exploration of my own grief in the wake of my mom's cancer diagnosis and ultimate death on June 24, 2013. Skip to the TL;DR section at the end for the takeaways if you're not in the mood for a long read.
Diagnosis, Surgery and the "Code Event"
Here's the timeline: At the end of February 2013, my mom was diagnosed with Stage 4 oral cancer. T4A, N2B, M0 in her soft palate, tongue, lymph nodes and neck. She underwent a beautifully successful surgery at the end of April -- so successful that the doctors projected she wouldn't have to do the full six weeks of radiation they originally thought she would. We celebrated and communicated via text messages and written love notes for nine days.
Then, in the wee hours between April 31 and May 1, a massive blood clot blocked Mom's trachea tube, and as the ICU team worked to restore her breathing, she went without air for 10 minutes. She plunged into a deep coma, from which neurosurgeons advised us she would never emerge. In grief, denial and hope, my dad and I decided to keep Mom on life support for a month, giving her a chance to possibly beat the odds and buying us some time to adjust to the situation and get our affairs in order.
On June 1, after doing some research, we learned that Mom's insurance would cover 24-hour, in-home hospice care. We disconnected Mom's life support and brought her home for her final days. On June 24, she passed peacefully in our living room with our family dog by her side.
Compartmentalization and the Freelancer's Dilemma
Had this happened a year ago, I would have stopped working and taken a huge block of time off. But late last year, I began working with a new client; at the time of Mom's diagnosis, I was in the throes of planning a product launch to kick off at the end of May and run through the end of June.
Although that client was completely understanding and gave me full control over my schedule and time off (as were, mercifully, all my other clients), I knew that realistically I couldn't take a multi-month leave. After all, I was a freelancer, not a full-time employee with paid leave and benefits. And in this particular situation, there wasn't much I could do on a day-to-day basis to influence Mom's healing.
Reeling with anger and confusion, I confided in a surgeon friend who I met through another client. His words of advice, paraphrased here, became a mantra: "Nothing will bring things back to the way they were before. Find your highest self -- that's the only way you'll find peace."
So I did. I traveled back and forth between San Diego and Los Angeles for long weekends to be at my mom's bedside, hold her hand and tell her about my day. I sent voice memos to my dad to play for my mom between visits, telling her how much I loved her, how proud of her I was, and what an amazing mother she's been.
And then during the week, I tried to keep to my usual routine. I joined conference calls, attacked my avalanche of email and coordinated logistics. I went to Pilates classes and happy hour and to the beach. I did my best to laugh and live fully. My dad fully understood my need for normalcy and routine, but many others in our lives didn't.
My mom was the breadwinner of our family, and she was always so proud of my career achievements. I suppose I felt that I had to continue pushing to excel even during this period of crisis so we would all have something to root for. I don't regret how I coped, and frankly, I'm proud of the strength I channeled.
In the next segment, I'll break out exactly how I dealt with the ebb and flow of my attention span, emotions and focus.
- Don't listen to others' advice about how you're supposed to grieve if it doesn't feel right; only you can determine what's right for you.
- If you're a creature of habit and routine, try to find elements of your old routine during periods of chaos.
- Do things that make you proud of yourself. It's amazing what you can achieve when pushed to the emotional and physical brink.