I was very good at hiding my pain, and without someone to share it with, my traumatic grief would have destroyed me.
©Maffy.MassimoMeloni / Adobe Stock
What happens when your parent dies of cancer? For each of us grief is a unique experience. After my parents’ deaths from cancer, I read somewhere about grief being compared to fingerprints – they kind of all look similar from afar, but no two are actually the same.
I lost both of my parents to cancer five years apart and went through a different grieving process for each of them. My dad died of liver cancer in an excellent hospital, with loved ones all around, when I was 15. He remained calm and steadfast from the start of his battle with the disease up to his last breaths. While I still get sudden bouts of loneliness and longing, I can say with confidence that I am at peace with his death.
We were under entirely different set of circumstances when my mom died. She got sick during the hardest period of our lives when we had almost nothing. We were incredibly poor. We couldn’t afford treatment, and she was left under the care of her relatives and me – a then naive 20-year-old who knew very little about life or death.
When you are a caregiver to a loved one with a terminal illness, you do not just witness their suffering, you also suffer with them. My stint as my mom’s caregiver during the last stages of her nasopharyngeal cancer proved to be too much for my brain to handle. While I recognize that these final moments were very precious times, they left deep scars that will probably never fully heal.
I was a mess after my mom died and for the longest time did not understand why. I had shrugged it off as a typical reaction to grief. I had just lost my mom and was going through some significant life changes. At 20 years old, I had lost both parents to cancer. Of course, I would feel lost and depressed. Who wouldn’t?
What happens when your parent dies of cancer?
Inside me, I felt a deep ache and sorrow. I became distant to people around me, particularly my older brother Charles, who was as avoidant of the problem as I was. He was barely there during my mom’s last months because he was still studying in the seminary at the time. Although my brother and I seemed fine on the surface, we had a lot of repressed baggage (well, I did) which eventually came to the surface.
One unfortunate side effect of not talking about problems is sudden outbursts of resentment. A couple of years after my mom died, I had visited my brother in his home with his family. I used to live with them, but I had already moved to my own place. During what should have been a catch-up conversation, I somehow managed to rudely imply that my brother had made wrong decisions all his life.
“I drove by our old place today and took a quick glimpse of our home.” I started, sharing how happy I was to see our childhood home, which we lost to the bank after my dad died.
“Oh, that’s nice.” My brother was visibly glad. He must have been feeling nostalgic too.
“I wanted to go there in my new car, sort of to tell mom and dad that I’m doing better now.”
The thought of my journey made me start tearing up, and I was quickly becoming more emotional. “It was really hard on me…”
“What about you though?” I continued. “Do you miss her? Have regrets? I mean you couldn’t be with us because you had to be inside the seminary, but you ended up marrying after mom died anyway. It’s like you missed it for nothing.”
Oops. That didn’t come out right.
A quick glance at my brother and I knew my unexpected outburst hurt him. And I said this in front of his family too. He just nodded and gave a half smile. His wife was silent. I did not mean to disrespect them, but apparently, I had feelings of abandonment, and in my state of heightened emotions, my filters failed.
That night was cut shorter than I had planned, thanks to my awkward emotional outburst. They were gracious hosts and thankfully, let my blunder slip. We ended the night with smiles and hugs, but I felt a little bit of shame.
My parents’ deaths from cancer didn’t get easier with time
The longer I tried to cover up these feelings, the harder it was for me to move on. Then, one day, I finally started to acknowledge it – there was something wrong with me. This was not like the kind of grief I experienced with my dad. There was something that was preventing me from facing my pain – it was trauma.
Years after my mom passed away, I started feeling the aftermath of being her caregiver. I had triggers that would take me back to that dark little corner where I had to endure so much of our pain. My main trigger was oatmeal, which was what I fed my mom for breakfast daily while she was on her deathbed.
I know, it’s weird. Oatmeal is perfectly safe (not to mention healthy) food. In my eyes, it was a horrible, filthy thing that sucked me back to a past I wanted to forget. My broken soul associated oatmeal with cancer, bed sores, falling hair, yellowing skin, bony fingers, and so much pain. It was death in a cup. I was so scared of oatmeal that my body would physically react whenever I was around someone eating it. I would be uncomfortable and nauseous, with a knotted stomach and a chilling sensation was going up my spine. Sometimes, I would have to shake my body to get rid of the feeling. So I avoided it at all costs. For years, I did not eat oatmeal and did not want to be around anyone eating oatmeal.
What happens when your parent dies of cancer? You need to confronting your own inner trauma.
But I couldn’t live with this secret forever. It was preventing me from healing and living a full life. I needed to face it, and I knew I couldn’t do it alone. So I turned to someone who I knew would listen to my pains without judgment – my boyfriend.
It was extremely hard for someone like me to be sharing my fears, but this became the first step for my healing. There wasn’t really an exact moment where we had a “we have to talk” or “I need to tell you something important” discussion. It did not happen like that. Our talk therapy happened more organically. Bit by bit, I started sharing stories and memories from that time with my mom. It began with pleasant memories, and when I became more comfortable, I shared the grim parts.
My boyfriend Arbie did the best thing he could have done – listen. He provided me with a safe space where I could pour my heart out, and I did. People who are wounded by trauma often either lash out or hide. I was very good at hiding my pain, and without someone to share it with, my traumatic grief would have destroyed me. Having a supportive loved one helped me gain the confidence I needed to deal with my issues finally.
It took years of slow but progressive talking, usually over coffee or dinner, for me to accept my truth. I realized that my traumatic experience from my parents’ deaths is something I can’t change, but it is also an essential part of my story. There were countless tears, nightmares, and that familiar ache that I had to revisit. But after each time, I always felt better.
One morning, as my boyfriend and I were shuffling around our small rented condo unit, doing our own morning routines, he did a double take while I was having breakfast at the table. He gave me a smile – small but filled with pride.
“Hey, you’re eating oatmeal,” he said
I looked down at my half-full cup of oatmeal and realized what the moment meant.
“I am,” I smiled back.
I was gonna be fine.
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