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It's never easy saying goodbye to our loved ones, but it can be especially painful when a goodbye is drawn out by illness. This week, the Sugars answer two letters dealing with the guilt and heartache involved in a long goodbye to a parent.
Three years ago, my father was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. When he was diagnosed, I was 25 and in graduate school out of state, 17 hours away. It was hard , but as the years have gone by, I have graduated and fallen in love in my new state. I am in a serious relationship, and I have moved my younger brother out here as well.
My dad says to live my life, and he would rather me stay where I am than move closer to home if it makes me happy. Some days I don't know. I have guilt , the type of guilt where I will be sitting thinking about how I am a terrible daughter, and my father is home with my mother dying without me. He could die a year from now or 10 years from now.
Am I being selfish? How do children cope with this? I feel responsible for my parents even though I know they only want the best for me. Am I a crappy daughter? I took their son away as well! I feel like I have abandoned them, but I don't know what to do. I don't want to move home, but I don't want them to feel like I don't want to be there.
Cheryl Strayed: My mom died of cancer when I was 22 and she was 45. The question for me wasn’t, “Is my mom going to die in a year, or ten years?” I knew my mom was going to die quickly — she died 7 weeks after her diagnosis. The most important thing for you to do in this period of time is just to love the people you love with abandon and truth, because we all could die any time. With a long-term cancer diagnosis, there will come a time when it will be appropriate that she goes to him and maybe stays with him for months. That’s a very different prospect than picking up your life and living in a town near your father just because he might, in 10 years, perish from cancer.
Steve: And then there’s this line, “I took their son as way as well.” This is what happens when we feel guilt because somebody we love is ill. She’s taking on her brother’s decision making. He’s an adult. He decided to move to this state. In a certain way, you have an opportunity — now that you know there’s limited time, talk with your dad about what his life consisted of, what your relationship has been, and what he thinks of what you're making of your life. Try to seize the day. Afterall, I think that’s what parents want.
Robin Romm, author of The Mercy Papers: I don’t regret going home [to be with my mom near the end of her life], though it was not an easy experience, and it did disrupt quite a lot of my life in my 20’s. It disrupted my relationship, my schooling, work, everything. But I remember thinking, a long time from now when I’m much older and my mom is dead, what will I wish that I had done? It became very clear that, for me — and I don’t think this is necessarily true for everybody — the answer was that I would have wanted to be there. But I will say, when I was there, especially in the last few weeks leading up to my mom’s death, there was so much pressure on that time. There’s a lot of fighting. It was just painful beyond painful. It certainly wasn’t fun and it wasn’t necessarily beautiful, but it was really authentic, and I’m grateful to have had those last, messy, authentic moments with my mom. And so, I just think that you have to play it by ear in a way.
Four and a half years ago, my mother died at the age of 83. I loved her and I miss her, but most of my feelings about her are swallowed up by my regret and blame for not spending more time with her during the three and a half weeks she spent at a nursing home before her death.
Nine years before my mother's death, she suffered brain damage and memory loss, which often made her angry, violent, or even obsessive. Through all of this, I was a loving and attentive daughter. I lived in New York, and she lived in Florida, and sure, I could have been there more often, or stayed longer. But I was a presence with her during those years, and I'm okay with that.
The mystery is those last few weeks of her life.
While I was on a trip with my husband, my stepbrother went to visit my mother and stepfather. He told me that mom was starting on hospice care. She was dying, he said. I asked if her death was imminent, and he said no — the people at the nursing home would tell me when it was close. I told myself to stay calm — I was planning to visit the very next week. There was no need to rush out there beforehand.
I did visit that next week, and seeing my mother broke my heart. She was drugged and sluggish. She barely made eye contact. She had no appetite. She perked up when a phone was put near her ear, and she recognized my husband's voice and told him she loved him. I tried to get her to drink water, but the water dribbled out of her mouth.
She wasn't eating. She couldn't drink. She couldn't communicate very much. She was beginning to receive morphine. So why didn't I stay? It was near the end of the year, and I had used up my vacation time at work. I had already planned a trip for three weeks later, right after New Year's, when I would have new vacation time. But why didn't I take a leave of absence? Why did I think that it was okay to leave my dying mother? Why did I do it?
I was tortured all week, and four days after I left Florida, I hopped on a plane to return. As I got on the plane, my stepfather called to say my mother had died, and I arrived to say goodbye to her body.
For the next two years, I became obsessed with my failure to be with her. My obsessiveness woke me up at night. It was a terrible cycle. I got medication and therapy, and to a large degree, got my life back.
But although my anguish is no longer a constant — thank God — now, whenever I travel, I feel guilty, again, that I didn't travel more to see my mom. Whenever I hear of someone who's dying, and I hear how their loved ones are there by their side, I beat myself up again for what I didn't do back then.
I want to forgive myself because I know that beating myself up achieves nothing, and because it greatly distresses those who love me. But I also don't feel that I ought to be forgiven. I feel like I really messed up. I don't understand why I didn't come through for my mother, and I can't forgive myself.
Sugars, what am I missing? How can I allow myself relief when I don't feel that I deserve it?
Cheryl: Can’t Forgive, I understand why you weren’t with you mother when she died — it’s because you didn’t know when she was going to die. You would’ve been there if you thought that she was going to die that day. For years, I was haunted by my own experience with this. My mother was dying. I had been with her in the hospital. I decided to go home one evening to gather some things because I thought we were going to have a several-day vigil by my mother’s deathbed. I went home, spent the night, got my little brother, and we were driving to the hospital the next morning. She died as we were driving to the hospital. I arrived in time — just like Can’t Forgive — to touch her dead body. Why wasn’t I there? Because I didn’t know when my mom was going to die. I didn’t have a crystal ball, and none of us do. We were both really good daughters who loved our mothers in their weakest and hardest moments. The place that I finally reached in forgiving myself for not being there when my mom died, is I just really, deeply felt the truth of that — that I’d loved my mother when it really mattered.
Steve: I interpret the letter slightly differently. My read on it from my own experience with my mom is that it was unbearable for you, Can’t Forgive, to see your mother reduced in the way that she was. You try to give her water, it dribbles out of her mouth, she can’t communicate with you — that is the description of what the very end of life is. People know that they’re going to die, and they don’t eat and they don’t drink and they shut down. It is unbearable to watch because you love that person. Can’t Forgive, I’ll just tell you very forthrightly, I did not want to see that.
I flew across the country with my kids 4 or 5 times in the last year of my mom’s life. We saw the last moments of my mom’s life where she could respond, and I had the choice — do I want to go out and see my mom’s last two or three days of life, knowing that she was not responsive? And I, a good and loving son, decided that I did not want to do that. I wanted to stay with my family and come out to support my dad and the rest of the family after my mother had passed. What I’m trying to tell myself — and maybe I’m rationalizing — is that I was there for my mother as much as I could bear to be, and my presence in the final days was more about me needing something, not her needing something.
Cheryl: The best way to honor our mothers is to become the people they raised us to be — to carry forward into our lives all of the things that they gave us in the form of love and compassion and beauty and generosity and sacrifice. That’s how I’ve ultimately forgiven myself. That’s how I stopped being haunted. And then after her death, what did I do with my grief? What did I do with the beauty that was my mother’s life? I carried her forward with me into all of these years.
Steve: The central thing that parents want for us is to live — not to circle their graves, but to make our own paths.
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