How to Survive the Agony of Loving Someone Who is Dying

Loving someone who is dying

How to Survive the Agony of Loving Someone Who is Dying

This post is dedicated to my sister Elizabeth who was my strength and, I hope to some degree, I was hers.

There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief.


Exactly one year and one month ago, my mom died of an aggressive brain cancer.

One day she was mom, the next a cancer patient and two months later she was gone.

We used to be family of nine and we grew up in each others’ pockets.

The four of us girls were in one bedroom and the three boys in another right next door.

In this day of House Hunters and house flipping shows, it seems unconceivable that nine people lived in a three bedroom house but we did.

As a result we were close.

When I was younger I used to think about what the future held for us. When would the unthinkable and yet inevitable happen?

When would one of us go beyond the limits of this world never to be heard from again? Who would be first to leave?

It was inconceivable and yet it filled me with fear and despair because I knew some day it would occur. It had to.

And then it did.

My mom lived in a little house with her two dogs. She was a fine quilter and had a room filled to the ceiling with fabrics she had bought and would some day weave into one of her magnificent creations.

As the cancer ravaged her body, her world became smaller.

One day it contained all of us and all her friends and activities.

Later it contained only herself and those who were with her at any given time, then it contained only her internal world and then it was over.

Before that occurred she had to say goodbye to her dogs. Then she said goodbye to her fabrics and the art that gave her life so much meaning.

Finally she gave her wedding ring to my sister.

Each of these actions was more painful than the last.

What does one do while witnessing the last days of someone you love?

How does one make anything better while living in the agonized hell of loving someone who is dying?


The only answer is, one does one’s best.

One goes out to get whatever that person might want to eat knowing that it may be the last pleasure they experience.

One listens and acknowledges without judgement because sometimes mom just needs to talk.

One just sits and listens to the radio while mom sleeps and one stares out the window sightlessly with no thoughts at all.

One arranges things like funerals and the dispensation of mom’s things because they have to go to exactly whom she wants them to.

One closes checking accounts and cancels gym memberships.

One chokes on the ever present lump in one’s throat and leaves the room when the pain gets too overwhelming and the tears have to come.

One cries in the car on the way home day after day but never in front of mom because mom could never stand her child’s pain.

And one waits the tortured, endless wait for the pain of waiting to be over and for the fathomless grief to begin.

One listens to the last breaths, the last sighs and finally the unearthly, unspeakable quiet.

One sends notices to all mom’s friends and neighbors who loved her, there were so many, to let them know she has passed.

One attends the funeral or memorial or whatever mom chose as her final good bye.

One blinks back tears as the pastor reads the sermon. After all, one has gotten good at it by this time.

One listens as mom’s friends get up and tell of the wonderful things she has done, a tiny snapshot in a life full of good deeds and kindness.

The Sermon

A tiny snapshot of a life filled with good deeds and kindness

Afterward one has one’s private meltdown for as long as it takes.

Then one goes through mom’s things, her dishes that somehow look like her, the cup you gave her for Christmas, her favorite chair.

One sifts almost detached through all those things imbued with her character, that look like her, smell like her so much that you expect to see her walk into the room and sit beside you as though nothing ever happened.

One holds grief aside as one methodically goes through every tiny portion of mom’s life and sends them off in different directions and to different destinations.

Then one closes the door of a house, mom’s house, that contained her entire universe that embraced all of us and that has now come to a sad end.

One goes home and confronts the days ahead without mom; without the lynchpin that held us all together, without birthday wishes, Valentine’s Day cards and holiday visits.

One receives catalogues filled with gift ideas and one has to stop oneself as one wonders what to get mom for Christmas this year.

There is no Christmas with mom.

One forgot.

One lets one’s own birthday pass unnoticed because the one person in the whole, wide world who understood just how important it was, is now gone.

And time passes. Little reminders become less frequent but still painful.

Then, one morning a few months or years later, one takes out the cup you got her for Christmas and pours coffee into it. And one thinks of mom.

One sips. And yes there is pain.

But there is love, forgiveness, tenderness and all the things, unmixed with the upsets and misunderstandings, that you wish you had felt for her when she was alive.


Acceptance of how things are

And there is acceptance of how things are.

One remembers mom and what she had tried to do with her life. One remembers the good intentions and not the rebukes or disagreements.

One recalls the times real and honest communication passed between you and the times understanding was reached.

One recalls the warmth of her last hug and the desperation behind her eyes as little by little she left you.

One cries again.

One washes the cup, dries it and puts it away in the cupboard. The cupboard door closes on a tiny remainder of a full and glorious life.

Then one goes out matured by grief, to try and live one’s own.

If you are loving or have loved someone who was dying, please know that I am so, so sorry.

Please know that there is someone, somewhere who knows exactly how you feel and please write me if you want to share your thoughts or even your sadness.

You will get through this.

I promise.

Meanwhile I am here and I understand.

XO Chris

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