6 Life Lessons Learned from a Devastating Loss
My brother and I lost our mother, our safety-net and sole-surviving parent, to cancer before leaving our teenage years. I, the older brother, was eighteen years old, legally an adult but mentally nowhere near the dictionary definition of adulthood. Our safety net was ripped away from us, and we were forced to carve out a direction in our life more or less on our own.
Even though the process began more than thirty years ago, I remember every moment of the pain like it was yesterday. On multiple occasions, fifteen-year-old me drove my mom to the hospital as she threw up in a bowl alongside me. I navigated traffic as she dealt with her sickness while critiquing my driving ability (after all, she was still mom). I remember standing in a hospital room alongside my brother while a doctor, standing next to my crying mother, explained the implications of her “terminal” disease. I clearly remember knowing beyond a doubt that her trip to hospice would be the last time she saw home. Finally, I remember every iota of time after her passing. I remember sitting alongside her body while a chaplain explained “God’s plan” to me.
Basically, what I am saying is that cancer sucks.
As I make my way through my forties, I am able to think of that experience more holistically. Don’t get me wrong, it was awful and life-altering, and I don’t wish it on anyone else ever, but some lessons that I carry with me today came out of that heart-breaking moment in time.
Each of us is more than we think
We are all greater than the sum of our parts, and when called upon can do things that aren’t readily apparent to us. My brother and I, still kids, were tasked with making funeral arrangements for our mom — including picking out a casket, and keeping it all together in front of her family and friends as everyone said their final goodbye.
These weren’t readily apparent muscles but were discovered out of necessity.
Though we don’t know about it, even when we use it, that extra gear is there for each of us to use.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that it doesn’t require personal trauma for a person to rise to the level of a moment in front of them. There are tons of minuscule instances of the same behavior built into each of our days.
Control the controllable
Experiencing death is an unfortunate reality in each of our lives. No matter how hard you try, you can’t run away from it. The only thing under my control was how I dealt with the situation while moving forward. While I would love to write that I handled it well, and moved forward with grace beyond my years, I would be lying. Instead, I crawled into myself and filled the empty spaces in my life with the wrong stuff.
The value of experience tells me that I tried to take on everything in front of me and became completely overwhelmed. I couldn’t control mom’s passing any more than I could manage the seemingly thousands of outside factors that influenced my life (both for better and worse). Looking back, controlling what I could and asking for help with what I couldn’t would have made things easier.
Today, I try to start with what I can control and work backward. Also, asking for help isn’t nearly the chore it once was. Is it a perfect system, no — but it does make things a little less overwhelming.
You’ll be let down by people that should lift you up
Unfortunately, if you allow people to show you who they are, they often will. The funeral and the weeks that immediately followed were a chance for the wolves to come out. We had a family member we barely spoke to during her life, announcing that they were selling their home and moving in with us. Mom’s close family friend told us that she’d seen mom in a dream and that our mother wanted her to have all of her belongings. Other moments were more diabolical. While publicly celebrating our reverence for mom during her memorial, family members privately wondered why we didn’t just “put her in a box and put her in the ground.” Even our trustees, the very people tasked with keeping our trust, shrunk from their responsibilities and left us to fend for ourselves.
Help will come from unexpected sources
While those in our bloodline decided to take on the role of super-villain over protector, others filled vital functions that our family avoided.
For the most part, people seemed to be separated into two camps when it came to my brother, and I. Camp A felt terrible for us and thought we were screwed, and Camp B just thought we were screwed. Both groups treated us like small children, telling us that they “knew” everything was going to be okay while looking at us in a way that you knew they didn’t believe it was true.
A few of my mom’s friends took a different path. They became counselors, not in a paid-by-the-hour “tell me how that made you feel” way, but in a “how are things” way. It was nice to have people to learn from, even if I wasn’t necessarily ready to listen at that point. It was obvious to me (even then) that they didn’t agree with every decision that I had made, but it was equally apparent that they were rooting for me none the less. The genuine compassion showed by people I had barely known to that point meant a lot.
You can, in fact, choose your family
Our family by-and-large saw us as an opportunity to improve their station instead of circling the wagons and protecting us from the world we knew very little. Neighbors and family friends we barely knew helped us cope with what seemed at the time to be an uncope-able situation. We ate meals from assigned chairs at their table and spent Christmases opening gifts in their home. While we were often by ourselves, we were rarely on our own. These experiences brought a speck of normalcy to my life when anything approaching normal was a commodity.
As each of us has gotten older, life has pulled us in different directions. However, I am forever grateful for the gifts they gave me (both figurative and literal) without a hint of wanting something in return. I honestly don’t know where my life would be without them.
We don’t share a last name, but I consider those people to be my family. No one can tell me otherwise.
The pain doesn’t get better, but everything else does.
I miss my mom every day. She was a very cool lady, and although not around for very long, played a big part in who I am today. I’m saddened that she didn’t get a chance to enjoy the fruits of her labor (again, figuratively and literally).
The pain of her loss is something that I expect to feel for the rest of my life. However, I find incredible joy in just about every other corner.
I’m married to a super-smart, witty, beautiful woman (my soul mate), and we have three super-cool, incredible kids.
After a couple of bumps in the road along the way, my brother and I have a great relationship. We have dealt with things that no one should have to deal with and come out on the other side. I cherish him and his kids and feel blessed to have them in my life.
My in-laws are also a collection of the coolest people on earth. I care deeply about each of them and consider them family — not “like” my family, but my actual family.
Though traumatic on a ridiculous level, my experience has taught me things about life that some people will never learn. I feel loved every day of my life. While it’d be nice to have a little more money in my pocket, I consider myself incredibly lucky. I think mom would be happy with how things have turned out.