Reflections on A Mother’s Grief, 5 Years Later




I’ve been told that there are stages of grief, and that one must experience and pass through them all to grieve “appropriately” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) and adapt to a new reality. Some of those grieving stages I dodged; some I’ve been in the whole time and where I remain to this day.


Although Bobby died 5 years ago, it dawned on me recently that my grieving process actually began 19 years ago, on the first day of his first cancer diagnosis. This revelation caused me to contemplate the nature of my own grief.


To start with, I skipped right over Stage 1 - Denial – and never looked back, if only because our situation was impossible to deny. Here was my little 5-year-old who had been exhibiting strange and persistent symptoms for weeks, and after endless tests and scans, the resulting cancer diagnosis was, well, undeniable. (That said, I do have frequent, recurring dreams that Bobby is still alive. Perhaps my subconscious is the one in denial. I’m not sure what to make of it.)


Stage 2 – Anger (which should also be called Despair) – I entered immediately and haven’t left since. It often surges into a fury, maybe it simmers as irritation, but it’s never totally gone. I despaired at what this innocent little person was being forced to endure. I was angry that my other three kids’ lives were going to change forever, never to be the same. I’ve been irritated at thoughtless things some people say. I am outraged on behalf of young patients who can’t afford treatment, who are without adequate support, and who have no insurance. I despair about the lives that Bobby and other young people like him have missed, are missing, and will continue to miss. I’m furious that meaningful treatment breakthroughs are so rare. And as his mother, I will always despair at this unanswerable question: Why him when I would have given anything to have it be me?


Perhaps the one stage where I showed up in the traditional sense (in truth, I shamelessly barged right in) was Stage 3 – Bargaining. Bargaining “with whom” was always unclear but the “for what” requests were endless.

If only…

- his next scans are clear…

- his pain could subside…

- he doesn’t relapse…

- he can have a good night’s sleep…

- his new chemo will work…

- he’s healthy enough to go to the birthday party…

- he’s energetic enough to play in his soccer game…

- his white counts are high enough to go on spring break…

- his pain could subside

- he’s strong enough to return to college …

- he can be comfortable…

- his fear will subside…

- he wouldn’t feel so lonely and isolated…

- his pain could PLEASE subside…

…then I will/I won’t/I promise to/I promise not to… whatever it took; I was willing to do anything.


Thankfully I avoided Stage 4 – Depression. But I think that’s just pure luck.


The final, and absurdly named, is Stage 5 – Acceptance. Acceptance connotes agreement or welcoming: accept a gift, accept a job, accept an invitation, accept a marriage proposal. At the very least, I’d rename this stage Resignation. If you resign yourself to something, you’re submitting to the reality of it while not necessarily accepting it. I’ve resigned myself to the reality that Bobby has died, but I will never, ever accept it.


So where does that leave me in my grief?


It turns out that it can't really be described in stages. My grief is like water. (After all, what are tears if not water?) Like water, grief constantly ebbs and flows. It drips. Sometimes it rushes. Often it meanders. Suddenly it crashes. Occasionally it boils over and other times it chills me to the bone. Regularly the floodgates open. At the very least it’s constantly trickling.


I’ve tried – and of course, failed – to dam it up, and there’s no finger big enough to plug its dyke. Reroute it? Maybe temporarily. But water always finds a way to make itself known. As does grief.


I was a terrible chemistry student – and I really do mean terrible. But there are a few things I remember about water. Water is cohesive – it likes to stick to things. My grief has bonded itself to me.


I was a slightly less terrible physics student, and I learned that water always finds its lowest point. Is there anything on earth lower than a grieving mother?


My grief is like water. But the one thing my grief will never do is evaporate.


And THAT I can accept.



By Liz Menges