Well. It’s the end of April, and as always at this time of year, my thoughts are with my mom. But instead of talking more about her, I’d like to talk about how our society deals with the issues of dying, death, and grief.
I was in college when my mom was diagnosed with an aggressive strain of breast cancer and later given a terminal diagnosis (meaning this cancer was going to kill her). I was struggling with what was going on, and most of my peers couldn’t really relate to my problems, so I decided I wanted to join a support group. I was on a college campus, so how hard could it be to find one?
There was no support group on campus. There was no support group in the Santa Cruz area. I found a grief support group at a local hospital, but I was only allowed to begin attending once my mom had died. No support was deemed necessary for dealing with the traumas associated with watching someone die slowly, apparently.
Eventually I gave up. I didn’t have a counselor on campus to talk to. I didn’t receive any support. About five months after my mom died, my voice teacher, who was as close to a mentor as I had in college, was berating me for not having it together as much as a fellow student whose mom had also died. As you might imagine, this didn’t exactly do wonders for my morale. Grieving, I learned then, was not acceptable, even though I was functional and doing all the basic things I needed to be doing (going to class, completing my assignments, feeding myself, etc.).
This is all bullshit. When people have loved ones diagnosed with terminal illnesses, they need support during the time before death. That time is just incredibly wretched. Bad news streamed into my life in a steady torrent, and watching my mom suffer while I was completely helpless to do anything about it squeezed my heart in an unforgiving grip. The uncertainty of when hung over everything else, a promise of future misery.
Grief doesn’t have a timeline. Grief doesn’t disappear overnight, or in a month, or in five months, or in years. And grief affects people differently. When someone is dealing with something like this, processes to get support should be made simple, not complex and unclear and obviously involving much jumping through hoops. Instead people have unrealistic expectations and they simply don’t want to talk about it.
Grief takes the time it takes. Sometimes it crashes into your life and all you can do is try to hold on. Other times it creeps in stealthily, quietly, and you wonder what’s wrong with you and why you don’t feel more than you do. Years may pass and suddenly it jumps out at you when you least expect it. And it gets mixed in with all sorts of emotional experiences: fear, anger, relief, shock, numbness, hysteria, throwing yourself into your work, the ache of emptiness, recklessness, hopelessness, a gnawing sensation of searching for something.
There is no way to sugarcoat the truth. Having a loved one diagnosed with a terminal illness really sucks. Losing someone you love really sucks. Being reminded of your own mortality really sucks. And dealing with our society’s stupidity about these things makes it suck even more. After all, everyone dies at some point–why does it have to be a subject shrouded in silence?
And this doesn’t even get into the way our society treats those who are seriously ill and/or dying. Luckily we have people like Jay Lake documenting both the ways our society gets it wrong, and his experiences dealing with cancer.
We can do better.