My husband and I got married 7 years ago this month. At the time, we were homeowners excited to start a family. When my reminder of seven years of wedded bliss popped up, I was struck by the fact that since the day we got married we’ve had two children, taken some unbelievable bucket list trips, had three family cancer diagnosis and lost my grandma and both of my parents. The last one is the most surprising. The last one is the one that brings a lump in my throat. You see, when we got married on October 13, 2012 both my parents were seemingly healthy. They were going to help fix and decorate our house. They were going to rock our babies. They were going to celebrate countless birthdays. They weren’t going to visit us casually and then pass away just days later. That wasn’t part of the plan.
I simply cannot wrap my mind around the fact that both of my parents are gone. Pancreatic cancer took my dad in just 24 days and my mom in just under a year. Pancreatic cancer changed my life forever when the only time I had uttered the word pancreas before was likely in biology class. If you don’t know much about pancreatic cancer, it can be a silent killer like in my dad’s situation. Many people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed at a very late stage because this cancer typically doesn’t show symptoms until the tumor has grown and spread.
But there are those like my mom who have the tumor in the perfect spot to show symptoms early. She was the lucky one. She was able to have surgery and have all the cancer removed…or so we thought. But pancreatic cancer also likes to spread quickly. She was cancer free for a very short time before it spread to her liver. Pancreatic cancer has a five year survival rate of just 9 percent. We thought mom was going to be a different story, but pancreatic cancer is ruthless and she was not one of the lucky 9 percent.
So, here I am having survived two and a half years without either of my parents. What a totally strange and surreal feeling. Some days I think I am doing okay. I laugh a lot. I exercise. I play with my boys. I date my husband. I have coffee with friends. Then it hits me. And boy does it hit hard. Truth be told it takes my breath away. It gives me the sudden sensation that I may actually be sick. It freezes me in the moment and reminds me that although I can enjoy all those “normal” things nothing will ever be exactly the same. Other days it seems the focus of my whole day, of my whole existence. I feel like “Katie, the girl without parents.” I feel like the girl who lost both parents to the same cancer who may certainly be doomed herself. Some days I feel like losing both of my parents completely and totally defines who I am.
Both of those days are just fine. I have had to come to terms with this. It is totally okay (and probably applauded and appreciated by my parents) for me to have days when it is not the forefront of my mind. It is okay and good to move through life and be and do and ENJOY. It is also okay to feel so overwhelming crushed and defined by my reality. It is okay to feel like I can’t take another step and do another thing without getting help from those around me. Both of those authentic feelings are absolutely okay even though I have to remind myself of that.
As a family we have had so many people reach out. Some people just say sorry. Some people send food and flowers. Some people write letters. Some people share stories. Every single response is appreciated.
Here’s what I would say to do when you know someone who is grieving the greatest hardships:
Be present. Be present by sending kind words. Be present by making a phone call or sending a text. Be present by sharing memories. Be present by leaving a meal or sending a gift card. BE PRESENT. To be present does not mean to be there all the time but it does mean to be there a month later and three months later and a year later. Because when the last hymn is sung and the gravestone is engraved and the grass has grown over, life is still very, very hard.
While everyone else has moved on with life, the death and absence is still so real and so harsh. So, my dear friends, if you feel like you don’t have the words to say to a friend or love one who is grieving, I would suggest you probably don’t. No words can possibly bring my mom or dad back. Truthfully, no words make it easier but your presence makes their absence just a tiny bit less painful. Presence, whether physical or through card, email, text or call is a small reminder that although my parents may be gone there are still a lot of people in this world for whom I am thankful to know. There is still a lot of life to live and a lot of love to give.