My children’s mother is dying. Well, not officially. She doesn’t have a terminal disease that they know of. What she does have, and what seems to be the root cause of everything wrong, is uncontrolled diabetes.
We were married for over 18 years. She had health issues from the time we met. None were serious or life threatening, until she developed type 1 diabetes few years into the marriage.
She was never very good at taking care of her diabetes, despite my efforts to encourage and help her. They only times she was good at taking care of herself was when she was pregnant with our children. Both pregnancies were difficult with many stays in the hospital, but we have two healthy kids, in large part to her being diligent in taking care of her health. The rest of the time, she didn’t take care of herself.
My daughter, O, is 16. I’ve probably mentioned before that she is very mature for her age. She is very much aware of her mother’s state of health and understands the implications: her mother will most likely die in the next few years.
She tries to be stoic and often says that it isn’t fair that she should lose her mother so young. She has also started to express the anger she has at her mother for not taking care of herself. These are good signs and show that she isn’t in denial about what is happening to her mother. Still, I can see the panic behind her eyes. I can hear the little girl crying for her mommy, one that can’t take care of her any more. One that, sadly, she must take care of instead.
As a parent I have made it a point never to sugar coat life for my kids. I’m certainly no alarmist, but a realist. I have tried hard to teach my kids that they need to see the world as it really is and deal with what they find, head on, and as clear headed as possible. I seem to be succeeding in this with my daughter.
My daughter is under no illusions about her mom’s health and her prospects. When she comes home and tells me of another aliment, another trip to the hospital, I don’t tell her not to worry; I don’t tell her that everything is going to be alright. I listen to her express her feelings, her anger, her fear. Then I tell her that I know it isn’t easy, that she is handling things as well as she can. Most importantly, I tell her that I love her.
There are no entreaties to God, no hands joined in prayer, no false hopes or promises that things will work out for the best. There is no attempt to put a positive face on the issue because the reality is that there is nothing positive about it. Her mother is dying and it is terrible, and it is frustrating, and it is frightening to think of what is inevitably coming.
But, there is also no despair, no feelings of hopelessness, no existential anguish. Just anger, frustration, sadness. These are things we, her and I, together, can deal with. And we do. We deal with it by looking at the reality of the situation and talking about her anger and sadness and fear. We see the hard, terrible truth and I support her as she faces it, unflinchingly, if terrified.
I know that she is preparing herself for the expected loss. All I can do is hold her hand and tell her that I love her. When she tells me that she has accepted that her mother doesn’t have much time left, I tell her that I am proud of her for facing the truth, but I also warn her that no matter how prepared she tries to make herself be, when the time comes, she will be broken into pieces.
I know because I watched a similar thing happen to my father and no amount of mental preparation could mitigate the unbearable heartbreak and finality of lose that I felt when he was gone. I don’t tell her this, but she’s heard me talk about it before when she was younger and used to ask about her grandfather who she never got to meet.
So I tell her that, yes, she will fall apart. Yes, she will be inconsolable and it will feel like it will never end. But I also tell her that the pain of loss, while never going away, will fade with time until only the good memories are left.
I want her to understand that death is not something to be feared, something taboo and never to be talked about. Yes, she is young, too young to lose a mother, but nothing anyone can do can change that. Perhaps her mother will start taking care of herself and a few years will stretch into a decade, but I would never try to give her hope for something that, given her mother’s denial of her condition, is unlikely to happen.
I have given my daughter one of the most important tools she will ever have: the ability to see the world with clear eyes and a mind that doesn’t try to paint a prettier picture than the stark reality that life can show us. I have also given her a gift of self-confidence and sense of self that she says empowers her to, as she likes to say, do whatever and be whatever, she decides she wants to be.
These two things, staring unflinchingly into the harsh light of day, and a strong sense of herself and her abilities, along with the love and support of me and her stepmother and stepbrother, will help her get through something that no teenager should have to deal with it as best as anyone possibly can.
Featured image by sridgway