It was 10 years ago today that I got to go see my grandmother’s grave, several months after she died.
That’s a good example of one of the things I found it so hard to forgive my parents for: they kept her death a secret from me for months after it happened. It wasn’t because I was far away, either. In fact, one of the reasons I initially moved back home was because I wanted to be there when my grandparents died. And in the end, it didn’t even matter that I was there.
That secrecy on the part of my parents extended to so many big things, like the fact that my dad had been married before and had a baby that died. Everyone else in the extended family knew all along, of course, but they were all in on the plan to keep it a secret from me and my sister at my parents’ request.
That informed a huge part of my own parenting decisions, much to my parents’ disapproval. I was not going to lie (even by omission) to my kids, especially about big things. I broke it only once, when I promised my oldest that we’d stay in Michigan until he graduated, but moved back here when he was 16. I get why he was so mad at me, even if we both now agree it was a necessary move. But lying to kids about things like death is really damaging and it’s really hard to forgive.
So needless to say, my relationship with death hasn’t been one in which I learned to cope with it well. My parents’ general M.O. seemed to be that if something was too painful, you just wouldn’t discuss it, therefore not deal with it, either.
The frustrating part is that on the other side of the work I’ve done on myself, I can see that they weren’t doing that to intentionally hurt me. They likely hadn’t dealt with the painful things themselves and probably thought they were protecting me. They encouraged me to take the same approach with my kids, but of course I didn’t because I didn’t agree with it.
I overreacted to my aunt’s death from melanoma, sobbing at her funeral far disproportionately to my relationship with her, which had never been close and was always kind of cold. I just didn’t know how to process death.
Even the gang-violence deaths of the patrons at the inner-city library where I worked seemed to deeply affect me, even though they weren’t people I knew well.
And of course, I completely lost my shit when my favorite cat died way too young a little over a year ago. That was my first experience with the death of someone I deeply loved. It took me months to stop crying whenever I thought about him and about how traumatic it was to watch him die.
So now I’m faced with the biggest and scariest fear of death yet with my husband’s cancer. I kind of had a meltdown about the fact that he couldn’t get his second round of chemo yesterday because his white blood cell count was too low. It stirred up all those fears of loss, all those feelings of not knowing how to cope with death. For a moment, I fell back into bad habits of assuming the worst.
But then I had some time to think and meditate on it some more. I realized that the more enlightened way to look at this is that you can’t live life expecting death. It’s going to happen; you just don’t know when. That’s true for all of us.
Even though I have intuitively known for a long time that he would have cancer (and even this specific type), it still caught me by surprise. I didn’t think it would happen yet. Ever since my MS diagnosis, I fully expected him to outlive me by decades. I am still in shock, like a punch to the gut, that this might not actually be the case.
But I can’t live every day expecting him to die, even if it’s my greatest fear. Whenever that time comes (hopefully decades from now), I don’t want him to be afraid to go because of me. I think he is more at peace with his cancer than I am, and I need to do something about that. I don’t want my fear to be contagious.
What I need to do is step outside my fear. Face it, and know that I can handle whatever comes. Enjoy every day that I have with him without worrying about how many there will be. How lucky I am that I found him at such a young age and that we’ve already had so many years together.
In that, I can’t help but think of my friend who spent many years in an unhappy marriage, just got remarried to a wonderful guy a couple months ago–and then recently found out he has a less treatable form of cancer than what my husband has.
There are truly no guarantees. I could get in a car accident and my husband could still outlive me. I have to be at peace with today, every day, without worrying about tomorrow. I think everyone has to learn that, but this is a hell of a way to do it. Like the universe pushed me off the deep end of spiritual challenges and expected me to figure it out. Once I do, it’s going to be amazing, but until then, it’s absolutely terrifying.
I read some stuff about psychedelics helping people cope with fear of death. Maybe I’ll try that once none of my kids are minors anymore. But I hope I’ll be dealing with it better by then.
I’ve spent the past few years focused on personal growth and I’ve made a lot of progress so far. I’m already dealing with anxiety so much better and less often than I did before.
But all of that growth was precipitated by some sort of pain. It’s hard to grow without pain. I didn’t want another opportunity to practice growth yet; I wanted a period of relative peace and ease. That’s not how it ended up happening, though. And now is not a time to start running away from fear.
I can’t worry about how I’ll survive if my husband passes and I can’t work. That’s the wrong focus. I have to find out what gives my life meaning, in addition to my husband and kids and cats. And I have to trust that the universe will take care of me.
I choose to face the pain that my parents did not. Even if it brings me to my knees, I know I can survive it.