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Illustration by Rachel Wada

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My mom is dying. The Stage 4 cancer is going to kill her. Soon. Her looming death sits prominently in my mind with every decision I make. And I want to know the truth.

How do we, then, decide, amidst the potential for raw emotion and significant risk, when we are going to tell someone the truth? With our societal tendency to avoid stumbling through uncomfortable feelings, should we be honest and vulnerable, or should we provide someone with reassurance when there’s little logical place for it?

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My mom will not be okay, and despite the well-meaning intentions of people who tell me that she will be fine, I feel rage deep inside me when I am told this; a rage that I did not know I had the capacity to experience so profoundly. Telling me to focus on the positive when I am watching the active decline of the person I love most in the world makes me feel riddled with anger. Just tell me the truth.

She is terminally ill, and what I need is for people to be with my family in our time of uncertainty. I want someone to acknowledge how difficult this is, rather than to protect me from what I already know to be true. I need unconditional support and love in trying times. I need to be heard and seen. I need a medical expert to tell me – honestly and openly – what her prognosis looks like. I need to make informed decisions, and so, I need to know the truth.

Telling the truth to a student gave me one of the most touching moments in my teaching career.

I was a student teacher in a Grade 1 classroom. Nate was a 6-year-old boy affected by leukemia with a smile that brightened my heart and the spirits of the other children. He was an extremely likeable little boy who made friends easily. His classmates were aware that he was very ill, and with fierce protection, they would shield him from anyone who accidentally coughed in his direction.

Nate had been in the hospital for a while, and as he deteriorated, we received the confirmation that his death was imminent. Despite our collective hopes and prayers that Nate would eventually be okay, it became very clear that he would not survive.

And so, one day, came the question from a little girl in his class. She trusted me and to this day, I am not sure if her classroom teacher knows we had this conversation.

“Ms. Raven, is Nate ever coming back to school?”

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I’ve decided to be honest, because I knew the truth.

“No, honey, he’s not.”

She took a moment to process this answer and then asked the question that made me throw my proverbial teacher’s college manual out the window, and the one I would reflect on as I advanced in my career. The question that reaffirmed the importance of honesty, even when it’s hard.

“Ms. Raven, is Nate going to die?”

I paused, because I knew the truth.

“Yes, honey, he is.”

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And while I expected an outpouring of emotion from a deeply sensitive little girl, I also had no idea what I was going to do if the other adults in her life did not want me divulging this information with such candour. But because someone had told her the truth, she was able to share her sadness, and that these big feelings were welcome and understood. Her next sentence let me know that I had done the right thing.

“I’m going to miss him.”

“Me, too,” I replied.

When we tell the truth, we allow others to be honest with us. The more I am open about my own struggles with anticipatory loss, the more individuals come to me with their own stories of vulnerability, allowing for a sense of community and deep connection. When we share experiences of pain, it helps to erode the loneliness that accompanies such devastating realities.

While my mom has been sick for many years, we knew in August that her prognosis was very poor. I started off my school year like any other eager teacher who loves what she does for a living – decorating my classroom full of bright, motivational posters and deciding that this year, I would work even harder at cultivating kindness, compassion and patience. I smiled through deep pain as I met new families, knowing that my own family life was devastating. I made the decision to keep this horrible news to myself, as I worried that I would not be regarded as the capable and responsible teacher that I knew myself to be. I struggled to make eye contact with the people I cared about at work and kept my conversations to a minimum. I worried that if I told the truth – that my mom was actively dying and that I was struggling to maintain my own self-compassion during such a challenging time – that I would be judged.

About a month later, I made the decision to disclose this heartbreaking life event to my workplace. Interestingly, after this disclosure, many of my colleagues came up to me to discuss their own struggles with loss, family, relationships and life stressors. I had known many of these teachers for 10 years – why were they only now choosing to seek me out? Why was it only after I was honest about my own life, did people feel comfortable sharing with me? Being honest and allowing oneself to be seen gives others permission to do the same.

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Let’s talk. Let’s have honest and real conversations.

My mom will not be okay. She is going to die. And when she does, I will be overwhelmed with indescribable devastation, because grief is a tax paid on love. But it was worth the price.

And that’s the truth.

Joanna Raven lives in Thornhill, Ont.

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