A piece of me went with her
Mom was a residential-school survivor, maybe that's why we had a complex relationship
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On Jan. 28, 2017, I joined a secret club. A club that I did not know existed, but it is a club that each of us will eventually join. Membership is free; yet the emotional and physical costs are astronomically high. In my case, the doors of the secret club swung open and I was forced to walk through the day my mom died.
My path to the secret club was long and complicated with ebbs and flows along the way. My mom's life journey was arduous as she and my dad – both Cree from Manitoba – are residential-school survivors, along with their numerous brothers and sisters. I personally witnessed their trials and tribulations as they embarked on their individual and collective reconciliation journeys.
In many ways, I carried my family's shame, and as they began to heal from their residential-school trauma, I healed along with them. The shame that once hung over us slowly but surely dissipated, but it never truly disappeared. We simply learned how to adapt and cope with it better. Despite the darkness of the residential-school experience, which generations of Indigenous families and communities are so deeply affected by, my parents strove to give me the best possible life. They instilled the importance of family and kinship at a very young age.
And yet, as with every mom and daughter, my relationship with Mom was complex; in part – I believe – because of her residential-school experience. She had a temperament like the Prairie skies – beautiful, brilliant and bright, and thunderous. But Mom was equally determined, wise, thoughtful and loyal to those she loved. Our relationship had moments of severe turbulence but more often than not it was filled with love, laughter and friendship. She taught me so much in life, as she did in death.
Mom read several daily newspapers every morning with her morning Timmies. She would have been so happy and surprised to read this essay, but would also be annoyed it was about her. Moms can be such complicated creatures.
In December, 2016, a single diagnosis forever changed our lives. Mom was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer, which had metastasized to her surrounding organs. The doctor calmly said, "It is cancer and there is nothing I can do. I am sorry." His words ricocheted through my body as if a gun went off. Mom looked at me, warmly smiled and spoke gently: "Well, my girl, it looks like this is it." She handled the news with quiet dignity and steely determination. In that moment, my mom's journey became my journey.
Forty-nine years ago, Mom brought me into this world with love in the maternity ward just two floors down from where she lay. Now, it was my turn to reciprocate that love by helping her leave. The four weeks that followed were exhausting and yet so beautifully intimate: There is a similar vulnerability in birth as in death.
I tried my best to follow my mom's lead by remaining strong and focused. During this time, I cared for, loved and supported her. I also became her voice when she could no longer advocate for herself. The days turned into weeks and the cancer showed no mercy as I helplessly watch the changes occurring in her. If she was scared or worried, Mom never let it show.
The things she once enjoyed doing – watching the Winnipeg Jets ("her boys"), texting family, reading the newspapers or listening to classical music – became less frequent, until one day, they stopped all together. She began to sleep more and more, and our conversations become less and less. Toward the end, we simply held hands and spoke with our eyes. With quiet resolve and on her own terms, Mom slipped away. She was, and continues to be, loved. I miss her so much that I ache all over.
I am familiar with the intense feelings of grief as I have lost close friends, aunties, uncles and grandparents. But when Mom died, it was like a piece of me went with her. I knew Mom's death was approaching and I tried to prepare myself but – honestly – nothing prepares you when a parent dies. Everything changes and the world instantly becomes a different place.
It is difficult to share my grief with others because it is so raw and painful, but when I do find the courage to speak about it, I am constantly surprised and comforted by people's ability to share openly and honestly about their parental loss. The passage of time doesn't always lessen the memory or the emotion when a parent dies, whether it was 50 years ago, 10 years ago or last month. Some people wept quietly while others simply reminisced and shared stories about their moms or dads.
Right now my grief hangs over me like a heavy cloth. I have been told by those more experienced than me that it will take 10 years for some of the pain to subside. I can't even think that far ahead. For now, I can only manage day by day.
Each of us has a unique relationship with our parents when they are alive, but the thread that ties us together is a tremendous loss when they die.
There will always be a secret club, and in that club there will always be members waiting to help us along the way.
Deborah G. Young lives in Ottawa.