Grieving Multiple Losses

Two years and three months…that’s how long it took for my life to go from blissful to black.

As my husband and I excitedly sped down the interstate on our way to the airport for our first trip away from our eight month old daughter (to Mexico) I distinctly remember seeing a billboard for MD Anderson and thinking to myself with actual smugness how it didn’t apply to me. Little did I know it was an ominous foreshadowing of what was about to turn my happy worry free life upside down.

For background… I am the only child to two of the best parents that anyone could ask for and we were an exceptionally close family. My parents were married for 45 years and my mom and I were everything to my dad. Life was great. I married Derek and they loved him like the son they never had. Two years later Derek and I were having our first child, their first grandchild, life was perfect to them. My dad was recently retired, they were traveling, and now they had their precious Emmy. Devastatingly, this blissfully happy family would only last for eight months.

My mom had been having severe back and neck pain for years and she had an appointment for an MRI to see what they could do surgically to provide relief. My dad was worried about keeping our daughter, Emmy, because he knew how much pain my mom was in and feared that she would be scheduled for surgery within in days to provide relief and it would be while we were in Mexico. He asked me not to go on the trip and I was furious. I had this goal of Mexico to motivate me to lose the baby weight I still held onto and it was the first time we were getting away as a couple since having our first baby and I wasn’t going to let my dad, who in my mind was overreacting, ruin my trip. I grimace every time I recall the argument I had with my dad and my pure selfishness. Of course, my mom, who always wanted me to be happy, called her best friend, Sandy, to come and help with Emmy just in case she needed surgery and to help my dad out allowing me to go on my trip.

We were in Mexico for less than 48 hours before my dad called me and said that we had to come immediately that my mom had cancer. What do you mean cancer? Her back hurts she doesn’t have cancer. The MRI showed not a compressed disc as expected, but lesions covering her spine and neck EVERYWHERE. She had a lesion that was growing so rapidly she was experiencing paralysis on her left side due to the compression onto nerves, and she was losing renal function. She couldn’t even sign her name on her hospital admit papers she was declining so rapidly.

The last day before my life would change forever

My mom was officially diagnosed with Multiple Myleoma, a type of blood cancer that while not curable was “treatable” and patients tended to have a life expectancy of ten to fifteen years with the advancement of treatments such as stem cell transplants and immunotherapies. My mom had a stem cell transplant in the Fall of 2016 and was the model patient and was released earlier than anticipated. In February 2017 she needed a bone marrow biopsy to ensure that there were only trace amounts of cancerous cells left and the test revealed not only had she already relapsed, but it was even worse than before. She was sent to MD Anderson (she was previously being treated at Methodist) to see if they had other treatment options available or clinical trials, but their more in depth testing revealed she had the one strain of MM that was untreatable and all we could do is try to get as much time as possible with the strongest chemo (which patients typically can only endure one to two rounds of). On round three she didn’t recover from the treatment. We only got fifteen more months with her after her relapse.

My mom passed away on Mother’s Day, May 13, 2018. I wish I could say it was peaceful, but it was horrific. I watched her screaming and moaning in pain for the entire last month of her life and lose mental lucidity due to decreasing kidney function. During the her last month she was scared and my dad never left her side putting his own health aside because he refused to leave her. He promised all of us he would make his health a priority after her services so that he would be here for me, Emmy, and Derek.

At my mom’s funeral everyone was shocked by the state of my dad’s health. He was so pale and yellow, could barely breathe, and had to sit often as he was so fatigued. As promised the week after her funeral he was admitted to Methodist and tests revealed his heart was only working at 13%. They decided that it was time for an end of life treatment where they performed open heart surgery and implanted an LVAD heart pump to do the work for the heart. This was called a “bridge to transplant” and allowed time for him to be put on the organ donation list to receive a heart transplant. Surgery was scheduled for June 13, 2018 exactly one month after losing my mom.

The last pic of my dad alive-being rolled back to surgery

The surgeons came out to update us on my dad’s surgery and told us it was “textbook perfect” and we would be able to see him at the next set of CVICU visiting hours. My dad wasn’t waking up from anesthesia by the last set of visiting hours at 11pm, but I was assured there was nothing to be worried about and that as soon as he woke they would call me if it was before I returned for the next visiting hours. At 2:15am I received a call asking me to return to the CVICU immediately that my dad had suffered a blood clot to the brain and was in imaging to see the extent of the damage and if it was still possible to stop it from progressing. What this actually meant (stroke) did not register with me as I walked from the Mariott back to Methodist. Upon arrival I was ushered to the “bad news” room that contained chairs and a box of Kleenex. A shaking resident (who stated “this is the part of my job I hate so much”) faced me and my dad’s two sisters telling us that he had suffered a “massive stroke” and it covered the entire left side of his brain. I was in complete shock. There was a 2% chance of stroke during surgery and I had just lost my mom, there was no way this was happening to me. We disconnected all life assisting devices on June 15, 2018 and my dad peacefully went to be with my mom. He simply never woke from anesthesia and one month and two days after losing my mom I now had lost my dad. There I was 33 and an “orphan”.

Before the past year of my life I was never a “strong” person, I was still dependent on my parents and husband more than I ever realized, shamefully so. Three years ago I would have told you I have no idea how I would ever survive losing my mom at any point in my lifetime and if you asked me about losing my mom and my dad a month apart I would have told you there’s absolutely no way I would recover. Six months ago I would have told you there’s no way I would find happiness and peace again and have the desire to enjoy life again.

I am still grieving to this day and have a long journey ahead of me, but unlike six months ago, I believe I will be okay, not just okay, but stronger and better than ever because of it. I feel like my perspective on life has been completely transformed and what I value has shifted dramatically and I’m actually so grateful for my new “insightfulness”. The first time I realized I had to get off the couch I laid on all day for six months and resume some form a normal life for my daughter and husband came from imagining my mom haunting me because I wasn’t being the mother I should be to her precious Emmy. I knew she would be so disappointed in me and I decided I wanted to live a life she would be proud of. I had several transformative moments that came from reading people like Rachel Hollis, BrenĂ© Brown, and Mel Robbins. Writing what resonated with me in a journal in fun colored pens became my obsession and I read it every single day any time I felt myself slipping back into depression. It is always in my big ass purse, or in case of emergency, I have pictures of the most important pages on my phone.

My journey to where I am today is a whole post in itself that I cannot wait to share because it still astounds me. If I can find the courage I’ll even share some pictures of my journal pages.

I will leave you with the two quotes by Rachel Hollis that pulled me out of the darkest time of my life and began my journey into the person I am today. I still have a long way to go, but look where I’ve come from!

“You can survive the loss because living is the greatest honor you can give the [people] you lost.”

“The very fabric of your being will be shaped by this journey because it’s the toughest one you’ve ever taken, surely, but you will become something greater because of it. You have to otherwise what was the point?”

Grievingly yours,

Alex