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Anticipatory Grief: Coping With a Parent Dying of Cancer


Layne lost her father to cancer in her mid-20s. She hopes to help others navigate their experience with loss.

Losing a parent is something we will likely all face at some point in our life.

Losing a parent is something we will likely all face at some point in our life.

Was Your Mom or Dad Diagnosed With Terminal Cancer?

When I was in my mid-20s, life was pretty good. I was traveling a lot and was about to start a technical school program which I was very much looking forward to. I remember coming home from a 10-day trip to my parents' home and seeing not just my mom and dad there, but my sister, too. I thought that was odd. That's when they told me that my dad had visited a doctor for his reoccurring cough and that they saw something in the images.

"What do you mean they 'saw' something?" I asked.

That's when I found out that my dad had been diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Despite excellent medical care, he later passed a year later in 2015. He was my teacher and the person I looked up to most.

The whole entire year was horrible. I have no other way to describe it. Having been through all of it, however, I hope to offer some advice to help others who are faced with such a difficult life experience in front of them. I hope I can help you to keep going and take care of yourself and celebrate the life of your loved one while they are with you. You will be okay, but it will forever change you.

Stigmatizing Cancer and Terminal Illness

Forget what you see in the movies—you are not expected to cry, mourn, divulge all of your regrets, stop your life in its tracks, or quit drinking like you had always promised. It's great if you can make peace with some heavy aspects of your life and forgive, forget, or repair fractured relationships, but honestly, there's no right or wrong way to experience your new normal.

1. There's No Right or Wrong Way to Grieve

I remember I texted two of my closest friends and cried into my pillow almost hysterically the night I found out about my dad. The diagnosis didn't even really soak in, I just remember my pillow being sopping wet. As for the first week or so, I felt the distractedness of my thoughts as I tried to enter school again. I was functioning as normal and you can imagine people were surprised by this. Don't think twice—some people are uncomfortable with the news and may expect you to be morose. Let yourself be you. The emotions will come when they have to. Don't be how others expect you to be—just do you.

2. Find a Good Counselor

The very best thing I did for myself was enter counseling right away. If you have it available to you, find a good counselor (even one who specializes in grief and terminal illness). You need an outlet separate from your family members, your spouse, your best friend, where you can be brutally raw and share thoughts and feelings you may not feel comfortable discussing within your normal circle.

Don't give up on being positive.

Don't give up on being positive.

3. Don't Give Up on Being Positive

When my dad first got sick I remember bringing food to him 24/7. He was always the chef of the family. Before he started showing symptoms of illness I would still show up offering him his favorites. As his cancer progressed, he started to complain about not being able to taste flavors. He eventually, too, lost interest in cooking. This was horribly devastating. At some point, I stopped offering him food because it was very painful to see him turn food down.

My advice here is to continue to support the best way you can. Even if this means they have a new favorite popsicle or can only do liquids for the time-being, embrace the task as you would with the same excitement. Don't let the sadness bring you down so much that you give up. I did, and that's one thing I can say I regret.

4. No Self-Judgement

One thing I couldn't bear to see was my dad's weight dropping and the side effects of the chemotherapy. No one wants to see a loved one or ANYONE for that matter go through chemotherapy and endure the horrible side effects it can cause. Terminal illness is unique in that you are living knowing someone is going to pass—it's inarguable. Miracles with stage IV inoperable esophageal cancer are unheard of from what I'm aware of.

It's important to know that you will experience a wide range of emotions. Everything from simply wishing they weren't suffering anymore to being angry at the most ridiculous things. Don't judge! Your thoughts are your own and they are happening for a reason. Learn some self-acceptance. You are allowed to experience the highs and lows. In fact, it's better to let your mind be free than to shape it into what you think it should be and feel guilty.

5. Offer Support—Your Way

I had an interesting relationship with my Dad. I was super busy in school, not wanting to let him down, but feeling guilty too about not spending time at home. I offered him support in the littlest of ways.

I often had dreams of him and many of them were of him swimming in the ocean, much like when he was younger, in his 20s, and vibrant. I used to write up these dreams and email them to him from class just to share. I think it meant a lot to him and it surely meant a lot to me.

Let your struggles go and clear the air if you feel the need to.

Let your struggles go and clear the air if you feel the need to.

6. Confront Your Demons

If you can muster up the strength to deal with unresolved issues, now is the time but it also doesn't have to be the time. Remember, there are no rules here. I am terribly afraid of singing in public. I just don't do it. My dad had always said he wanted to hear me sing and thought I had a good voice. I thought he was crazy!

I remember about two weeks before he passed he was in bed at home. He wasn't getting out of bed at this point and was slipping in and out of consciousness daily. I finally decided to sit by his bedside and sing to him. I don't know how conscious he was for it, but it felt good to finally show that vulnerable side of me. You will never get another chance to do that "something" so don't spend your life thinking about how you could've.

7. Don't Abuse Substances

I like beer during the holidays. When my dad first got diagnosed I used to go with my sister to a German pub, grab a beer, and talk about our problems. While it is very therapeutic to talk, I want to caution you against drowning out your sorrows in substances—booze, food, pills, you name it. Keep yourself in check.

You're in a vulnerable space and can so much more easily lose control. Don't mess up your health, your body, or your life overindulging. If you're an emotional eater like me, keep that in check and make sure you're eating for nourishment and not to stuff up your emotions. Trust me, 15 pounds later you will likely regret it. It will do nothing to make you feel better when you are mourning the loss of your parent.

8. Don't Give Up on Self-Care

As mentioned before, if you are an emotional eater, watch yourself. If you regularly exercise and lost interest to run every day, find your motivation. It's hard to see the surviving family members after a death looking like they've just been to hell and back—it happens if you don't take care of yourself! Care for yourself! It's what your parent would want! Get sleep, eat well, exercise. Don't make yourself suffer.

Ask the hard questions while your parent is still well.

Ask the hard questions while your parent is still well.

9. Talk About Legal Issues (Wills, etc.)

No one wants to talk about wills, business, belongings, etc., but you need to have that difficult talk with your family members and make sure all the legalities are in line and everyone agrees. Talk to a lawyer if you need to. Money is a messy subject that tear apart even the tightest of families. You should have the hard conversations with your sick family member while they are still mentally present. Fufill their wishes. Once chemo and disease starts to take its toll, don't burden them with the heavy questions.

10. Discuss End-of-Life Plans

We were lucky enough to know that my dad wanted to be cremated. He had mentioned scattering his ashes in his three favorite places and we were able to fulfill that for him—the ocean/coast he grew up near as a child, his favorite river, and his favorite park. Knowing how your loved one would like to be celebrated after they pass is extremely important. Perhaps they want a traditional burial, would like to be cremated, would like to be aquamated, or have some other preference—it's a difficult conversation but one worth having.

11. Experience the 5 Stages of Grief

You've surely heard it—the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I am clearly in the acceptance phase, though sometimes I experience depression when I revisit things in my mind. There's no linearity to grieving! There's no time frame or order to it. Whatever you experience, ride it out and feel it to the max. Let yourself get angry (without causing harm), let yourself feel deep sadness, let yourself bargain. You have to do this or else the emotions will come back to haunt you later.

Experience the stages of grief, don't suppress the feeling.

Experience the stages of grief, don't suppress the feeling.

12. Make Time for Yourself to Be Alone

Make sure you get away from time-to-time. Surely there will be many visitors coming in and out of the house, many people resurfacing to say their goodbyes, many relatives coming by to check on you, many doctors, nurses, etc. Make some time for you. Get away from it all and collect yourself. Go for a hike, go float in a pool or a tub—you need to be alone so you can process your emotions without the chatter.

13. Don't Punish Yourself or Feel Guilty

Don't deprive yourself of joy because you feel guilty that your parent is not enjoying the moment with you. I often felt like I wasn't allowed to go out with friends, go to parties, and do the usual because my dad was at home sick. This is a terrible, vicious thought process to get stuck in. Put yourself in your parents' shoes—would you want your family member to isolate themselves and deprive themselves of joy because you are unwell? Likely not. Don't stop enjoying the moment.

14. Embrace Your Spirituality

Whether you are religious, spiritual, agnostic, or atheist, there is something to connect to within for everyone. You can be atheist and take the time to meditate and connect with the natural world around you. You can be religious and attend prayer groups and pray for your family member.

I found that holding a rose quartz crystal in my hand brought me great comfort. Rose quartz is a stone of love and heals the heart. I obtained this rose quartz crystal on Amazon and carried it whenever I started to feel overwhelmed by emotion—hence the term, worry stone. Find what works for you.

15. Moving Forward Doesn't Mean Forgetting

When the inevitable happens and you are faced with losing your parent and they pass, understand that this is the new normal. You don't have to move on at any pace. On the flip side, you don't have to not move on at any pace. Moving forward doesn't mean forgetting. Be sure to honor your parents' memory in every authentic way possible.

I made a habit out of "experiencing" the memory of my dad while traveling. As mentioned my dad loved food, so whenever I travel, I try everything and anything out of the norm and think of how much he would enjoy being in the moment with me now. Sometimes, I even feel him there with me energetically.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Laynie H

Wishing you the best through this journey.

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on January 23, 2019:

Thank you so much Janis. That means a lot to me. I like how you mention the acceptance phase—it's definitely a space of being forever changed but where the pain hurts less and the memories become most precious. I hope that for whatever reason you wound up on this article that it suited your needs or those of others. Take care.

Janis Leslie Evans from Washington, DC on January 23, 2019:

Heartfelt, practical, comprehensive and well-written. This article will help so many who are suffering and unable to move into the acceptance phase of grief as you have done. It's such an individual process. But you have offered some basic advice that can make a difference to the mourner. Thank you for sharing a most difficult chapter in your life with the hopes of helping others. Well-done and appreciated.

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on November 13, 2018:

You are so right about that. It is hard to think you will ever feel differently in the moment but life keeps pushing and we cannot control change, we can only adapt in a healthy manner. I think that's what our loved ones would want for us. Sorry for your loss.

Cecil Kenmill from Osaka, Japan on November 12, 2018:

Great work! My mom died of ovarian cancer in 2005. It was tough but things will get better.

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