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Weeks to Months – Keeping Space to Grieve

by Renee Downing, E-RYT 500, YACEP

I moved back to my hometown, Delavan, in March 2015. I had several reasons for doing so- one of them to open a yoga studio- but since then I have come to realize there was really only one reason I wanted to live here again: Mom.

We were really close growing up. She loved me unconditionally despite the torment I put her and my father through as a teenager. She never told me what I should be when I grow up. She supported what I wanted to do and encouraged my talents, no matter how far from what she had imagined they would be. All she wanted was for her children to be happy.

She was so strong when I moved across the country at age 18 that I had no idea she cried nightly and even kept a journal about the two weeks I spent hauling my belongings to California. She was my rock, but the pull to get out of the Midwest and make something of my life was too strong to ignore back then. I visited every year, usually during the holidays, and my family came out to visit me often. Mom and I would talk on the phone regularly. I can’t count how many nights I cried into her ear about dumb little growing pains.

When Beppe (grandma in Dutch) passed away in 2014, the thought of my own parents’ mortality was like a slap in the face. By then I had been living in SoCal for 16 years. I had friends, a career, a husband, a house and a dog named Charlie. Up until that point I had been managing fine with the distance between my family. But I started noticing the strong bonds my friends had with their mothers in the area and I couldn’t handle the thought of missing out on any more face to face time with Mom.

Fortunately, my husband, Jeremy, put up very little resistance to uprooting our lives and moving from a highly populated, always warm region of the country to the middle of nowhere, where he would have to face what he calls “6 months of winter” every year. We sold our condo, packed up everything we owned, and once again I was on the road across the country to make up for lost time with Mom.

I had already been teaching yoga for 5 years at that point, and Mom was eager to be my first student in Delavan. I guided her through asana in my parents’ basement and discussed yoga philosophy for months while we worked on opening the yoga studio. She was by my side from day one. She was there at the grand opening, helping me sign people up for classes and entertaining all the people who showed up with her incredibly warm personality. She filed the legal paperwork, and when all the hats I had to wear got too heavy, she took over as bookkeeper. When the business got too busy for me to handle on my own, she took on a front desk shift to work the cash register and get people checked in so I could just focus on teaching.

Many Sundays, Jeremy and I would gather at my parents’ house for dinner, along with my brother. Charlie and my brother’s dog would chase each other around the house and make my parents laugh. Mom would listen intently as I caught her up on the business, which was pretty much my life at that point. She would help me figure out solutions to the issues I had never faced before running a business. She would hold Charlie, who she called her grand dog, in her lap and cuddle with him while we all just hung out as a family.

We were doing it. We were making up for lost time.  

When I was ready to teach my first teacher training course, Mom was eager to participate. She was nervous but she just wanted to spend as much time as she could with her daughter. She struggled with some of the teachings but I knew she was going to make a great teacher. One day, a little more than halfway through the training, she told me she had a dream that she taught a gentle class and felt ready to do it in real life when she woke up.

Then everything changed.

Dad called me one day and wanted me to come over because Mom had been acting strange for a few weeks. I sat with my tough-as-nails father outside and he was so worried he had tears in his eyes. He said she had been complaining of headaches and forgetting things. She was irritable and confused. It takes a lot for someone like Mom to get irritable, especially with my father, who was her high school sweetheart 50 years prior. The two of them were as in love after 43 years of marriage as they were when they were kids. But I chalked it up to side effects of the anesthesia or the pain killers the doctors had her on after a recent shoulder surgery. Sometimes I wish I had been more concerned back then.

Not long after that day sitting outside with my worried father, I was getting ready to teach when I got a text from Dad. He wanted to let me know Mom was acting strange again but insisted on being dropped off at the studio for her front desk shift. Yoga Hohm was in its original location at the time and I could see the front door from the giant windows in the classroom. I saw Mom coming in for her shift. She was walking very slowly, and Dad was guiding her with his arm around her. It is important to understand that my mother was normally full of light and energy. She was only 65 and in decent health. She was independent, intelligent, and a quick thinker. But the woman I saw walking through the door was none of those things.

When class got out, I opened the classroom door to see Mom sitting at the desk staring at the computer. She couldn’t figure out how to log in, a simple task she had done a hundred times before. She could barely form a sentence. Again, I assumed it was a side effect from the surgery and I took over for her while she set up her things in the classroom for the gentle class she always participated in after her shift.

Reality hit me in that class. She couldn’t even figure out how to step a foot forward into a lunge like she had done with ease so many times before. The confused look on her face told me she just couldn’t make the connection between her brain and her body. At one point in the class I moved everyone over to the wall just so I could have her lie down until class was over because she had absolutely no motor skills. I knew then that she was not ok and I texted Dad while class was in savasana, “Dad, I’m bringing Mom to the ER after class. She is not ok.” Dad quickly responded that he would meet us there.

At the ER, the doctor examined Mom and ordered an MRI of her brain. When the MRI came back the doctor informed us that there was a “large mass” in her brain and Mom needed to be transported to a hospital in another city via ambulance. Mom was so calm, but my heart sank. I remember looking at my mom with tears in my eyes when the doctor left the room. “Mom, I can’t lose you,” I said. Dad arrived shortly after and got caught up to speed. I could tell he was nervous, but I don’t think he quite understood how serious a large mass in the brain was. Soon Dad and I both shifted to autopilot, ignoring the gut-wrenching fear that started to rapidly grow and putting one foot in front of the other to take care of Mom.

Once at the other hospital, a bunch of tests were ordered, including more detailed MRIs. I think my brother was there at that point, but my memory is fuzzy on that detail. The doctor came in and pulled the MRI results up on the screen. None of us were ready for what we saw. 9 masses in Mom’s brain. One of them was so big it had moved the center of Mom’s brain. Then the liver scan. The cancer had spread so much that there were almost as many dark spots in her liver as there were healthy tissue. The doctor explained what was going on in Mom’s body, but I didn’t hear half of it. Something about a rapidly growing cancer that had metastasized. All I could focus on were the giant masses in her brain on the screen, until I heard my dad ask how long Mom had left. The doctor tried to soften his answer but all I heard was “weeks to months.”

Weeks to months?!?

I fell to my knees on the floor sobbing. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. All the time spent away from home and now that my family had finally been reunited and life was great, my rock is going to die in “weeks to months?”

That was June 7, 2017, on a Wednesday. We spent the next four days scrambling to find help. We reached out to the Mayo Clinic, Northwestern, John’s Hopkins, and some other organizations hoping for a miracle. We put word out to Mom’s friends and family and many people visited while Dad and I desperately tried to get Mom help.

We barely had time to react, let alone process what was happening. As the next few days went by, we watched Mom rapidly decline. I canceled everything I had planned so I could be with her as much as possible because as much as I was in denial about the reality of things, I knew I wasn’t going to get much more time with her. I lay in bed with her, holding her for hours. When she was still able to sit up, I tried to give her a French braid. Since I was a child, she always loved when I played with her hair. At that point, although her brain was clearly deteriorating, she was still doing her best to be strong for the family. She was even cracking jokes and trying to make everyone smile. But she was fading fast, hallucinating, and getting confused often.

Dad stayed by her side day and night. He slept in her bed with her. One day Mom and Dad got to go for a walk outside, Mom in her hospital gown with a nurse pushing her wheelchair. The nurse took a picture that Dad still stares at of the two of them kissing down by the river. Sometimes Dad refers to it as their last kiss, which it was.

A plan was devised. June 12, Monday morning, Mom was wheeled down to where she would get her first aggressive radiation or chemo treatment (I forget which it was) to try to slow down the growth of the tumors to buy time before we could get her to a specialist. Sitting in her wheelchair in the doctor’s office, she threw up. Up until this point Mom had been strong. She told Dad she wasn’t afraid to die. But when she looked back up after getting sick, she said she was afraid.

The doctor determined after seeing her that she had grown too sick and weak to begin treatment and decided to send her back to her room to be monitored throughout the day. If her condition improved, she could start treatment the next day. But her condition did not improve. It quickly worsened.

Mom aged 20 years in those 5 days. She went unconscious shortly after she was brought back up to her room. Family started gathering. Some of Mom’s extended family kept vigil with my brother, Jeremy, Charlie, Dad and I. Hospice was called in. At one point in the afternoon a medical professional (I had given up on keeping track of who was who at that point) brought my dad and I into a private room and told us they didn’t expect her to make it through the night.

She had been fighting to stay alive for us. She knew our family needed her. She knew my brother with special needs would be lost without her. She knew my dad would be devastated without his sweetheart to grow old with. But that cancer was too powerful for the strongest woman I’ve ever known.

Laying in her hospital bed Monday night, Mom looked so much like her mother, my Beppe, did the night she died. She no longer looked like her joyous, easy spirited 65-year-old self. She looked like a withered 85-year-old woman. We all just sat in disbelief as hour after hour Mom slipped away.

Somewhere around 9 o’clock that night, Mom seemed like she was in pain. I don’t remember if she started grunting, or her vitals on the machines showed it, or what, but I asked the nurse to give her morphine. I have heard that often when someone is at the end of their life and they are given morphine, it is not long before they pass. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because they relax enough to let go. Perhaps it is because the system can’t take anymore. Whatever the reason, it became true with Mom. Shortly after she was administered morphine, we knew she was passing. Dad stood by her head with his hands on her. As hard as she fought, at that point she was only suffering, so I put my arms around her neck, and whispered. “We’ll be ok Mom”

And then she took her last breath.

I had the worst panic attack of my life after that last breath. Jeremy, Charlie and I went home with Dad that night so he wouldn’t have to be alone, and we never left. I kept teaching. I kept running Yoga Hohm. I did the best I could to appear ok to my students, but I was in hell. I sunk into a depression deeper than I could have ever imagined possible and lingered there for about a year and a half. And I was angry. My god was I angry.

It’s been 26 and a half months since that horrific night. I still cry. I am crying as I write this. I have only recently started to feel the blanket of depression and anger start to lift. Mom’s death has forced me to take a hard look at who I truly am. I am different now. I give less shits about things that are out of my control. I have recently been noticing more natural feelings of gratitude, whereas before my tendency was to dwell on the negative. I have a better sense of who I truly am and what I do not need or deserve to put up with. I have accepted that I do not have some of the qualities Mom had that made her so great, but I do have others. I may not have the warmth that she radiated but I do have her strength. I may not have the amount of compassion she had but I do have her desire to help others.

How does this tie in with yoga? Without my practice throughout this grieving process, I have very little doubt that I would have committed suicide. I certainly would be drinking again. Yoga has given me the space to sit with my emotions instead of stuffing them down. Without that space to feel and process, my mind could not have handled the sadness and anger. I am certain that without keeping that space daily, and practicing vairagya and aparigraha, (detachment and non-attachment) I would have reacted to the anger in ways that would have caused permanent damage to my relationships and the business. I am not saying I have acted with grace and dignity throughout these last 26 and a half months. In fact, I would say quite the contrary. I lost several friends and students since Mom’s death. Some of it was due to circumstances outside of my control, but I’m sure much of it was because I let myself feel whatever I was feeling. Not very many acquaintances would want to put up with the amount of anger I was working with. Not many students would want to sit through class after class in which the teacher’s sadness is palpable, and I don’t blame them.  

Because I kept that space, I feel I have finally reached a point in this grieving process where I am no longer afraid to be myself, and I accept that my true self is not going to jive with everyone I encounter. Hell, the fact that I am sharing this story will surely not sit well with some. But I’m ok with that because the quality of people in my life has grown exponentially in this process of getting to know the real me through the brutal self-study that was forced upon me by extreme loss (quite honestly, some of the company I was keeping needed to be “saucha-fied”). I miss Mom. If I am being honest, I would probably trade all this self-realization to have her back. But that is not an option. So, for now I have no choice but to keep holding space for myself and the never-ending process of grief and self-acceptance.   

Renee Downing