So I’m minding my own business on a rainy Saturday morning. On a morning in which the thunderstorm woke up my favorite girl, and her hungry little piggy, at 5 a.m. While that’s not my ideal start to a Saturday, we made the best of it: a huge mug of coffee for me, some hot tea for her, a blanket for each and a snuggle by the blue-green glow of the TV. I didn’t really want to be up that early, and I certainly didn’t want to be watching “Hillbilly Handfishing,” but I’ll take the quality time with my girl.

The last thing I expected on this rainy day was to be blindsided by grief. It happened innocently enough, as it tends to after several years of loss. After the sun rose and the handfishing concluded, I was searching through the cupboards in the game room for a small paintbrush to touch up some paint. No paintbrush to be found, but my search did turn up something I didn’t expect to find: a hospice booklet left over from my mom’s cancer “journey.”

For those of you fortunate enough to be uninitiated in grief and loss, you may not understand. For those of you who have been initiated in this dreadful state, you know. You know exactly how grief comes out of nowhere to blindside you.

I remember reading this booklet, in the fall of 2005 when my mom’s cancer “journey” was coming to a really yucky end. The hospice people were wonderful, providing much more than just care for my dying mama. They had care packages for my two young kids and for my niece and nephew. The oldest of YaYa’s 4 grandbabies was 8 when she died, the youngest (who happens to be my favorite girl) was 3. The teddy bears and coloring books given to them by the hospice workers probably didn’t register in the same way the “Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience” booklet did with me.

Because the whole experience of my mom dying was rather surreal, I don’t recall feeling strange about being handed a booklet with such a title. I don’t recall wondering what The Dying Experience was all about, because we were living it. How ironic to be living The Dying Experience.

I do recall being grateful for the booklet’s upfront, go-at-your-pace approach to grief. This is the one thing I know for sure: no one can dictate another person’s grief, and no can anyone dictate another person’s death experience. As the booklet so aptly describes, “Each person approaches death in their own way, bringing to this last experience their own uniqueness. This is simply a guideline, a road map. Like any map, there are many roads arriving at the same destination, many ways to enter the same city.”

Hmmm, I certainly never likened death to a city, but it sure makes sense. Of course, I never thought I’d be facing thoughts like these, much less the death of my sweet, beloved mama. My own life as a mother had barely started, with a 3-year-old wild animal disguised as a very creative and outside-of-the-box little girl, and a headstrong 6-year-old boy who would astound me in the years to come with the memories he retained of his YaYa. How could my sweet mama be leaving me just as I was starting to learn to navigate this not-always-tranquil motherhood?

How could she be leaving me? “In her own time, in her own way,” as the booklet told me. Reading on, I learned another truth: “Death is as unique as the individual who is experiencing it.”

The booklet goes on to say that there is a shift that occurs within the dying person, which takes them from “a mental processing of death to a true comprehension and belief in their own mortality.”

Another thing I learned the hard way.

I’m certain that my sweet mama knew she was dying. Being told by the gurus at MD Anderson that the clinical-trial drug didn’t work to arrest the cancer that was eating her alive is rather concrete. Being told that the only thing left to do is call hospice is rather concrete as well. She knew. But in her quiet way, she didn’t talk about it. No bitching or moaning, no complaining, no ranting or shaking her fists at the heavens for being dealt such a rotten hand.

Instead, she hugged each doctor (she was really good at that, and I wish I’d inherited that trait; I’m not much of a hugger). She gathered herself and without shedding one tear or divulging her true feelings, she thanked the docs for trying so hard to save her. And she went home to plan her funeral.

For real. She wanted to plan it all–from the psalms read to the hymns sung to the outfit she would wear–so that those of us left behind wouldn’t be stuck trying to figure it all out. At a time when she could have stuck her head in the sand and said to hell with it all, she buckled down and spent her remaining strength on making things easier for her family. That’s the kind of person she was, and it’s a damn shame that she is with us no more. A bright and precious light went out when she died.

I thought I was prepared. I’d had months to wrap my head around it, after all. Watching her go from a vivacious, outgoing Nosey Rosey who never met a stranger to a wisp of herself should have prepared me. Seeing the life slowly fade from her immensely bright soul should have eased the transition from her being the center of our lives to her being gone. Being witness to the slow yet certain creep of cancer’s all-encompassing grasp of all things Barb should have steeled me to the reality I was facing.

And yet, none of those things happened. As Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience so succinctly explains, “Focus changes from this world to the next, as the dying person loses his/her grounding to Earth.” She lost her ground to Earth, and we lost the glue, the sweetness, the center of our family. There is no preparing for that. There is no transition, no steeling. Although I knew it was happening and had accepted the fact that my beloved mother was dying, I was not prepared.

Just as I was not prepared for the onslaught of grief that hit me today as I came across the hospice booklet. In the middle of a perfectly normal day, while searching through a cupboard for a paintbrush, I was instantly transported back to the awful, wrenching reality of her death. I had no idea the booklet was in that cupboard. More importantly, I had no idea that the magnitude of grief, the bottomless pit of despair, could come back so quickly. In an instant, the swirling eddy of loss surrounded me, as heavy today as it was 6 years ago. As Kate Winslet said as she dedicated her Emmy win for the HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce” last fall, “It doesn’t matter how old you are or what you do in your life. You never stop needing your mum.”

The last page of  Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience contains a Henry Van Dyke poem unfamiliar to me. I don’t remember reading it when I received the booklet; my guess is that I didn’t make it that far. But now I have, and I’m glad I did.

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!”

“Gone where?”

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear the load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!” There are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout: “Here she comes!”

And that is dying.



25 Comments on “Blindsided”

  1. Eddie says:

    It never goes away and it only gets a little bit easier. I truly hope there is someone on a distant shore welcoming the loved ones who have sailed from our lives.

  2. David Benbow says:

    Life turns on a dime. I dislike Hillbilly Handfishing as much as you, but I understand how kids get up when you least want them to and it turns your entire day upside down.

    I loved your mama and wish I had been there in her final years.

    I can see her face and hear her voice, and I’m saddened and angered that your favorite girl will not have those memories of her YaYa.

    Barb was the glue that held your family together. Her two children live 1,600 miles apart and still she kept her family close. No small task.

    I’m glad you found the hospice book when you were ready to. I’m glad that you can continue the process of grieving your sweet mama. I’m glad you shared it on your blog. I’m glad Barb hugged her care-givers instead of raging against the shitty hand she was dealt.

    Rest in peace, Barb.

  3. Hugs….
    Our son, nearly 17yrs old, came into our room early this morning and threw himself (all 6ft 1 of him) across the end of our bed ‘I don’t fit in here any more’ he beamed; and we remembered those weary but special mornings when he was small, when he’d climb into our bed and watched cartoons whilst we dozed around him.

  4. Susan says:

    Sometimes you just need a good cry. What a beautiful woman your mom was, and a wonderful mom. Thinking of you!

  5. lLauren says:

    sweetly written girl. sweetly written.

  6. I am grateful I have had the moments to read this alone…I was blindsided…it has been almost 13 years since my dearest beloved mama left us…and my sisters and I mourn her still. For we have been left without a rudder…without the glue to keep us together as a family…we try to stay “in touch” but all the differences between us that we would have endured to bring us together for *her* are now gone. I haven’t been with all my sisters and brothers-in-law, happily, in one place for so many many years. Our mother was our truest friend, our kindest champion, our beloved …Mamasita. Thanks for sharing your grief and tears and cares with us as you remember your dear mother.

  7. Barb Fernald says:

    That poem is one of my favorites. About a month after my husband’s father died, almost 7 years ago, my sister-in-law organized a “realeasing of luminaries” into the sea. As many people who wanted, decorated or wrote notes and names on small paper bags, to honor loved ones who were gone. We dipped the bottoms of the bags in melted wax and placed a tea light inside. We counted on my husband to choose the beach, based on tide and wind direction, where the luminaries would best float away from the shore. The first time we did it, it was a quiet and foggy night. I read aloud “Gone from My Sight” before we all quietly released our luminaries into the water and watched for an hour as the lights drifted away.
    We have released luminaries almost every summer since then. I always include one for my own father who died from cancer 16 years ago.
    I don’t think of my father all the time, but I can still be blindsided by grief. Missing my father is a part of my life that has been softened by time.
    Thank you for being so open about your own grief. Your mother may no longer be here in person, but she has a lively presence in your blog.

  8. Elizabeth connolly says:

    Yes, you always need your Mom. She is the only one that really loves you unselfishly . And is always there to listen to you. My mom has been gone for over 40 years and I still miss her and think how much my whole family lost because she was gone so early. Yes, it’t would be nice to think that she’s greeted on the other side of the shore, but how much better that she was on this side a little longer.

  9. Wendy Langley says:

    Stupid paintbrush cabinet.

  10. “Here she comes!” I’ll keep that powerful image. James has been gone for nearly 14 months, and I’m still devastated and caught unprepared by a random onslaught of memories. I know with all my heart that “he’s there.”


  11. Absolutely beautiful and moving post. Thank you for sharing. It made me feel so grateful to have my mother by my side as I battle this disease. It also made me fear for my children who will “never stop needing their mum”.
    Cancer Warrior

  12. hjelmstd says:

    So true, so true, that we can be blindsided so quickly and so easily. February 15 was the 37th anniversary of the day my daughter’s 27-year-old husband was killed in a car accident. And while I tried to read that story–which I have read many, many times–to a Rotary Club, my eyes filled with tears and my voice broke. Blindsided, indeed.

  13. A gift of words, bounded by memories by the one person whom you can still trust unconditionally. A beautifully written piece, your mama is proud.

  14. PinkHeart says:

    Last week my husband and I went to see, for the last time in our lives, his absolute best friend (and godfather to our kids)who was in a most beautiful, peaceful, and caring hospice. We held his hands, told him how much we loved him, and thanked him for the gift of his friendship.

    This week we are attending his funeral. Thank you for sharing this beautifully written blog at a very pertinent time for me. It brought much comfort to me along with mascara running down my face. Blessings to your dear mama.

  15. Oh Nancy, there is so much I want to say, but reading your post I am blindsided by my own grief. These words express some of what is in my heart right now and I think sum up what you are talking about in this post x

    “We amble along the path, feeling as though we have it all in hand, feeling secure in our habits and patterns. As though we are in control of our own lives.
    And then, just as we think we have the terrain mapped out, the earth moves
    beneath our feet. The smooth, well worn pathway disappears all of a sudden,
    the gravel turns to jagged stone and twists, turns, dips and dives appear out of
    nowhere. The earth itself shudders and heaves. And often, what seemed to
    be a normal day ends with us pinned beneath stone delivered by an avalanche,
    burying us before we can begin to take in what has happened.” Christa Gallopoulos

  16. Beautiful, heart-breaking post. It never leaves us. I still have those moments thinking of my own mom, coming across an old photo, or doing something that my mother always enjoyed doing with me. These last few weeks, losing Rachel and Susan, I’ve been thinking of a few lines from a song by Carly Simon: “So, don’t mind if I fall apart. There’s more room in a broken heart.”

  17. Dee says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on being blindsided by grief. I lost my mom at the age of 5, my dad to to cancer 35 years ago and my sister to breast cancer 12 years ago. There are still times a memory pops into my head and tears quickly come to my eyes. Many times I silently think to myself things like- “Dad I wish you could have met your grandson” and ” Bert , you would be so proud of the wonderful life your daughter has created for herself and what an incredible man your son has become.” We will always have our memories. When my Aunt died last year at the age of 101 I was happy knowing she was going home to my Dad.

  18. Robbi Lenox says:

    Hi. I have never commented but I have been following your blog since May 2011 when my own beloved mama was diagnosed with cancer. I took a leave of absence from my teaching job and was with her 24/7 the 5 months from diagnosis to the day she left me. She was my best friend also and it’s only been 5 1/2 months for me but I completely understand how you feel about the grief hitting so hard that it feels like your heart is breaking all over again. I have not had children yet and it breaks my heart that mama will never meet my future kids and i hope I see her in them. I too live in Houston and through your blog I feel like I know you and wanted you to know I pray for you. AND I love your piggie! When mom was pregnant with me 32 years ago she bought a stuffed pig and it still stays in my room all these years later! I may have to get me a real one someday! I hope you are feeling more at peace today!

  19. Oh, Nancy, this is so hard to read. I have been going through my storage unit this week and finding cards hand-painted by my Mom, who died in 2004 of lung cancer. I broke down and cried, sitting on the concrete floor of that cave. At least it felt like a cave. I caved in to my grief, as you did. My thoughts and prayers go out to you as you feel that grief again. Thank you so much for the poem and the picture of your lovely Mom. XXXOO

  20. Nancy, this was a beautiful post. The image that came to mind as I read that poem was watching the sun set on the ocean… first it’s there, so blazing bright you can barely look at it; then it slips behind the horizon line, and it’s gone, and all falls dark. The sun hasn’t died, it’s simply shining elsewhere. I never thought of death in those terms before, but I like that analogy. A lot. Thanks for sharing your grief with us.

  21. […] Nancy’s post on being blindsided by grief missing her Mom was almost too painful for me to read, so raw and real is its depiction of heartbreaking loss. I was also deeply saddened to read Tami’s moving post on the nature of grief as she comes to terms with the death this week of her brother Mitch. […]

  22. Nancy,
    Very powerful and moving post. I think I read a very similar booklet, maybe even the same one, when my mom was dying and I remember the whole experience feeling so surreal too. Was the cover of yours blue? Ours was. You’re so right about how grief can come out of nowhere at unexpected times and “blind-side” us. Grieving for our moms never really ends. Hugs to you. And the photo of her is lovely. Thanks for sharing it.

  23. […] blog has been mighty serious lately. With topics like this and this and this, there’s been little room for the funnier things in […]

  24. […] I’ve written before about how grief sneaks up on us, and can buckle our knees out of nowhere, even after years have passed. I know that this is what happened to my friend the other day: he was going about his business, engaged in a simple task that took little effort and yet would yield great satisfaction when done. The sun was shining, the workday was done, and a cold beer accompanied him as he unscrewed the rusty, spent screws from my gate. But once the screwdriver broke, so did the dam that most days holds back the torrent of sadness that is life without his dad. How many times has he said he wished his dad were here to help him with a DIY project, or to admire his handiwork upon a project’s completion? Too many times to count. And in the midst of an ordinary task being done on an ordinary day, the torrent rushed through. “It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief.  But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.”  ~Colette Share this:FacebookTwitterTumblrEmailRedditLinkedInStumbleUponDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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