What losing mum to breast cancer taught me

Every day I wake up I ask myself when the painful grieving process will be over, (if it will ever be), and how long it will take to adjust the ‘new normal’.

Photo credit: Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Every day I wake up I ask myself when the painful grieving process will be over, (if it will ever be), and how long it will take to adjust the ‘new normal’.
  • They say time heals, but I think this statement is far off the mark, at least as far as I am concerned.

Mum had always been my hero because of who she was. Resilient, a good example to all, the pillar of our family. She passed away on November 26 last year, four days before my birthday and four days after hers. She had stage four breast cancer.

I still recall that day as if it were yesterday.

I had an exam at the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo Campus - adjacent to the campus sits the Chiromo Funeral Parlour, where mum’s body was taken after her death at the Kenyatta National Hospital. Doctors, perhaps to make us feel better, told us that she died peacefully.

Nearly six years after the diagnosis, mum was gone. Forever.

I recall talking to a friend about her illness the day before, including my anxiety as her condition moved from bad to worse.

I needed help with prayers because her condition deteriorated with each day. On the day she passed away, I was on the second day of fasting, fervent in prayer, asking God for a miracle.

News of her death therefore hit me like a thunder bolt: my mind swirled with all manner of thoughts, including a wish that I should have considered the prayer and fasting much earlier, maybe she would have lived.

The writer with her late mother, Debbie Okong'o and little sister Hawi in 2016. 

Photo credit: Lizzy Ogot

Heart-wrenching

Losing a parent at any stage of life is heart-wrenching, but I maybe the loss is more pronounced if you’re in your twenties.

The burden that came with mum’s funeral made me feel torn between being an adult and a child – at least in the mind.

I wanted to crawl into the darkness and die too, but I knew life had to go on. Joan Didion in her book The Year of Magical Thinking, points out that grief turns out to be a place none of us knows until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an unimagined death.

We misconstrue the nature of those few days or weeks. We do not expect this shock to totally obliterate you. Prior to my mum’s death, the only other people close to me that had died were my grandparents.

A world altered

Of course, I cared about them and I was shaken by their demise, but the loss of a parent drives the sword deeper, stings harder and alters one’s world in unimaginable ways.

The symptoms leading to the breast cancer diagnosis began years back, when she would complain of a nagging discomfort in her left arm, followed later by a lump that would not go away. The pain became intense and my dad had no choice but to take her for check-up.

The late Debbie Okong'o, who succumbed to breast cancer complications. 

Photo credit: Lizzy Ogot

Her mammogram result pointed to a suspected cancer diagnosis, which would soon be confirmed by fine needle aspiration (FNA) and core biopsy findings. 

The reality took the wind off the sail for my family.

As the rush against time began, her oncologist and the cancer care team of medics presented a confident prognosis and a treatment regime beginning with adjuvant chemotherapy, mastectomy and radiotherapy.

These were followed by a five-year regimen of hormone inhibiting pills to reduce cancer recurrence.

My dad was her primary caregiver. Witnessing her going through the painful aftermath of chemotherapy broke my heart into pieces. Fallen hair, dark-toned skin and nails, bouts of nausea - we lived from one test to the other. There were the highs of good test results and the lows of the bad ones.

I was always in school during my mum’s treatment except on some weekends when I would go home. I wanted to know every detail of what she was feeling. Not knowing what was going on was more terrifying, so I kept tabs on her progress all the way.

Each time, she would say she was okay even when it was evident that she wasn’t. We were all hopeful that she would get into the five-year remission period every cancer survivor waits for. It was not long before the disease metastasised to her lungs and liver.

We silently came to terms with the fact that her case was not curable.

Despite all this, she was a happy and energetic woman. The constant smile on her face gave us a tinge of hope, but nothing changed the fact that cancer was gradually robbing her from us.

The battle was massive, and like we acknowledged later after her death, she fought a good fight. I was not fortunate to see her during her last moments since she died just two days after her last admission to hospital after her condition worsened. She died in a dark depressing room after calling most of her friends in the wee hours of the night with none of them picking up – we saw this from call records on her phone.

The transition was strange. I was no longer waiting for another shoe to drop and I stopped living from test to test. I no longer carried the weight of uncertainty and it was sad not to have hope.

Best in my class

Despite getting the terrible news of her death, I sat my exams, emerging among the best in my class – I considered this a huge milestone amidst the tempest of mum’s death. With the months that have passed by since mum’s death, I have learnt a lot about dealing with grief especially if you are a millennial like me.

Earlier on, I thought that it was a step by step process that involved following the five guides to dealing with loss. It is far much complex, the progress is certainly not linear.

Some days I am jovial, and I convince myself that she is in a good place, that I am not the only one who has ever been hit by such a tragedy. Other days I feel gloomy and catatonic, and I cry myself to sleep wishing she could have stayed a little longer.

Every day I wake up I ask myself when the painful grieving process will be over, (if it will ever be!), and how long it will take to adjust the ‘new normal’.

They say time heals, but I think this statement is far off the mark, at least as far as I am concerned.

At her death and funeral, I felt weak, but little did I know that I was much stronger than I could ever imagine. The small milestones I achieved after mum’s demise have become the angels that give me strength to climb another step up the stair.

After mum left us, I felt as if I was looking at life with tinted glasses. Today, I see the world differently. Do you know what is even worse than finding yourself in a place you do not like? Staying there. I had to take control of my happiness and now, I am careful not to let bad and sad feelings control my present moment.

I was the only one who could make things better for myself, no one would do that for me. I have been brave and I have taken the leap. I know it will be okay in the end and if it’s not yet okay, I know it’s not the end.

I have always loved to write, and that potential was unleashed fully after the demise of my mum, which explains why you’re reading this. Mum’s death taught me that no one is guaranteed tomorrow or another year, therefore if ever there are things you would love to do someday, now is the time.

I vowed to concentrate on becoming the best version of myself, and in doing so, I surround myself with people who push me to do more and bring out the best in me, a decision that has pushed me into situations that fuel my passions. Indeed, good does come from bad situations.

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