On a bright January morning, my father’s usually chipper voice was subdued. “It’s cancer, stage 4, and it’s bad,” he whispered. I stood in my office and tried to process the news that the stroke he’d had a month before had resulted in the discovery that my father’s time on earth was now finite.
I grasped the phone, took a huge breath in, and said in a quiet voice, “Now what?” Because my parents lived out of state, the next few weeks were a flurry of phone calls, tearful FaceTime meetings and late night research to learn everything I could about my dad’s cancer. Overnight, I’d officially become a member of the “sandwich generation” without even trying: I was caring for both my small children and a dying father all at once. It was a terrible time.
In the days and weeks following a parent’s terminal diagnosis, the roller coaster of emotions is exhausting. The fear, the shock, and even the anger can be overwhelming. And when you are in the throes of raising children and managing carpool, the unbelievable news that one of your parents is dying throws your entire world off its axis. You spend your days worrying about your parent as you try not to completely lose your shit in the grocery store. Play dates seem insignificant and your laundry pile goes to hell.
As I wandered through those first few weeks after hearing the word “cancer” out of my dad’s mouth, I wondered how I’d ever survive losing him. I learned a lot along the way as I watched my father brave painful treatments, devastating setbacks, and harsh realities.
1. Your parent isn’t dying today so try not to panic.
As soon as I heard the word cancer, I immediately assumed the worst. I had an overwhelming dread float over me and I was convinced my father would die before the end of that fateful call. But the truth is that though he was given the excruciating terminal diagnosis, he had a lot more living to do.
Sure, his final days were spent in infusion centers, doctor’s offices, and hospitals, but he also had 10 more months of phone calls, visits with his grandkids, and trips with my mother. “It ain’t over until it’s over,” he used to say.
Your parent may be terminally ill but, in the immortal words of Monty Python, they aren’t dead yet so cherish the time you do have — even if it’s when you are quietly holding hands in a doctor’s office waiting for results.
2. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Though the first few days and weeks after a terminal diagnosis seem urgent and hurried, the fact is your parent is in for a long haul. Pace yourself because you will need strength in the coming months.
It’s okay if you don’t know every lab value or the result of the latest scan immediately. Let yourself off the hook and remind yourself that you don’t need to handle every tiny detail of your parent’s illness alone.
And it’s okay to take a “cancer break” once in a while. Get a pedicure, go for a run, or do something kind for yourself as you grieve and prepare for the inevitable.
3. Let your parent be the parent.
When my father was first diagnosed, my nurse training sent me into action. I wanted to do something, anything, that made me feel less helpless. I wanted to coordinate appointments, consult with every specialist, and be a part of every decision because it made me feel in control.
But after a few months, my father reminded me that I wasn’t the parent. He urged me to let him bear the worry and fear and helped me see that it was okay to let him father me through my fears.
Even at the very end, your parent wants to protect your from the inevitable pain of loss and grieving. Allow yourself to be parented, even when you feel out of control. You’ll miss that support when it’s gone.
4. Chemotherapy is important, even if your parent is terminal.
When I heard the words “Stage 4,” I immediately knew my father’s chances at survival were slim. And, again, as a nurse, I wanted to protect him from the grueling rigors of a chemotherapy regimen. I’d seen too many patients become frail and sickly and I wanted my father’s last days to be the best they could be.
But as his kindly oncologist pointed out to me, research shows that cancer patients die more peacefully at the end of their journeys if they’ve at least tried to fight with medications and therapies. And, as he pointedly told me, it’s easier for the family to let go at the end when you know your loved one has fought the good fight.
Chemotherapy isn’t always about the cure. Sometimes, it helps the family find extra time to say those very important goodbyes.
5. It’s okay to say out loud that you are scared shitless.
The 10 months that my father battled esophageal cancer were among the scariest of my life. The constant unknown and the jolt I felt every time my mother’s name appeared on my phone made me feel scared every minute of every day.
At first, I tried to bottle up my fear and compartmentalize the anxiety, but I quickly realized that if I had any hope of being strong for my father, I had to admit out loud that I was scared shitless.
Tell your friends and close family that you are terrified and ask for help. They will rally around you and lift you up in ways you’ll never expect, trust me.
Ultimately, my father lost his battle with cancer and not a day goes by that I don’t wish I’d savored those last precious months with him more than I did. But if he was here, he’d roll his eyes and tell me to quit wallowing and get on with my life. He’d smile, tell me everything was going to be okay and ask me to turn on Jeopardy. Because that’s just what parents do for their kids.