She's Not Dead Yet
April 28, 2010 11:55 AM   Subscribe

My aunt has cancer. She has about six months left. How do I stop grieving while she's still alive? Is that possible? Also, if my grief is this bad already, what's it going to be like when she does die? Not so bad? Worse?

A few details, some relevant, some possibly not relevant:

Although we knew she had cancer, this announcement is out of left field. A couple months ago, Auntie had been given a fairly clean bill of health - chemotherapy had the cancer in remission, cancer had killed one of her kidneys but the other kidney was doing great. Then this week she found out that there is cancer elsewhere and her liver is pretty much gone. Another round of chemo is an option, but she hasn't yet decided whether a few more months of crappy life are worth losing fewer months of relatively okay life.

This aunt (and her first husband) gave me a strong sense of what should be normal in a pretty fucked up childhood.

Auntie isn't the first close family member I've lost. My grandmother died 20 years ago and I knew before hand. This seems to be hitting much harder. Maybe because I'm more mature and have a better understanding of what death is? And I lost two other family members last year, both to cancer. I didn't know until after they had died.

If Auntie is up to it, my mother (her sister) and I are going to visit her (Auntie is in Florida, we're in the Pacific Northwest).

Whether or not I can visit her, I will be sending letters and/or cards.

Apologies for any rambling or incoherency. Feel free to MeMail me if you want to keep things private.
posted by deborah to Human Relations (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm really sorry about this.

Of course you're going to grieve, even while she's still alive. I think what you can do that will inadvertently make you feel better is to be there for your aunt. Call, visit, send her notes, tell her you appreciate her, both for what she did for you as a child, and now. Ask her about her childhood. Engage her while she's here.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:01 PM on April 28, 2010

I can only imagine how much pain you feel at the thought of losing her.

I think it's a good idea to connect with her during your visit, one on one, and open your heart. Don't hold anything back, be with her and your grief, and you will be surprised by what blessings may come through.
posted by andreinla at 12:09 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry you're going through this. You will grieve now and later, but one thing that many people find so difficult about unexpected deaths is that they didn't have time to do or say what they wanted to when they had the opportunity. You have time to do that now, and if you take that opportunity you will not have to deal with that regret when your aunt leaves this world. It's always awful to lose someone we love, but if you've done and said everthing to her that you need to, you will at least have that much peace of mind to comfort you.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:13 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've been in a similar situation, except it was my father.

Your grief will not necessarily be better or worse after she dies, but I imagine it will be different. I believe that these things are very individual, but for me the pain and sadness before my father died was heavily characterized by being afraid and unbelieving. I could not fathom how I would feel after he was gone. I think some part of me felt as if the world would end, and just thinking about the end coming would make me feel panicky and sick.

When he died, even though I had ample warning, it still felt like a shock. After he died, I still hurt and I was far more numb and basically not myself for a while, but I was less scared and able to start figuring out how to recover.

Spend as much time with her as you can. Make sure she knows you love her. Do what you can to keep her comfortable. Spend time with other people who love her.

I'm very sorry you're going through this.
posted by hought20 at 12:28 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

How do I stop grieving while she's still alive? Is that possible? Also, if my grief is this bad already, what's it going to be like when she does die? Not so bad? Worse?

Every person who grieves does so differently. When I battled with my daughter through her brain cancer over several months, and her eventual death, we were surrounded by other families doing the same. No individual reacted in the same way. I found that the things people told me about grief were frustrating rather than helpful - creating a defensive, oppositional process under which I felt pigeonholed into a popular experience of grief that didn't match my feelings. That said, I was terrified of the grief - flatly terrified of spending the rest of my life as the lead in a 'Mother crying in the grey rain over gravestone of only child' scene. I wanted guidance, and so I'll tell you what very little I can.

My approach to my daughter's life after her diagnosis with terminal cancer was to do the utmost to give her things to be happy about. We went to the zoo, we went to children's museums, we celebrated each and every moment like it had to last a lifetime. This created joy in her life, and ours. As a result, I have pictures and video to look back on of laughter, smiles and good times. While that makes the pain of her death very sharp, it also creates positivity and love and some small measure of peace.

Doing that IS grieving. For me, laughing at the beach is grieving too. Running in the morning and seeing the tiny finches is grieving. Smelling flowers is grieving. It is a part of who I am, not a momentary social obligation or transitional phase to be put behind me as soon as possible. Though it is a subtle difference of interpretation, I allow grief to be part of me rather than giving my whole life over to it. The most helpful thing anyone said to me was that grief is love. The only to end the sadness at my daughter's cancer and death, would be to not care. To not love her. I can't do that, and I wouldn't want to even if I could. So, I'll take the grief. Gently, I will tell you that taking the time to treasure the months you have now and to experience joy in them, is likely to change your experience of grief. If you can celebrate her life, your love for her, and how she shaped you as a person, you will probably have less self-doubt, less guilt and less angst after her death.

Some people have told me that the above is an unrealistically rosy view, something that seems more fictional "strong loving woman" than reality. And that is a true criticism, to an extent. I can't achieve that peace all the time; some of this is an aspirational message sometimes. But by forcibly reminding myself of the love, the laugh, of Vivienne's adoration of panda bears (and her first stuffed panda Obi-Wan still sits on my desk), the time she rode a pony (at only 10 months old) and how fascinated she was by basketball on the TV (she'd crane her neck to see it, attracted, I think by the squeaking shoes, bright colors and quick movements), and more, I can keenly feel my love for her. It doesn't take away the grief, but for me, it creates love and a feeling of connectedness with my daughter, that really does mitigate it. It's not perfect: I'm sad a lot. I cry at least once a week. I could barely take care of myself for awhile. But I am not a lost soul permanently crying in a cold, rainy cemetery.

Feel free to read my blog linked in profile for more on cancer, end of life, and grief, although it is all primary from a parent-child perspective. And, do not hesitate to MeMail me or email me (email in profile) if you ever need someone to listen and care. You are asking such normal questions, and the fear you are experiencing is normal, too. You aren't alone, and I know you won't let your Auntie be alone either. I am sending you warm feelings, and hope.
posted by bunnycup at 12:28 PM on April 28, 2010 [54 favorites]

I’m so sorry.

N’thing being there for her. Enjoy her company while you can. Call her, email her, ask her all of those questions you kind of wondered about but never thought it was the right time to ask. Remind yourself that she’s not dead yet, and that you really don’t know when she’s going to die, but whenever it is (even if she manages to live another 15 years through some sort of miracle), it’s going to be too soon.

It’s not always going to work. It’s normal to start grieving beforehand. Allow yourself the grief.
posted by dinty_moore at 12:39 PM on April 28, 2010

I can't give a definitive answer to your questions, but I can offer my own experience with this.

My grandmother died earlier this month after a very long battle with Lou Gehrig's. She and I were very close, to the point that I called her Mom ever since I can remember.

I don't think I could, personally, have stopped myself from grieving for her while she was still alive. I knew she was going to die, I knew her illness was terrible, and knowing those things made it impossible to suppress my feelings. I live very far away from her but aside from sending her pictures and letters, I go back home every year, and I made it a priority to spend as much time with her as possible. I told her I loved her, I took turns with caregiving to help out my relatives back home who were doing it day in and day out. That helped me, because for one, I had to be composed in front her, but also because it made me feel involved in her life. But back home, I cried. Hard, and a lot.

By the time she died, I can honestly say that I had already grieved for her. Flying back home takes about 10 hours of transit time and I was composed and calm. (In the past, just thinking about making that inevitable trip back home to her funeral was kind of stressful, I didnt know what my state of mind would be). I went to the funeral hime and while I did cry, it was not in any way close to the kind of crying I would have done if this had been unexpected. I would have been a basket case. I was emotionally ready to talk to all the people who showed up to her funeral, and in general I was up to the task because the bulk of my heavy-duty grieving was over. I remember thinking to myself when I got to the funeral home, "I've already cried for her. Now I can just say goodbye." Less than a month after her death I still cry, but I suppose my grief now is more tempered by time.

I can't say that my experience is true for everyone. But when a more distant relative of mine died (also of LG's), his family confided in me that they felt the same way.

So I guess my advice would be to not see grieving her now as a bad thing. It's rough to go through, but I think that it's as much helpful as it is inevitable. I think that on top of all of this, trying to fight your feelings would be even more crushing.

Please feel free to message me if you have more questions. And I am sorry for this news you have received.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 12:43 PM on April 28, 2010

If I'm remembering it right, the movie Shadowlands takes a similar view of grief to (my limited understanding of) what bunnycup describes.
posted by salvia at 12:48 PM on April 28, 2010

I'm very sorry to hear about what your aunt (and by extension you and your family/friends) are going through.

The grieving process has already begun, and there's no way to stop it -- but this is not to be feared or fought, as a longer grieving process reduces the day-to-day intensity of the thing, and ultimately will make it easier for you to cope should she pass as anticipated. For me, the loss of my father was mourned over a five-year period, and by the end I was able to think of him and be grateful that his suffering was finally over, and be personally relieved that the ordeal was over for all of us. Ultimately, then, it was easier at the end, for having been much harder in the beginning.

Do not ignore her; do not put her out of your mind. Be close to her, love her, care about her as you are wont to do, and grieve -- grieve as a process you must attend to, grieve to express your love for her while she's still around to appreciate it, and grieve as a means of healing wounds that have not yet had the chance to fully open.

All best to you and yours.
posted by davejay at 1:06 PM on April 28, 2010

Sorry for your loss, but in a sense you're lucky. Had I known my grandmother was dying, I could have spent more time with her and gotten to know her much better. Instead she died fairly suddenly of a heart attack after what seemed a lifetime of poor health, so I never got to say goodbye, or I love you, or anything else I want to say to her.

Nothing will stop the mourning and loss, but you can lessen the pain you'll feel later by making the most of the time you have left.
posted by coolguymichael at 1:12 PM on April 28, 2010

Some people have told me that the above is an unrealistically rosy view, something that seems more fictional "strong loving woman" than reality.

I just wanted to add that a lot of what bunnycup said resonated with me, because I have found myself thinking along the same lines - both while my grandmother was sick and now, after her death. It may seem unrealistic, but I found it came very naturally to me to frame my grief around the idea that it was borne out of love. And it has helped.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 1:27 PM on April 28, 2010

I'm so sorry. I can speak from personal experience. My Dad found out he had kidney cancer and only a few months to live (they said ~6 months, he lasted more like 3--although some of that could be psychological, the brain works in mysterious ways). We were fortunate enough to keep him at home due to fantastic help from hospice. He went into a coma on my 25th birthday and died the next day.

Each person deals with grief differently, but for me at first it was a relief when he passed. I did a lot of my grieving up front. Some people didn't understand when I was relatively calm and "normal" for the first few months after he died (in August). Of course, there was a bit of a rebound effect and by Christmas time I had some difficulty (I always had my moments but I was kind of surprised how "well" I dealt with it, considering how close I was with my father--I worked for him for over 5 years).

I guess I felt fortunate to have the opportunity for some closure. In some ways, it's a gift to know the end is coming, in others it's a curse. But I got to say goodbye to my Dad and he got to say goodbye to us (he actually thought he had already passed a few days before he did--I think it was his way of seeing how we could handle his death, that and the morphine). But I was also relieved when he passed because I knew that his suffering was finally over, and by that time his mind had more or less gone (he wasn't really making much sense, seeing things, etc.) and the anxiety of worrying when the time would come, and if I'd be home alone with him when he passed, was finally over.

Grief is a natural process. My advice, from my own experience, is to let yourself grieve but also don't force it or feel bad if you aren't grieving--it doesn't make you a "bad" person. Unfortunately, "society" does not like expressions of grief (outside of a few "acceptable" venues, like a funeral), and we don't like to be reminded of our own mortality. People tend to expect you to "get over it" quickly OR they think it's odd if you aren't grieving and tell you that you will "hit the wall" soon; it's extremely irritating. I wish more people were just accepting and supporting and realized that the grieving process is different for each person and to let them grieve in their own way.

You might want to check out some of the books about death and grieving by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and if you need to, contact a counsellor or your local hospice society for support. It might be helpful for her and her family to contact them as well to prepare in advance how she wants her death process (for lack of a better term) to be handled. They can provide home support, like we had for my father, or can give them/you some reading material and some counselling resources.

My condolences for you and your family (and your aunt) in this tough time.
posted by 1000monkeys at 1:32 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

P.S. Don't feel like you need to hide your feelings from your aunt. I tried at first to hide them from my father when I found out he was terminal and it wasn't until I broke down in front of him that he felt he could break down too, and he realized that I did care very much but was trying to hide my grief. It was very scary and sad but also cathartic to see him cry and to just hug him and tell him that I didn't want him to die.

Wow, it's been 5 years and I'm starting to choke up thinking about this. I think it's good to let the emotions out every now and then, rather than bottle it all up.
posted by 1000monkeys at 1:34 PM on April 28, 2010

I can only really offer my own experiences, but some people have already touched on the same general themes.

My Dad passed away about 2 years after his initial cancer diagnosis. My wife and I were able to read the research journal articles addressing his condition, and to drill deep into the knowledge of his doctors and our doctor friends. All that research was motivated by a desire for a way out, but the end result was I wound up with a very, very good idea of the time frames involved, and what they would look like.

When I finally realized, about a month in, that there really was no good outcome to be had here - I remember the crush of grief like it was yesterday. This was combined with the fact that my parents simply did not want to know, and I had a younger brother that should have known, and had to be made ready for what was coming. I really had to bear the initial realization alone, along with the attendant first waves of grief, which really were the sharpest.

So - for me, in the context above, when my father finally died - I felt a vast wave of relief. I felt like i could finally rest and be alone for a while and be free of all the different parts of my family that needed me to prop them up. I know for sure that my brother and mother felt differently, and I know for sure you will experience your Aunt's passing in your own way.

As you should. Best of luck to you. It's absolutely ok for you to grieve while she's still here.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 1:51 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's nothing wrong with greiving now; it shows your aunt that you care about and love her and will miss her. Enjoy the time you have left with her.

I lost my wife suddenly in June of last year at a relatively young age, and I didn't know what to do - so I just plugged on, did what was practical and had to be done, and tried to distract myself. I didn't really start to feel the hurt and the pain until about six months later, but thanks to friends (a lot of whom I didn't know I had), I think I'm through the worst part.

Bunnycup said:
And, do not hesitate to MeMail me or email me (email in profile) if you ever need someone to listen and care.

She means it - MeMail or email out of the blue from her and others often helps me get through the day. I'd sit there and think "nobody cares" and beep, there's an email from a stranger asking if I'm doing okay.

If you can, lean on your friends and relatives. My closest family is six hundred miles away, and we buried my wife next to her mother in Chattanooga, so I've never even got to visit her grave.
posted by mrbill at 2:40 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry. If she is well enough to go on a brief trip to a place she loves, take her there.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 3:29 PM on April 28, 2010

How do I stop grieving while she's still alive? Is that possible?

First, I think it's great that you realize that, at least ideally, you would enjoy the time she has left, and then grieve once she's gone; some people shut down completely or else make the last months or years of someone's life stressful and unhappy because they can't handle their own grief -- my mom inadvertently played that role for my father. He ended up having ten years which were all much more unhappy than they needed to be, and my mom didn't get to enjoy those ten years because all she could focus on was that it was ending instead of what she still had. She mourned him while he was alive, then mourned him when he was gone too. I understand her reaction and I don't blame her for anything, especially because she's always had severe anxiety problems, but having to witness that has made me resolve to handle any similar situations much better than she did.

She didn't realize the effect she was having on my father, and I think that was the problem. Having seen that play out, I find it easier to push grief aside if I tell myself I am doing it for someone else's sake. Grief is self-oriented to some extent; you feel despair partly because you don't know what you're going to do without someone, and because there's nothing you can do to stop them from dying, it's easy to be dragged down and wallow in it. That's the part of grief that you can deal with later, when they're not around. When I feel that urge to give into despair, tears welling up when I'd rather they didn't, I tell myself that it's not about me right now, not to be selfish, that there's time for that later. I don't beat myself up if it doesn't work, because it will never work 100% of the time. But it does work sometimes.

The part of grief that is grief for the other person is your concern for their happiness; you wish they weren't having to deal with something scary and difficult. So, similar to what bunnycup said, you do your best to create a happy environment for them. It's still grieving, it's just not as outwardly sad. If you knew you were going to die soon, you would want to spend as much of that time happy as possible, right? You would understand when people are sad, you wouldn't blame them, but you'd get a lot of that and you'd be especially grateful for the times when things don't seem so fraught. So don't beat yourself up whenever sadness overwhelms you, but do your best to give your aunt those happier moments. You will manage it sometimes when you think you couldn't, and once she is gone, remembering the times you pulled it together will be comforting. You'll have made it better than it would have been for her.

Finally, cut yourself some slack. Six months is not enough time to become a champ at this; every time you pull it off will be a real victory. It's both harder and easier than it sounds. It took years for me to feel "okay" with the thought of my dad dying, and that's using a generous definition of "okay." I still had bad times of it, just only a few times a year toward the end. In the beginning it was something like every day, and then it was multiple times a week, and my parents hadn't even told me he was supposed to die because they didn't want to upset me, I just knew his health was terrible and I worried he would. But I was also a teenager so you have a leg up on maturity there.

It took until I was in college -- seven years had passed, at this point -- before it was only a monthly thing. If you're not sad every single moment, you're doing fantastic. If you are sad every single moment, start by saying, "I'm not going to be sad this one moment" and distract yourself with something. It takes practice. Just keep trying to reduce the time you spend as an absolute mess and you'll have done all you could. One moment at a time.

I also found it helpful to really milk the times I couldn't stop becoming an absolute mess, at least if I was alone. I would cry until I was exhausted. Once it's going to happen, it's kind of pointless to fight it, and I think a lot of people make it worse by never giving themselves a time when it's okay to confront those feelings. I found it more helpful to just go for it and let it all out; telling myself it was healthy and that it was the only way I could get through the next stretch of "acting strong" really worked. I had an understanding with myself that no one can be strong all the time, and it would take time and practice to keep it up for longer stretches, and the best I could do was be strong punctuated with moments of being a mess. When someone is going to die, there's a tendency to look upon the future in despair, like every moment is going to be awful from then on, and it's easy to feel crappy all the time. If I'd spread my grief out evenly, instead of in big blasts, I would have been worse off because I'd feel, correctly, that I'm crying all the time and that's all I'm going to do in the near future. The blasts made things easier because I could think "let's get this over with" and know that the crying would abate for some time.

When you're sad, it's important to remember that you're not going to feel that way every waking moment of the rest of your life. It will come and go.

Also, if my grief is this bad already, what's it going to be like when she does die? Not so bad? Worse?

It really just depends. My grief wasn't that bad when my dad actually died, but I had years to get acclimated to it. In some ways, his death was a relief; when someone is very ill like that, there are a few things that make you feel a little bit better: first, they're not suffering anymore, and two, that the situation has been resolved, so your life won't be mired in tension and anxiety anymore. You get to leave "death" mode and live like a normal person again -- or at least as best you can, because that person't won't be there anymore and that awareness will seem heavy for a while. Those periods of heavy emotion are meaningful and dear to people's lives, and in some ways they're the sorts of things we live for, but no one can live like that all the time, or even most of the time. It's too stressful. Some people feel bad for feeling relieved, but it's nothing to feel guilty about. You can't wish someone dead, and you can feel relieved when someone dies and still wish they were alive. It's not selfish to feel relieved.

I was also relieved because I felt that finally my mom could quit worrying. She didn't feel relief immediately, but she does now. Everyone could quit worrying. In a lot of ways, I think the worrying is worse than the actual event.

There's a book called The Farewell Chronicles by Anneli Rufus which discusses the various emotions people feel leading up to and after someone they know dies. I found it very truthful. For whatever reason, I don't feel any guilt for my emotions toward the dead -- it's always seemed understandable to me, and I don't blame anyone else for how they feel either -- so the book was sort of preaching to the choir for me. But I like to recommend it to anyone who feels guilty, or whom I don't know but might feel guilty, so check it out. It's an easy read, too; it took me about a day. There are probably other emotions you're feeling in the book, too.

As for other things, I mostly feel happy when I remember my dad. Others may feel sad when this happens, but I always feel comforted when I have a dream about my dad. It's not that I think it's actually him or that it has any special meaning -- I'm an atheist so I don't believe in an afterlife or anything -- but it's nice to have an experience of him even though he's not alive anymore. He looks and sounds and acts the same even though I have some trouble remembering those things as well when I'm awake. So whenever that happens I always feel that he's not entirely gone, that he'll pop up from time to time. It's not entirely the same -- it's basically my brain talking to itself -- but most of the time that's enough for me; it serves a lot of the same purposes as a phone call: it reminds me what he was like, and that he cared, and if I feel a bit lost sometimes it reminds me how he might have comforted me, or what he might have advised me to do, or that he would be proud of me for being me.

You said, "This aunt (and her first husband) gave me a strong sense of what should be normal in a pretty fucked up childhood." Something I never realized before my dad died is that when a person dies, you don't just lose them, but you lose all their social checks on other people. That is the one thing that will reduce me to tears sometimes.

My dad played a big role in keeping my mother's insanities in line. My dad had plenty of problems too, but I never realized how accepting he was of me until after he was gone. No matter what I wanted to do, he thought it was great and supported me. Since he died, though, I have to deal with my mom on my own. I never felt that she was unaccepting before, exactly, because I was so important to her and she made that clear, but it turns out she just wants me to be her clone. Whereas my dad just wanted me to be happy and reasonably knew we wouldn't have everything in common, my mom now wails that I'm "so different" from her and hardly takes notice of how happy I am. I just generally felt "supported by my parents" in the past and didn't differentiate the unconditional support my dad gave me from the conditional support my mom gave me. In fact, since my mom paid more attention to me I assumed she cared more about my happiness, but now I feel I had that all backward. Out of all the people in my life, I truly feel like my mom is the least able to be happy that I'm happy. She cries because I am happy without being like her.

Sometimes I am sad that I never got to thank my father for letting me be who I am. It just never occurred to me before he was gone, and I'm not sure that it could have, so I don't dwell on it much.

Not having his unconditional support really sucks, but I could deal with that alone. But it's not just that there's a void where his support used to be, it's that now the balance is ruined and my mom acts awful without my dad there to influence the conversation in a more positive way. For example, if I brought up something I was interested in, my dad would be enthusiastic about it ask me questions. Even if my mom didn't see the appeal, she wouldn't harangue me about it or call me "weird" or lament how different I am from her since she was in the minority in that conversation, and there weren't any silences she had to fill. Now she's just outlandishly judgmental and rude because my dad isn't there to set the tone to be relaxed and positive. The change has been pretty startling. Now every time I go home she says something mournful about how I didn't turn out like her, I tell her that's hurtful and rude, and she starts crying. I have no one to back me up and tell her I'm being reasonable. I hate visiting and I hate talking to her and that makes her more sad but she can't seem to care about my happiness more than shaping me in her image. I didn't even realize that my dad kept so much stuff from falling apart.

When I do cry about my dad dying, it's because I miss his influence on and his contrast to my mother. I miss having an escape from her when I visit home. I miss feeling like it's okay to be myself around my parents.

So especially if your other relatives are messed up, you might find yourself in a situation where your aunt's absence makes you aware of faults in your relatives that she kept in line, or it might be that you don't have her backing in social situations anymore. People might unexpectedly be awful to you. Unfortunately, I don't have any great advice for how to handle that, especially if you can't get away from the relatives easily. Sometimes it helps me stay sane to know that if my dad were still alive he would agree that I'm being reasonable, so if you have to deal with difficult relatives after she's gone maybe that'll give you some comfort. My solution so far has really been to see difficult relatives as little as possible, though.
posted by Nattie at 4:24 PM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Most of my grief (in terms of intense crying, depression, etc.) for my grandmother was right after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, although in many ways it was also the culmination of the slow, background-level grief I'd been developing for years as my grandmother lost her mind to dementia.

When she finally died I mostly just felt relieved that she was no longer in pain and that my mother could start moving on. But by then the person I had known had been gone for some time so YMMV.

I think you should go visit her if at all possible.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:38 PM on April 28, 2010

Try rethinking your perspective of what grief and love really are. Usually, we think of grief as a negative experience, in contrast to love, which we think of as a positive experience. This point of view then affects how we perceive those emotions -- we expect love to feel good, so we seek it out, and we expect grief to be painful, so we try to avoid it.

Instead, try thinking of love and grief not as good experiences, or bad experiences, but just experiences unto themselves. Feel all of your emotions strongly, whatever they might be, and focus not on feeling good or bad but just feeling. If you feel despondent, for instance, become conscious of the full depth of your anguish. Become aware of the physical sensations of grief: perhaps the sinking feeling in your stomach, or the burning in your chest. Observe your own thought patterns: whether you dwell on something your aunt said, for instance, or if you fear what will happen when she dies. Acknowledge each emotion in turn, feel the intensity of the experience without trying to control it, and then... let it pass. Allow the grief to pass through you and then return to your daily life.

It is rather zen, in a way: to feel a strong love for someone you know has little time left, and to simply marvel at the beauty of that love rather than allow bitterness to seep in at the fact that they will not always be with you. When you feel an intense urge to hold on to your aunt forever, rather than letting your thoughts run towards "I miss Auntie," rephrase them as "What a miraculous thing it is to love someone so dearly, and how glad I am to have the chance to feel this emotion so strongly!"

In bunnycup’s words: The most helpful thing anyone said to me was that grief is love. Focus on experiencing your grief as love, and you will get through this.
posted by danceswithlight at 12:24 AM on April 29, 2010

Response by poster: I've been working on living in the moment for quite a while now. Between that and reading your posts, it tells me that how I'm feeling at the moment is okay, whether it's right now or in the future. I don't have to like the feeling (it's seems so vulture-ish to me!), but it is okay.

And bunnycup's comment that "grief is love" is brilliant.

Many thanks to you all for your thoughts and well wishes. You all deserve best answers.
posted by deborah at 4:48 PM on April 29, 2010

Response by poster: Follow-up:

I just found out my aunt died on November 20, seven months after her final diagnosis. Due to some mix-up my mum didn't find out until today and she passed the information along to me.

She didn't get anymore chemo. I was told that she was on a break from it and by the time they could start again it was too late to do any good.

I didn't get to visit her. She decided she didn't want anyone to see her. Although, in August she flew to see her best friend. Although this was rather disappointing to both my mother and myself, we had to respect her wishes.

We kept in sporadic touch through email, she didn't want phone calls. Emailing dropped off in September. I'd email and she wouldn't respond. She was, apparently, getting very sick at this time.

I was told mid November that she was in Hospice, was unresponsive and had just a few days left.

I'm not feeling much. I was playing an online game when I got the phone call. After the call ended I went back to my game. I'm wondering if I'll feel more later, or if this is it.
posted by deborah at 10:15 PM on November 28, 2010

Oh Deborah, I'm so sorry. I'm sure your emails were meaningful to your aunt, just as you were important to her. We can't know why people make the decisions they do when they are so ill, but your aunt had to handle things her way for her own reasons. You will grieve your aunt for some time yet. Some days you will be fine, some days you will cry, but it's all normal. It's just how you integrate the loss of your loved on into your reality. It will take time, so give yourself that time. I'm so sorry.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:31 AM on November 29, 2010

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