Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

TWM – 16. Marlene’s Grief

Was Marlene shocked at the confirmation of her cancer?  Did she go through the classic stages of grief in her journey with cancer? Did I? 

Not really.

Marlene and I may have experienced the various steps in the Kubler-Ross model (and its variants) but probably not in the manner described. (I say ‘we’ because we went through this together. However, Marlene’s end point was very different from mine. I will try to speak for Marlene here, and then try to speak for myself in the next post. But really, most of this blog is about my travels through grief to a new life.) Did we/she experience the stages of grief as discrete steps? In the indicated sequence? Maybe and maybe not. The steps may not have been discrete, more of a blur. 

Neither Marlene nor I were shocked at the final diagnosis of her cancer. I think few people actually experience this shock; there are usually signs that bad news is coming, and when it arrives it is confirmation of our worst fears. The shock of relief might be more the case when you get a clean bill! Denial may be present before shock: the prospect of bad newsmay defer the shock and when the bad news is confirmed, it’s resignation. Marlene’s four months’ journey with diagnosis removed most of the shock for us. (Regrettably, not for daughter Shannon; she may have been a text-book case of the denial, shock, denial cycle.) We are educated people, it doesn’t take a genius to know Marlene’s maladywas probably breast cancer, we just needed confirmation. Maybe the congestion of Canada’s health system holds a silver lining: we had time to prepare ourselves for the bad news. What was upsetting was to hear that her type of cancer was incurable! Even this may not have been shocking to me (but it might have been to Marlene). I am a pessimist when it comes to cancer. In my mind, cancer is a death sentence no matter the optimism and statistics the medical profession may send our way. Or maybe the rosy picture often painted is just the propaganda of the various Cancer Societies, campaigning for money to find a ‘cure’.

Marlene may not have been shocked but she certainly entered a long period of Denial. In many ways, it seemed to me, she lived her whole life that way. I don’t mean to sound pejorative. For Marlene, life as a rosy wonderful place. She may have been a nurse practitioner, a realist about the hard points in life, but overall she had an optimistic sunny attitude. Maybe this wasn’t Denial in the classic sense. This was Marlene.

I don’t remember her ever being Angry with her fate. She often felt fear – how could she not – and disappointment, and these are emotions very close to anger, but I never saw her rage against the fading of the light. Oh, we had our Thelma and Louiseconversations but this bitterness was more about the potential loss of dignity than death itself. Or maybe she saved her rage for her private times. 

She certainly prayed (Bargaining?, or was this just another form of Denial?). Marlene was a comfortable United Church person (though preferred spending her Sunday mornings at her friend’s riding farm – ‘Church of the Holy Horse’ I used to call it). I don’t think she believed in heaven, though wanted to, but prayer came easily for her. She didn’t make it obvious but she confessed that she asked God to save her. She was willing to try any treatment, even experimental ones, anything to stave off the inevitable. 

Marlene was not a depressive personality, though she did have mild anxiety disorder; she did not lapse into the Depression phase during her journey with cancer. Oh we had our crying times, but they were not debilitating. She always lived for today and gave very little energy to thoughts of the morrow. This personality trait, or life philosophy perhaps, served her very well indeed in her last years living with cancer. She treated each day as a gift and expected that there would be one more to come. I am unclear about my own experience in these times. I don’t remember being in denial, or depressed or bargaining, I just pushed through it. Marlene depended on me, and I was there for her as I always had been. But I know I had anger issues. Still do. 

Then came Acceptance. Marlene was pretty true to the K-R model here. She knew in her final months the inevitable was drawing near. She no longer prayed for herself, she prayed for her children, and possibly for me. Acceptance came for her only at the very end. 

I will be forever grateful that I was there when it [Acceptance] happened. It was a Saturday, around 11 in the morning, a sunny and warm and thoroughly inviting sort of August day, the kind of day you wish would never end, though turbulence was rising in the western sky. The staff had transferred her to a portable gurney so that I could push her around the ornamental gardens. We had stopped at a bed of flowers and chatted about nothing in particular. Then she turned to me, tears welling in her eyes, and she said, ‘I’m going to die, aren’t I Doug?’ I told her, honestly, ‘Yes dear.’ ‘I need to say goodbye to people.’ ‘Marlene, you’ve already said all your goodbyes, and you were wonderful.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Okay.’

With that I turned her gurney around and wheeled her back to the hospice. The staff lifted her to her bed and administered her drugs, upping the morphine. She never regained consciousness. She died seven days later. I hope she was content.

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