How would you feel if your mother was dying from cancer and she chose not to tell you? That’s the experience of comedian Pamela Ross, whose parents decided to keep her mother’s prognosis of multiple myeloma – a form of bone marrow cancer – from their only child to avoid causing her worry or concern.
But the Boston-based 26-year-old soon discovered the truth after her father called to ask her to travel home to Connecticut as soon as possible because her mother was in the hospital. “Dad called and explained that my mother’s health had declined to the point that I should come home and help provide support,” she tells Whimn.
“He was speaking in vague terms and didn’t even mention her diagnosis, but for him to do that made clear the situation was dire. I immediately started crying and purchased a train ticket home for the next day.”
Pamela says there was a miscommunication when she arrived at the hospital and seeing her mother so gravely ill and incoherent was not what she’d expected.
“Instead of my dad intercepting me as I walked in and preparing me, I went up to the ICU and walked into her room. Mum was not herself at all – her wrists were strapped down because she was agitated and she kept shaking her head and saying, ‘no.’”
“I tried to keep it together and talk to her to calm her down, but I burst into tears and ran from the room.”
Pamela says the nurse on duty was startled because she’d assumed she was aware of her mom’s condition. The hospital deacon was called to calm her while her father rushed to meet with her and explain the situation.
A mother’s instinct to “protect” her child
Despite the shock, Pamela says she’s not upset with her family for keeping her in the dark about her mother’s cancer – it was the circumstances that caused her the most distress. “I wasn’t surprised they didn’t tell me and I understood why…it was a protective measure,” she says.
“My mom’s prognosis was initially positive and they assumed she’d skate through, the cancer would go into remission and they could tell me about the situation when I came home to Connecticut for my mother’s 67th birthday…but she died one week before that.”
“I do wish I‘d known so I could have provided both my mother and father emotional support as they dealt with something so difficult. Truthfully, I would’ve dropped everything and headed to Connecticut if I’d known but that’s why they kept it from me, they didn’t want my life to be interrupted.”
Pamela says she started grieving the moment she saw her mother in the ICU. “While she was in the hospital, the grief mixed with guilt and an overwhelming sense that I was experiencing something deeply unfair,” she says.
“I needed more time with her, I deserved more time with her. It was taken from me and that was maybe the hardest thing to deal with…taken from me not by my parents, but by this horrible disease and life’s cruel tendency to disregard your personal happiness.”
Pamela spent almost every day for 12 days at the hospital with her father, watching over her mother in her last days.
“The night she passed, we had a priest perform last rites because our family is Catholic, though not particularly observant or spiritual,” she says. “She lived for hours and hours longer than the doctors predicted and didn’t pass until we left the floor for some fresh air. I think she didn’t want us to see her like that at all.”
“We came back and the curtains in her room were drawn and the nurses told us she’d passed. We said goodbye to her one last time…she was still so beautiful and young-looking, though she was cold to the touch.”
Pamela says she and her father found some comfort in throwing themselves into arranging her mother’s memorial service. “I couldn’t change the way I was feeling or what had happened, but I could focus on the tasks at hand to honor my mother’s life appropriately,” she says.
“There was something very therapeutic about going through reams of old photos to compile her memorial video – a slideshow documenting my mother’s life that we played at the wake on loop. I loved seeing photos of her with me as a baby, with our beloved pets, with my father before I even existed. She was shockingly beautiful and radiant in every photo.”
Life without Mom
It’s now been 10 months since Pamela’s mother passed away and she says one of the biggest things she’s had to come to terms with is the sudden loss of her closest confidant. “I could call mom at any time and tell her anything and she’d listen. She didn’t always like what she heard, but she’d listen and take what I had to say seriously,” she says.
“A mother’s love isn’t replaceable, of course, but I’ve since had to look around me and take stock of the people I’ve surrounded myself with because my ‘chosen family’ of friends is now more important than ever.”
Pamela says she’s learned to let her grieving happen naturally. “There’s no timetable on grieving and there’s no ‘correct’ way to grieve – all the things you feel while grieving, whether sadness, anger, relief … they’re all valid and you don’t have to run from those feelings,” she says.
“It’s also made me take therapy and my mental health more seriously … I can’t afford to neglect myself or dislike myself anymore. Life’s too short and I simply have too much to get done!”
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