We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.

~Joseph Campbell

 I had been saying goodbye to my mom for ten years. That was how long she had breast cancer. At first, there was the fear that she would die, leaving so much unsaid and undone. But as she survived surgery, radiation therapy, and reconstruction, hope replaced some of that fear. Life took on a new normal.

But cancer is an unrelenting foe. It was a journey of ups and downs, from despair to hope again and again, until there were no more protocols or chemotherapy infusions—only painkillers and attempts to keep her comfortable until the inevitable. At sixty-six, my mom was dying, and there was nothing that anyone could do.

Toward the end, the cancer ravaged my mother’s body until she had no quality of life, only pain. I stopped praying for God to heal her but rather to take her. I learned that dying is the ultimate healing.

I know now there is a term for this process: anticipatory grief. It is the normal mourning that occurs when a patient or family is expecting a death. Anticipatory grief has many of the same symptoms as those experienced after a death has occurred. It can be short or protracted. Either way, it is painful.

I grieved for ten years, thinking about what she was going through and what was yet to come. The experience taught me so much. I learned how to become a caregiver. I learned I couldn’t do it all, couldn’t control it all, and that one does not care for their loved ones alone. Asking for help and allowing others to be a part of the process are gifts to all those who partake.

My mother taught me how to live with what could be changed and what could not be changed. She showed me how to fight her foe with knowledge, humor and faith. And when the time came, she showed me how to die with grace, dignity, humor and wisdom.

In those years, we laughed while buying wigs (thirteen of them, to be precise) and while simultaneously pushing a wheelchair and a flatbed cart at Costco. On the good days, we “played,” and on the bad days we popped popcorn and watched old movies. Oh, we cried, too. And, at times, we fussed at each other—as most mothers and daughters do. But those moments, too, had their purpose.

One day, I will die and leave those I love. One day, those I love will die as well. Experiencing my share of medical mayhem has taught me that I must prepare for the inevitable. I don’t want it to envelop me to the point where I cannot enjoy life and make memories that will last not only in this life, but hopefully into the next.

So, while it is hard not to anticipate the grief, I want to practice what I call “anticipatory joy”—the joy at what might be just around the corner. I want to look forward to making memories with my family, neighbors and friends. I want to savor the joy in the early morning hours as I sip a cup of French vanilla coffee on my patio overlooking the nature preserve while listening to birds sing and watching my dog chase squirrels as they forage for nuts.

I want to anticipate the joy of the day when all the pain and hurt of this world will be over, and my loved ones will no longer suffer. I truly believe that I will see them again. We will be whole, healed, and without pain and scars. Oh, and how we will dance with joy! The only remnants of this life will be the grace and wisdom that have come from living life as best as we could, loving and helping one another and sharing life together.

In those ten years watching my mother die, I learned that we cannot totally avoid grief in this life. But we can seek out and remind ourselves to anticipate the joy, no matter how bad things are. There is always a bit of joy somewhere amidst the pain.


—Loretta D. Schoen

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