Finding grace in the grief: Coping with terminal cancer diagnosis brings the unexpected

December 13, 2021
Dawn Brazell in her wedding dress on the beach with her mom Sara Cutler
Dawn Brazell and her mom, Sara Cutler, have navigated Cutler's cancer journey together, finding comfort in small things when the path ahead seems uncertain. Photo by Sarah Pack

The hard part is the living with the dying.

There will be an estimated 780 deaths in South Carolina this year caused just by breast cancer. My mom wonders when she’ll be a part of that statistic. So do I.

She has lived with me for about a decade after her husband passed, and she has had a run of bad luck with multiple health issues. She’s survived open heart surgery, a double knee replacement, a pacemaker implant, a stent and a double mastectomy. She has watched her three grandsons mature as she has dodged soccer balls, picked up dirty plates and laundry, closed toilet lids left up and scrubbed bacon grease that dripped down the cabinet.

She’s a vivacious extrovert, her life an open book, whereas I lean more to the introverted side and prefer hiking and moments of solitude. She loves chatting with strangers, any stranger. I cherish a few close friends. Goodwill is her home away from home, where she gets high off items bought on super clearance. I’d rather overspend for one item I truly love. She brings knickknacks home that pop up randomly on counters. I move them on, preferring clear spaces.

Yet, we make it all work, somehow. We are alike, too. Mischievous and stubborn. Fierce protectors of our family. Survivors.

Until now.

Dawn Brazell with her mother Sara Cutler on vacation in North Carolina 
Brazell has been her mom's primary caregiver since her cancer came back four years ago. Photo provided

My mom’s cancer came back about four years ago. She’s already lived past what they thought, but now at 83, she’s running out of options, just like my brother did. He passed in six months at age 33 of melanoma. It’s a scar that Mom and I both happily carry: that piece of him that always lives through us. It’s been years since I lost him, yet when I hear a certain laugh or see a movie I know he’d love, time shifts as if he never passed. I have to remind myself I can’t call and that he is not coming through the door during the holidays.

Time and grief and love are like that, with no chronology. I watch my mom cycle through the stages of grief, and I cycle, too, on a different rhythm, trying to be up when she’s down.

Strong in her faith, my mom’s not afraid of dying. What we don’t really know how to do, though, is the letting go. It’s not a skill we’ve practiced. Mom wants to know we all will be all right. I want to know who I am without her in my world. What will I do when I want to pick up the phone and call, and she’s not there? Who will help me remember the quirky details of old family stories and try to hide cash in my pocket before a trip?

We both fear the suffering in this phase of the journey. I won’t sugarcoat it. It’s brutal. Advanced cancer is sneaky, persistent, snaking its way to its next site. We try not to think of where it might strike next or what symptoms it might cause. What liberties and dignities will she lose next? We watch as they slowly get stripped away. The worry runs in the background, like multiple open web tabs, eating up our bandwidth of patience.

My mom’s sister passed quickly. She stood up to go feed the birds she so loved at her backyard feeder, came back in, sat down at the table and died from a stroke. It was fast, with little suffering. I can’t think of a better way to go, except maybe in my sleep. What people don’t talk about much is the hard work of dying for those who have a more complicated journey. How you’re so strong and at peace in one moment and terrified in the next. How cancer churns the emotions for the patient and the caregivers.

And I’ve noticed the journey changes as she gets closer to the end. I can see her start to withdraw from life, a natural part of the process, but totally alien for her — the life of the party. I find myself withdrawing too. I don’t want her to be alone, yet it’s not a journey I can fully make with her, so I reemerge to the surface, gasping for air.

We focus on the small things, now. We fill the bird feeders and help her get outdoors when she can. I work with a Hollings researcher about special cancer shakes I can get to slow her weight loss. We binge watch Schitt’s Creek, Longmire and Manifest and find whatever creature comforts will bring her relief.

Iceland highlands rugged landscape with mountain in background 
The author found the rugged landscapes of Iceland to be therapeutic during a trip last summer. Photo by Dawn Brazell

I find I let go and hang on, in cycles — rinse and repeat — because the heart has an amazing capacity to do both, at the same time even. I practice letting go of any illusion that I have any control, an experience I know many others go through. On my last meditative walk, which I do to keep me balanced, I listened to this On Being podcast in which bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert described what it was like for her to lose her partner to cancer.

She reflected that if she had the chance to do it over again, she would have adopted a stance of surrender earlier — “arms collapsed, no clipboard, no agenda, no cherished outcome — and to have almost gone limp into it,” which she describes as a very powerful stance to take in the wake of something that is bigger than we are. It was so comforting to hear. I don’t think we talk enough about what is a natural, yet painful, part of life. We bear it mostly in silence.

Part of my self-care is to get outdoors and to travel when I can. Last summer, I went to Iceland, where the rugged landscape and volatile thermal activity felt oddly therapeutic. My husband and I circled the entire island, passing spouting geothermal vents and miles of moss-covered lava fields. We snaked through fjords where hundreds of swans glowed in the dusk on the pale blue lakes. We hiked to lush green cliffs covered in colonies of puffins and to glacier lagoons where seals played hide and seek among iceberg sculptures.

What stood out to me the most, though, were the utterly barren moonscapes of the highlands marked by specks of obsidian rocks sparkling in the sunlight. It all felt raw and unabashedly out of control. I could relate. I was in an element that was helping me bear my grief.

A volcano was erupting near Reykjavik while I was there, and I read a New York Times account of a writer who decided to hike up to see it. She described a word that Icelanders have for places in a transitional state: óbrynnishólmi. It’s defined as “a place newly surrounded by lava — a place that hasn’t burned up yet.”

I realized that was where I was: a place of intense transition. I’m on a hill looking at a landscape that won’t be here next year. My youngest son’s going off to college. I’m losing my mom. In Iceland, one day there’s a farm. The next it’s gone, or there’s a new island like Surtsey that arises out of the blue, and scientists watch it gradually be colonized. For now, I’m in a transition zone with lava streams rippling beneath the surface. I know all will be well. Mom will be at peace. I will find my way. The grief can be borne.

But for today, I cherish this hill, this last stand, this passage to a new way of being. And I hate this hill, the suffering being endured and the unwanted changes. I accept both and do the only thing I can. I collapse my arms and surrender. I search for the sacred sparkling moments in the barren landscape and embrace all the mess of emotions that erupt. I remember that I’m just human after all, and there is peace in that.

Sunset looking down a valley in Iceland 
A sunset captured during the author's trip to Iceland. Photo by Dawn Brazell