I lost my mom and my heart is truly broken

It has been hard. It has been really hard to find the right words. I don't think I have found them but I had to write about my pain, grief and loss.

My mom Valerie was diagnosed with stage 3 Breast Cancer, 3 years ago. She found the lump herself, despite regular mammograms. Sadly things didn't go as we had hoped and in 2020 she was diagnosed with stage 4 or metastatic breast cancer. It progressed quicker than any of us would have guessed. First they thought it was cured after surgery and radiation. Then it came back in another organ (the liver)... then we tried chemo... then it went to her bones... then we got a trial drug... that would have cost way too much money than we could ever afford but the oncologist at BC Cancer went to bat for her with Pfizer and got it at no cost to us. However, that damn-well failed as well and it continued to spread and grow in her organs, especially the liver. Then we tried IV Chemo... IV Chemo is so rough. IV Chemo is so much to endure. She tried several types of very strong IV chemo.  I drove her there every day for her treatment at BC Cancer when the Freemasons stopped driving cancer patients due to COVID-19. I looked after her with my sister and dad when she was sick to her stomach due to nausea and vomiting. When she was so fatigued, we had to do all the cooking and cleaning... she would have done the same for us. She mostly just lay down in bed. It was so unfair... it is so unfair that so many people with stage 4 breast cancer live for more than 5 years and some for decades but my mom didn't get that...but every person and cancer is different and my mother's was the most aggressive kind.

The last week things took a grave turn for the worse. She became bed ridden quickly. She was unable to walk at all. She had been able to make short trips to the toilet with her walker the week before but all of a sudden she could no longer walk. The doctor came in and suggested we sign DNR forms, hospice forms and make funeral arrangements. We called a priest in to pray for her. Every day she got worse she got more and more mentally confused. Her eyes were already yellow from jaundice but then they became bright yellow. It was a colour that scared me immensely. Then her black skin turned yellow. For black skin to turn yellow, you can imagine how sick she was. Her liver was failing. One day she was unable to urinate for over 24 hours I called the palliative care nurse on call. She came with a bladder scanner and saw my mom had a lot of urine in her bladder but was unable to void. She called Dr Murphey (the palliative care doctor) who immediately catheterized her.  The catheter never came out again after that day. Her urine was a colour I'd never seen before dark brown and yellow due to bile in the urine and not being able to drink. I had no qualms changing my mother she would of done the same for me. I just wanted her clean and comfortable. It became really hard though when she was not able to turn herself in bed and it became a two person job so we made her as comfortable as possible but I still felt awful when she complained of pain and moaned with discomfort. 

Some days she didn't know who I was or was completely unresponsive. Some days she didn't open her eyes at all. Each day she became more sleepy and had more of a slurred speech. Some days she didn't talk at all. The doctor had her on high doses of morphine for pain and also anxiety meds and meds to help with the confusion. She had confusion due to her liver failure affecting the brain from the toxins in her body. Sometimes she would stare at me vacantly and it broke my heart. 

One day she began to bleed a lot which I noticed as I changed her. The doctor told me this is a GI bleed (veins in the stomache bleeding) which happens at end of life stage liver cancer/disease. There was no way to treat it at this stage because she was dying of liver failure. It was first black blood and in her later hours red blood as the bleeding moved lower down her GI. It was horrifying to see. Her abdomen was distended with fluid too. He offered to move her at this stage into hospice so I wouldn't burn out from all the changing and be too distressed.  I filled out all the forms but since my mom could still swallow and my sister and I took time off work and my dad agreed, we declined hospice. I wanted her to die at home surrounded by the love of her husband and daughters as per her wish. Yes hospice would be easier on us but I wanted to do this for my mom. I wanted her to die at home with care and meds to keep her as comfortable as possible.

Then the next day after we made this decision she stopped swallowing. She still was able to verbalize that she wanted to die at home so we followed through with her wish. The Dr put in the order and the RN came and put in a butterfly catheter in her arm and trained me how to put morphine and other drugs into her arm. I would do this every hour as needed to control her pain, dyspnea, nausea and agitation.

I never saw my dad cry as much as he did when she became bed-ridden. We all had a hard time accepting that we would lose our mom and that he would lose his wife. As I cooked dinner for my dad one night I overheard him talking to my mom about all the trips they had done over the years. They had been married since 1985. I felt so sad and lonely for my dad in this moment. My dad very rarely cries and here he was sitting beside my mom who was barely speaking and asleep. He cried as he talked to her about how much he would miss her and how much he loved her, and all of the amazing times they shared together. I started weeping. Some days he would call me and just cry so much on the phone. Sometimes I did the same to him or to Ilya. I would go to bed shaking and vibrating with anxiety and wake up with utter dread.

Ilya helped me get through this torment. He would help me with my anxiety and depression lead me through box breathing. Talk to me for hours and hold me while I would cry. He lost his beautiful mother unfortunately to cancer, as well, so he knew exactly what pain I was enduring. Many of the stages my mom went through, his mom did as well, and he took comfort in helping me and I took comfort in hearing he had been there too. It was a sad event that brought us closer together. I will never forget his loving support. You know I love you.

The fact that she went so quickly downhill at Christmastime made it even more heartbreaking for us all. I really thought she would of made Christmas Day. I wish I had been smart enough to give her my Christmas gift before she got so sick and passed. I bought her earrings that I will bury her in. My mother loved Christmas. She just adored it. When we had Christmas dinner Ilya will tell you she made him and us sing the cheesiest Christmas carols.  She made us pull xmas crackers, sing funny songs, do stocking stuffers and have all these silly little traditions of wearing ugly xmas sweaters and the hats from inside the Christmas crackers. Christmas would never be the same for us this year or ever again without her. I don't think I will ever be truly happy at Christmastime again. I know from my other friends who lost their children, brother, sister, dads and moms around this time and other holidays, it is always the hardest time of the year for them.

She passed at 10:45pm on Dec 23rd, 2021. She passed peacefully as I and my dad held her hand and kissed her. It was hard to see but I am glad I could be with her when she passed and that she was free of suffering. Sadly my sister got there 20 mins too late and she was inconsolable over it.

I am definitely suffering from grief, depression and anxiety. I've known sadness in my life but this is on another level. Watching my vibrant, beautiful active mother, quickly deteriorate to a shell of her former self and be in so much discomfort has been endlessly hard. Seeing her with no hair I was used to, from the chemo but having her whole body itch from the liver disease, colour changes to the eyes and skin, moaning, not eating anything (despite trying and failing) and hardly drinking, oral thrush she developed and the internal bleeding that I witnessed was horrific. 

I didn't sleep most nights and woke up with immense dread. Birding always helped me through trials in my life and it helped to a point. However, when I would stop or even during birding I would cry. I used to like getting as many birds as possible in a year for my Metro Vancouver year list and this year I beat the all time record I set in 2018 which was 270 birds. I took little joy in getting 273 birds this year and definitely did not work very hard to get 275. It just no longer mattered in the slightest.

As I said before when my mother stopped swallowing they put in a subcutaneous needle in her arm that an RN trained me to deliver her morphine and other meds to keep her comfortable. I also had to clean her mouth from secretions. It was at this point when things got extra hard and I felt truly burnt out but most of all sad. I wanted my mom with me for longer! She was only in her early 70's... too young to go... I wanted more time. I had only had 30 odd years with her and I wanted more. Yes I'm in my 30's but I felt like a little girl losing her mom. I still needed my mom. I can't imagine navigating life without her. I know many people have unfortunately lost their parents earlier than I have and have had less time. I am grateful for the time I had with her but I wanted more....

I felt sad for my little sister she was particularly a mommy's girl. At least my mother got to meet my nephew Parker. I was sad she would never meet my baby or children. I feel angry at that. Shame I waited so long to have kids. I felt a flood of emotions. I didn't want her to pass but also didn't want her to suffer and in this state it was not much of a life in a hospital bed. I was angry at God too. Why couldn't he just save her? I kept praying for a miracle but it just never happened.

I am grateful to all her friends who came to her to comfort her before she got really sick and those who came after. You sure know who your real friends are at times like this. I am grateful to all my close friends I told who were there for me too. I am especially grateful to my dad, sister and Ilya for lifting me up in some of the darkest hours of my life. I am also grateful for those friends who checked in on me daily and who allowed me to call them even in the wee small hours of the morning.

I found music really comforted me during her illness. I remember going to a massage appointment and just crying my eyes out. I did the same at shoppers drug mart. People must have thought I was crazy. There was several times where I just pulled the car over to cry. I am grateful to my counsellor who helped me through as well and to my new kitten who also would curl up with my mom on her hospital bed and just lie with her. Animals really know when we are suffering and try to offer comfort. Before my mom was unable to sit up on her own or move in her bed she would pet the cat and laugh and enjoy time with him. She wasn't a cat person either but the animal gave her much comfort and God knows he gave my dad so much comfort. Ever since I was there with my mom my dad would get up early to feed the cat and just talk to it every morning. One morning he told me how much he loved "Milo." 

Some days as she lay in her hospital bed in the home, I would turn on the TV to shows she loved like the “Bachelorette” and it was so sad she couldn't watch the finale she was so eager to see. I felt sad watching this show I really didn't care about but knew my mom loved it so. When the bachelorette chose her fiancé I tried to tell my mom but she was unresponsive. Makes you really realize to treasure all the silly and seemingly inconsequential moments with those you love. Life is so short and you will miss all those mundane moments you once shared because you quickly realize they weren't mundane and every minute mattered.

I told very few people about my mom's terminal cancer because my mom was very private and because I guess I didn’t want to accept it. I also didn’t want to upset people. Some people just can’t handle this time of depressing news. The ones who knew kept telling me to stay positive when I would despair. I knew that my mom needed me but God was it hard. Cancer affects not only the patient but those who love them. It hurts your mental health and can lead you to depression. It is so emotionally exhausting. As I said Ilya lost his mother to cancer too, so we grew even closer in love with our shared pain. Very few people can truly understand how your heart hurts every day, unless they go through this battle themselves or their loved one does. You can sympathize but you really can't know. I never knew it would be this bad. It drains you to the core. Even though I thought I was prepared for what was to come... no one ever is. My sister who as a social worker is far more emotionally strong than me, helped to guide me. 

Like I said earlier, watching a once active woman, quickly decline, lose hair, lose dozens of pounds, have to walk with a walker or use a wheelchair and then not be able to walk or move at all, vomit constantly or wince in pain, not eat, not drink or swallow, be mentally confused and almost comatose is one of the hardest things I've EVER been through. I can't imagine how my mom did this for so long and I felt so HEPLESS that I couldn't end her suffering or fix her. I guess the biggest feeling I felt during this journey has been how helpless I felt. I definitely grew closer to my mom in my caretaker role. So I am glad I could help her out even in those small ways, even though I couldn't cure her.

People always tell me that I’m so confident, and so strong. Well my mom's cancer took all my strength. I will never be the same again... never. I've been through some pretty terrible things in my life but none hurt more than this. I do wonder how I'll get through this from now on. I know the birds will help me but it will have to be more than that. More than grief counsellors too. Right now I don't feel whole and I doubt I ever will be again. Time doesn't always heal all wounds and some just can't ever be fixed again.

To see my poor dad and sister suffer like this kills me to the core. To know that when I bird I won't always feel joy and that Ilya experienced that too, where even birding couldn't fully soothe the pain is a hard pill to swallow but at least I'll see her in every Mountain Bluebird that flies by. It was her favourite bird....maybe because it was easy for her to identify but every bluebird will remind me of her face and her grace. She loved going on long drives with me to look at bluebirds. I remember driving to Merritt often just so she could see bluebirds. I will miss our drives to places she loved like Squamish. Liron will remember a trip we did together there where we found a Glaucous Gull. She loved all the young birders I worked with. She also encouraged my passion for birding. I would call her and she was especially fascinated by my trip to see Snowcocks. I remember talking to her in the middle of the night as I prepared for my hike in NV and about my birding adventures during this trip to ID and UT.

I do regret not taking her on a last trip before she passed. I will now really treasure the last big trip I took with her and my dad to Arizona in July 2019. I will always think of her when I go back to bird this state that I love so much. I’m also so glad I took her to the Cariboo in 2021 as well even though she was sick then she got to see the beautiful scenery through the car. 

My mom wanted to go back to Hawaii before she got really sick. With covid and all travel insurers not covering her (since she was terminal) we deferred the trip but I see now that it was a mistake. Ilya and I plan to go to Hawaii in her honour in the new year and I will carry her with me every step of the way.

For now I am not thinking about much except sadness. Running the RBA will not be my priority in my immediate grief and will seek help with it until I feel more myself. For now, I am going to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out all day long. And then after a while, I won't have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out all day long and I won't have to think about how I had such a great and perfect mom for a while.

Thanks to my friends who have helped me through many tears (you know who you are). Also thanks to Chris Charlesworth and Jeremy Gatten for taking some weight off my shoulders at the Rare Bird Alert.

I will be taking a break to regain my sense of self and to breathe again. Before she passed we planned to spend our last Christmas with her in a waterfront airbnb home in Halfmoon Bay on the Sunshine Coast where she could watch the ocean at her feet and see birds and seals. It was going to be special and what she wanted but she got too sick too fast to even do that. I thank the host for being so gracious to us.

My mom was a good mother who loved me and always looked out for me. I will miss her so. Do you know even when she was about to die in a hospital bed in palliative care at home, before she got really sick, she directed me to go and buy gifts for all the care aides who looked after her?.  As she lay there dying I gave them to the aides. Now that is kindness... she always thought of others before herself. I can only hope I'm half as good a mother one day.

Thanks to Dr. Gary Pasengrau, her oncologist at BC Cancer in Vancouver. You tried everything and I thank you for it and for calling me before my mom passed. Thank you to all the nurses and care aides and staff who looked after her every day especially in Palliative Care. You guys are all beautiful people doing the work of angels. Thank you to the counsellor at BC Cancer. Thank you to Dr. Shane Murphy who helped my mom pass as peacefully as humanely possible and who would phone me to see how I was coping. To be a palliative care doctor you have to be a special sort of human being to be around all that death, suffering and grief and this made it easier on us.

My mom's cancer was nasty and evil but she didn't fear death, she didn't cry much, she accepted her fate. She was a much stronger person than I. So many times the doctors said she would die in a certain time frame and she continually beat the odds until one day her body just shut down. My mom kept smiling and thanking doctors, caregivers, my sister, myself and my dad right until the end. She fought hard and ultimately won because cancer may have taken her body but she left this earth surrounded by love and with a smile on her face. So take that cancer! One day you will be no more and you won't hurt another person, just you wait. 

Goodbye mom. I can't wait to see my next bluebird and I can't wait to see you again. Thank you for all the strength, love and support you gave to Meghan and I since we were little. God I am going to miss you.

It hurts to let you go. I don't want to do it but I am now forced to. I am scared to. I will never forget you ever, until the day I die. Looking forward to the day that I can see you in Heaven. You are one of the bravest human beings I ever knew. What you suffered and how you endured it with grace made me so proud and inspired by you. You never complained about your illness or pain. You just accepted your fate with courage and such strength.

Love you forever and always and more than the moon, all the stars and fish in the sea.

My mom at age 33. 

I feel every word of this poem by E. E. Cummings. I will always carry your heart in mine mom.

“i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)”

These songs are for you mom. Sleep warm in the arms of angels.


  1. What a heart felt and Touching testimony to your mom Mel - Heart wrenching, had me tears - What a beautiful woman , wife and mother - my deepest sympathy to you and your family on your loss. I know you will keep her memory alive and strong and she will always be near you.
    "...When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
    I am the swift uplifting rush
    Of quiet birds in circled flight.
    I am the soft stars that shine at night."
    Take time to heal and take care of each other - Be kind to yourselves at this sad time - you know where I am if you need anything - Kate

    1. Dear kate thank you so much for this kind message and for bringing us cookies and cake you are an angel. I love the lines you shared from this poem you shared too. this is the toughest time of my life but with friends like you I'll get through.

  2. I wish I knew what to say that will ease your pain but I don't know. This of course is the day we should be exchanging, "Merry Christmas" but I know that you will forever remember this Christmas as the time of year that your mother passed away. You shared your mother's cancer diagnoses with me several year ago and I have been wondering how she was doing. I should have asked. Beautiful testimony about your mother and the struggle she, you and your family have had and continue to have. Beautiful photo of her. You got some of your beauty from her, including her inner beauty. I pray that God will comfort you. I care.


    1. dear jim thank you so much for your kindness. i remember telling my mom about the trip i did to your part of washington and telling her about the fun we had searching for ash throated flycatchers and the like. I should come back down soon for a visit. thank you for reaching out with your kind support it means a lot to me.

  3. I am so sorry for your loss and for the pain that cancer brings.

    1. dear liz thank you so much for reaching out and for your kindness. cancer hurts so many lives i hope one day there will be a cure for all those fighting stage 4

  4. Very sorry to hear of your loss. Hope you find ways to find comfort and heal the pain.

    1. thank you so much dear brian. i never felt as much pain in my heart as i do right now. i miss her so. seeing all the gifts she left under the tree was hard without her here and it was hard not to see her open my gifts and hug me at xmas. i really am heartbroken. i hope one day i will see her again and that she will watch over me from above. tomorrow i will help my dad plan the funeral.

  5. Melissa, we've never met. I'm a Brit, and avid birder with relatives in Vancouver. Have enjoyed two long trips to BC and enjoyed the birds greatly. I've often read your posts to revive warm memories, So, I just wanted to say I am so very sorry you have lost your Mum. She sounds like a wonderful woman. My thoughts are with you and your family.

    1. dear mick thank you so much for taking the time to write me especially since we never met. I hope you come back to bc and that we can go out birding together. thank you for reading my blog and for your kind words about my mom it means a lot that you care in this difficult time for me. best wishes for 2022.

  6. Melissa, my sincere condolences for losing your beautiful, brilliant mother so young. She was very lucky to have you as a daughter and of course, you her. The mother is the heart of the home and hearth - departed this physical world at home surrounded by her loving family and attitude of grace.
    What a wonderful tribute you have written for her. Thank you for sharing her story with us. May she rest peacefully in the arms of our Lord. Please take care.

    1. dear shou, thank you angel for your beautiful message. I know you have been exactly where I have been with your own mother. I am grateful for your friendship and preparing me for what to come. I know how you understand my deep grief. I hope to feel like myself again but right now I await laying my beloved mother to rest and taking time to grieve this devastating loss in my life. <3


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