Grief Over Time: How My Mom’s Cancer Led Me to Kate’s Club
by Ashley Byars, Kate’s Club Board of Directors
All I have to hear is one note of a Whitney Houston song and I’m instantly transported back to driving around the city in a red Mustang, sipping on Oreo milkshakes with my mom as The Bodyguard soundtrack blasted in the background. My mom loved driving around listening to music with us in her car.
When my mom’s cancer took over her body, we switched to drinking milkshakes in the hospital. But listening to Whitney there never quite felt right. Admittedly we had a lot more ginger ale than milkshakes over the 10 months she lived through her grueling treatments.
After the initial devastation of her diagnosis when I was nine and she was 31, I remember feeling hopeful that the doctors were going to know what to do and everything would be okay. My mom was in fact a nurse herself, and any time we visited her at work it seemed like everyone there really knew what they were doing. They would fix this. It was going to work out.
Along with a cancer diagnosis being a little abstract for a child, there were also other weird things I didn’t understand. My mom started to lose her hair pretty quickly and that was very confusing for me to see her bald. She tried a few wigs, but ultimately felt like a hat was the right fit for her. I secretly took a sigh of relief as the wigs just didn’t feel like her. There were also strange tubes coming out of her chest that we had to be careful not to touch, extreme weight loss from loss of appetite, and then a bout of Bell’s Palsy that made half of her face paralyzed. All of this made feel like I was already losing my mom.
Despite this, we all tried to find the highlights of spending so much time in the hospital. Unlimited fountain ginger ale, watching a ton of TV we weren’t normally allowed to watch, playing cards and the masked visits from friends bringing meals.
I admittedly had no idea as a kid how much pain my mom was going through as I know she tried to protect us from much of what she actually feeling. Being a mom myself now, I understand how hard it must have been on her to keep protect my two sisters and me from the enormity of her pain while feeling very sick.
There were times she felt well enough to be home and things started to feel normal, only to return home from school to find out she was suddenly back in the hospital. The cancer was ravaging her body, and it was also destroying any normalcy of my childhood. I celebrated my 10th birthday in a hospital room.
By the end of the summer it was clear she was going to need a bone marrow transplant. Then good news came that my grandfather was a match. My aunt and grandma even had a cake made that read “Your dad’s a match!” to break the good news to my mom. We would all travel to Minnesota, and she would be cured. Thank goodness. This nightmare was all going to end and we could get back to our lives and I could get my mom back.
The bone marrow transplant never happened. Her white blood cell counts never quite went high enough for her to receive it, and her symptoms got worse from there. We celebrated her September birthday in the hospital visitor room. She tried to smile and look happy, but her face was still paralyzed.
The day before Halloween we came home from school, and my dad said we needed to have a family meeting. I remember feeling annoyed that my regular after school snack choice of Cinnamon Toast crunch cereal was delayed for a stupid family meeting. Who has a family meeting right after school?! That afternoon my dad sat us down and told us that my mom wasn’t going to make it. She was dying. I felt lied to, I felt betrayed, and I felt angry toward all the doctors that told me my mom was getting better. I was laying next to her in her hospital bed when she died the next day on Halloween.
I have vivid memories of her death and the immediate period after. I remember my 4th grade teacher bringing a manilla envelope full of cards from my classmates and a cute stuffed kitten. I read those cards over and over. I remember my aunt and grandma arguing in a department store over putting us girls in black for the funeral. Yes, it was decided black velvet was what we would wear. But after that, everything gets a little fuzzy.
Normally an A student, my grades started to fall. I started to get in trouble at school. I got in a fight with a boy from neighborhood. I remember my 5th grade teacher pulling me into the hallway and telling me I got a C on a math test and asking how was I going to pull it up. I wanted to shout in her face that my mom had just died and there were more important things than math, but I just told her I would study more.
I started burying my feelings and never letting anyone know if I was sad. My reasoning was that it wouldn’t matter anyway, she wasn’t coming back. The first few years were not an easy road for me as I had no roadmap or mentor to show me how to deal with this sadness. I dealt with a lot of anger and sadness in the few years after her death. It was especially hard because I felt I lost my dad in many ways too. He tried his best, but he couldn’t be emotionally available when he was dealing with his own grief. I want to say to caregivers with children who may be in this same place, that those children like me who may be grieving are not bad children. We are children having a hard time and acting out on this. Be patient, set boundaries and create a space where your child can feel safe to share when they’re upset. Luckily I had incredible teachers in middle school and women in my community who saw my struggles and took me under their wing. I’m forever grateful for their love and grace during this impressionable time in my life. They would take me to movies, for walks on the beach, and yes even to grab Oreo milkshakes.
The number one thing that always made me feel less alone were stories of other people who lost someone close to them or movies where a child lost their parent. I wish I had a place like Kate’s Club after my mom died, so I could have met other kids like myself going through similar situations. However, the next best thing is being able to support this amazing organization so that other children do have grief resources.
I learned of Kate’s Club a few years ago and immediately connected to the mission. I learned about Camp Good Mourning and wanted to donate so other children could have a place where they could hear these stories of loss and feel a little less alone. Kids and young adults having a a community to go where they feel okay to grieve is essential to mental and physical health outcomes for the rest of their lives. I’m proud to now serve on the board of directors to help bring the incredible programs and services to even more children throughout the state of Georgia.