By Shea Wingate
In my early twenties, I pursued a Master’s in mental health therapy. While in school, I discovered a particular interest in grief work. Despite not having any real-life grief experiences, I was drawn to grief work and dreamed of being a full-time grief therapist one day. The universe listened to my dreams and gave me a “school of life” lesson in grief.
After several months of long-distance dating, I decided I wanted to move from my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, and join my boyfriend in Cincinnati, Ohio, to take the next step in our relationship. I had a new apartment picked out, work interviews lined up, and I had given my notice at my current job. About a month before the move, my mom called me with the news that she had ovarian cancer. I remember breaking my lease early and moving home until my move. I wanted to spend some quality time with my family.
Everyone handled the stress of my mom’s diagnosis differently, and tensions ran high. After her first treatment went smoothly, we breathed a sigh of relief. I planned to take her to the hospital the next day for a follow-up procedure. In the middle of the night, my mom woke me up in a panic to tell me my dad wasn’t breathing and needed my brother and me to help her wake him up. Several terrible hours later, my dad died in the ER on March 21, 2019.
I can remember being so angry. Why is this happening to my family? How could Dad leave us when we all needed him, especially now that Mom is sick? What are we going to do?
The next few months were a blur. Somehow, I managed to move, start a new job as a school therapist, and figure out a new city while frequently traveling to see my mom. Despite overwhelming grief and fear of the unknown, my mom encouraged me to keep going. I went through the motions, only half aware that I was alive. I felt like a part of me died when my dad died, and I knew I’d never be the same again.
My siblings and I worked together to help close our dad’s business, sell our family home, move our mom into an apartment where she’d be living alone for the first time, and ultimately support our mom in her cancer treatment.
Any family undergoing cancer treatment can surely relate to the emotional rollercoaster we felt then. Those months were a whirlwind of change. Changing treatment plans, changing doctors, changing response to chemo, changing symptoms, changing diet — change, change, change. Despite all the changes, my mom stayed positive and battled on.
The first holiday season without my dad was understandably difficult, but we did our best to make it festive. My mom was stable in her treatment, and we all dared to hope, just a little bit, that we’d turned a corner.
That following month, on January 16th, 2020, my mom called me with the heartbreaking news that my older sister, Karen, had died unexpectedly. I rushed back to Memphis, back to my mom.
I remember seeing her for the first time after my sister’s death, and I knew something had shifted for my mom. Cancer couldn’t scare her. Losing her husband didn’t stop her. Living alone was possible, but losing a child seemed like a fatal blow. I was frightened by how defeated my mom was and held my breath for whatever horrible thing we had to face next. In the following months, my mom’s cancer stopped responding to the chemo. It’s as if her cancer was saying, “It’s over.”
In March 2020, the school I was working at announced that in-person learning was suspended for two weeks in response to the COVID-19 virus. I booked it to Memphis without telling anyone at my job.
My brothers, boyfriend, and I all worked remotely while taking shifts to care for my mom. She decided to stop treatment and do hospice at home. My days were spent caretaking for my mom between virtual therapy sessions, and my nights were filled with too much wine and disaster-watching pandemic news coverage when I couldn’t sleep. At this point, I felt like grief had a chokehold on me, and I was doing all I could to stay afloat.
One day, on my lunch break, my mom wanted to talk to me about her death. She tried to tell me it was over, she was at her end, and it was time for her to go.
I remember being so mad at her for saying that. How could she leave me? I needed her! I had lost so much already. I wasn’t sure if I could take it anymore. My sister’s death was barely registered when life said, “Get ready for another blow!”
After several fits of grief, I found some acceptance; I knew my mom was done. I was scared to say goodbye, but I’d been saying goodbye every step of the journey. When she was diagnosed, when I took her to shave her head, at chemo treatments, and all along the way as her cancer demanded more and more of her.
On April 3, 2020, I held my mom’s hand as she died. Exactly how she’d wanted to die, at home with her family.
The next few years were a blur. All the delayed grief with my dad and sister and the grief of losing my mom threatened to overwhelm me most days. I used to say I was in the underworld; I felt separate from “normal people.”
Lots of personal grief work, support groups, amazing friends, family love, and individual therapy helped me climb out of the underworld and find my footing with the “normal people.”
I may be more in touch with the “normal people” now, but grief has changed me. It definitely left its mark on me; I’ll never be the same, and that’s okay. I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore, I’m not afraid of what life throws at me, and I live with much more purpose.
Grief can still make me wobble sometimes, but grief and I have become friendly-ish! Now, if grief wants to talk, I listen. I know it won’t overtake me, and sometimes, it’s nice when grief reminds me of my family.
My grad school dream of being a full-time grief therapist is my reality! It’s so rewarding to help grievers make meaning of their pain and create a life worth living. My family lives through me in my work and my life. Whenever my dry sense of humor cracks a witty joke, I connect with nature or pursue a business goal, I know it’s really my dad, Edison, living through me. Whenever I’m singing in the house, showing generosity to others, or looking for the silly side of life, I know it’s really my sister, Karen, living through me. And, whenever I’m cheering someone on, getting too excited about Costco purchases, or extending forgiveness toward others, I know it’s really my mom, Heidi, living through me.
For more information about Shea, you can check out her website.
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