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Coping with Mom’s Imminent Mortality

What caring for and showing up for my dying mom is teaching me about living life more fully

My Mom was diagnosed with Stage 4 Glioblastoma Multiforme about a year and a half ago. Looking back, I guess I had this intuition that I would lose her sooner than I’d be ready for. When I was younger, every time she was late coming home my mind would immediately think of the worst-case scenario. I was constantly in fear of the inevitable. I slept with Mom up until the age of 12. I would sneak into my parents’ room, send my poor dad to sleep in my bed, just so I could snooze nestled next to her .

Mom is a headstrong, compassionate, caring, and generous soul. She had a persona that everyone loved and respected. People – her siblings, extended family, friends, colleagues, even strangers in the supermarket – couldn’t get enough of her presence and energy. While her spirit remains strong, 19 months after her surgery, her decline is slowly beginning to show. I know that there is no guarantee in life. The same time that is ticking for my mom is also ticking for all of us. I know that just because she has brain cancer, doesn’t necessarily mean she will die sooner. Sure, it increases the odds, but the reality is that no one really knows when they will pass away. I love her with all my heart, and having to face her death has been my greatest fear, but it is also teaching me to step into my power, live, and love like never before. Here are five things I’m doing along the way to make this practical.

Embracing Uncertainty: My immediate family lives in Ethiopia. I live and work in the U.S. When Mom’s condition started to worsen my brothers urged me to come home. So I took a medical leave off of work to be with her.  The uncertainty of it all was difficult to grapple with at first, but over the last couple of months I’ve come to embrace it. I TRUST that Allah, God, the Universe, a higher being, or just fate is there no matter what. For the longest time, I had been anticipating living the kind of story that many people have playing in their heads.  The script went a little like this– Mom would be at my wedding, guide me throughout the turbulence of motherhood, celebrate her grandkids on their birthdays, and the list goes on.  But I’m tearing that script apart, letting it go, and having life unfold the way it’s always meant to. This is not to say that I’m forgoing my life visions and plans. Not at all! Those are aspects that make life worth living. The secret is not getting attached to the story, the script, or the vision. Like a river – I’m learning to flow through life doing everything necessary within my power, to live in abundance, to love, to give, and to receive.  But to do it simply, without attachment. I know —much easier said than done– but it’s an important reminder.


“Detachment is not that you should own nothing, but nothing should own you.”

Ali Ibn Abi Talib

Practicing Gratitude: Alhamdulillah” is a word my mom says at least 50 times a day. It’s the perfect encapsulation of gratitude for every moment. Like her, it had become a constant part of my vocabulary. I say it repeatedly especially on the difficult days. Times when she yells out in pain at night unable to sleep, or moments when she just stares into space not wanting to interact with anyone.  Those are the days to be particularly thankful for, because they force you to be even more present, and do all that you can to ease her suffering. Other days are really good where we take a pleasant walk in the garden and enjoy some sunlight. Everyday is different and a blessing – an opportunity to love her fiercely.

Crying Boldly: There are days when I look at old photo albums and read her diaries and the tears just start flowing, and my chest starts heaving uncontrollably. I allow myself to sob as hard as I can, for as long as necessary. It’s cathartic and helps release pent up energy. I’ve cried with my friends and it’s enabled us to connect more vulnerably. I cry in front of my brothers so they can feel comfortable crying too. I realize the world makes it harder for guys to show their grief through tears. But it’s a narrative that is slowly shifting in our household.

Dancing Unabashedly: Another way to release repressed emotions is to let loose and dance. My current favorite genres are Afrobeat and Reggaeton. On good days when Mom feels energetic we dance together. While she sits, I move her hands to the beat. There is so much joy in movement that I’m only just discovering. I was very self-conscious because my dance moves were always off rhythm. Now, I’m constantly putting on my favorite songs and romping around with my quirky moves, and mom loves it! (At least she says she does)

Showing up authentically in the world: I’m a people pleaser, and I have the tendency to lose my sense of self to appease others. But I’m learning to let go of this by giving myself time and space to connect to my inner world and beyond. I do this through prayer, meditation, and exercise. I grant myself at least 30 minutes a day. I hold myself accountable through short journaling practices and check-ins. I also make sure that I’m my most honest, kind, and emotionally available self for my friends, family and community.

While I’m still on this journey with my mom, her spirit is a guiding force that’s propelling me to live and love fearlessly.

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