On the theme ‘A case I’ll never forget’, Dr Julia Chase writes about the unique challenge of caring for her dying mother as both doctor and daughter
I am not a writer; I am a doctor.
I am not an expert on grief, simply someone who is recently bereaved.
My mother died, my most precious patient, and I am lost in a sea of failure.
I could not save her.
I could not make her better.
She is gone and I am consumed by sadness.
I went back to work before her funeral.
I don’t know why. I don’t know how I made that decision. I just did. It seemed the right thing to do. I welcomed the distraction.
I could not bare the thought of planning a funeral; registering the death and all the other admin that comes when someone dies.
I left those jobs to my father, helped by my siblings.
In my mind, I had done all I could do and I was exhausted. Mentally spent. I checked out. With no mum, there was no illness to treat, no doctors to liaise with, no results to explain and no medical plans to discuss with family. My role here was over. That loss added to my emptiness and sense of failure.
I am the only doctor in my family.
When my mum was ill, I felt that responsibility. Not from anyone. There was no external pressure, no expectation. That all came from inside. From me. To fix her. To keep her with us.
Nothing prepares you for the death of your mother. Nothing.
She had cancer. It spread. It was in her breast, bones and colon.
But despite this she really was doing ok. She was completing cryptic crosswords the week before she went into hospital. And having a drink with her best friend three days before she died.
I was not prepared.
Of course I knew she would die. I know cancer. I know illness. I know dying. But I know all these things as a doctor and not a daughter. I had not realised how intrinsically distinct these two parts of me were. I thought I was just me and that I would grieve as me. But when she died, the daughter in me – which had been pushed to my very depths – exploded out, uncontrollably, angry and full of such rage. Fury. The doctor was gone and the daughter was here, and she was howling.
When my mum became ill, the waters were already muddied, the lines blurred. When it came to her cancer I was in doctor mode. It is not a decision I made consciously. I didn’t flick a switch, the emotion just wasn’t there. Me, the daughter, was hiding. Pretending to be ok. Distracting herself with other things. But she was there, watching and feeling and worrying and very, very scared. But never saying anything at all.
My mum was ill. At times, very ill. And I needed to think logically, clearly, without emotion. I needed to speak to medical teams and discuss medical matters with my family. I was gentle and patient with my dad and my siblings. I had long, calm conversations with my mum’s sister. I wrote emails to friends and family that were factual and informative so everyone was up to speed.
But I am not sure I was gentle with me, the daughter. I wasn’t mean. I wasn’t impatient, I wasn’t angry. I just ignored her. And I never saw that she was struggling. She never spoke up. She just stayed in her compartment. Boxed away. Until the doctor had gone. And then she burst out frightened and furious and screaming for her mum to come back because she never got to say goodbye.
Dr Julia Chase is a GP in Surrey