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Nothing prepares you for the death of your mother – not even being a doctor

Nothing prepares you for the death of your mother – not even being a doctor

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



Please note, only GPs are permitted to add comments to articles

Valerie Long 1 May, 2023 1:20 pm

Thank you Julia for this piece of writing I identify with it. My Mum died in 2006 when I was new GP and a new Mum.

David Mummery 1 May, 2023 2:50 pm

Thank you Julia. Very , very moving – I also had similar feelings when my mother died. Thank you for expressing them so beautifully

Vina Patel 1 May, 2023 8:30 pm

So well written. Just how I felt when my father died. Thank you

Anonymous 3 May, 2023 7:35 pm

Sorry to read you feel guilty for not accepting your mothers terminal illness and not having the chance to properly say goodbye.

Seek help, speak to someone.

Robert Mockett 3 May, 2023 9:48 pm

I am sorry for your loss . Mothers are special, really special .I concur with your thoughts and feelings . My Mum Sylv died last year , first anniversary is 23rd of May . She lived in Bristol and I live in Brighton . She had disseminated bowel cancer and it took 6 months for her to die after some debunking surgery . As a Doctor like you I found it difficult as I could not cure her .I visited her weekly but kept on working as a GP . We spoke daily on the phone . We said our goodbyes and said we loved each other though That was hard . I still miss my Mum Sylv . I miss that , must give Mum a call . Clearing her home we found she had kept every letter we had sent her , every Christmas card , every birthday card . . She was wise and thoughtful . She was well loved by multiple generations . She was the glue for me and my brothers . The first year is tough after the death of anyone especially your Mum . I hope it gets better . It’s not an all pervasive feeling but every now and again it hits you . When she was dying she said to me what will you get with the money you get in the will ? I said a really nice Merc ! And I have . And I call it Sylv ! Thanks for putting this together

Unnati Patel 3 May, 2023 9:49 pm

I am very sorry Julia that you have lost your mum. You articulated exactly the struggle that comes with being a doctor and how that overtakes the wish to just be a daughter. Thank you for sharing this heartfelt piece.

Finola ONeill 4 May, 2023 11:26 am

I’m really sorry Julia. It really does get better with time and I never, ever believed it would but it takes a lot longer than I realised it would to even accept they are gone. Hang on in there and take care. Anything you can enjoy or be distracted by, do it; music, time with friends, gardening, anything. At first it is hard to enjoy anything because the hole is too large but it gradually comes creeping back in, life that is. Life outside the big black hole of grief. Take are. Gone, never forgotten, always loved xxx

Shaba Nabi 5 May, 2023 10:58 pm

Thank you for allowing those of us in similar circumstances to re- connect with their grief.

My mum died 2 months after covid kicked off and I couldn’t see her conscious. I was in auto pilot doctor mode whilst she was dying and took only 2 days off work because I was leading the covid pandemic.

I am sad I neglected myself and even sadder I decided to follow government guidance and not see her conscious.

Thank you for sharing your story

Imogen Bloor 16 May, 2023 6:03 pm

Thank you for this honest heartfelt piece of writing, My mother died in 2019 & I recognise the tightrope you were walking between being a doctor and a daughter and all that entailed. It is hard. I was lucky enough to be able to visit at weekends and spend the last week with her, though would have dearly spent longer, were it not for work commitments.