As I write this, my mother-in-law is in the ICU. We don’t expect her to leave.
She’s too young. Sixty-four. We got the call on Saturday.
“Get here this week,” they said. So we did. With a newborn, a 3-year-old, a 5-year-old, and a soon-to-be 16-year-old. We managed ICU visits with my in-laws and juggled childcare so we could all take turns seeing the matriarch. For the last time? Maybe.
The logistics are all-consuming and don’t leave a lot of space for anything else. Also, I hate logistics. My son asks questions nobody knows how to answer: Will I die when I’m 64? Are you and daddy going to die? Why doesn’t the hospital want kids to see their grandparents?
We do our best. I don’t bother trying to hide tears.
Navigating my own grief is something I’m familiar with. My father died four years ago. I lost all of my grandparents and three uncles before that. I know how it feels to pick up a phone to call someone because you momentarily forget they are no longer there, forcing you to relive the loss again. And then again and again as you go through life with a person-shaped hole where they used to be.
In the end-of-life stage, the wounds are still raw. There is still hope and despair to wade through every hour. The medical whiplash can be paralyzing, and by the time you’ve accepted one reality, you are presented with a new one. She’s doing better, and then she isn’t. She’s never leaving, and then maybe they’ll send her home to hospice. I came down here prepared for the rollercoaster and the uncertainty of the place we’re in today.
What I wasn’t prepared for is grieving the way a mother grieves. Every time my 5-year-old son brings up his grandmother, my heart clenches violently. In my phone, there is a folder of text message screenshots exchanged between them because I can’t stand the idea that he might forget her—or that I might forget the simplicity of his words. I sifted through hundreds of photos of grandma’s visits, my eyes blurry as I organized them into an album, desperate to give them anything to hold on to.
I grieve the relationship I wanted them to have with her. The one my girls are too young to remember. The teenager’s sixteenth birthday week will now be colored by the last time she saw her only grandmother. Will she regret having to leave early to take her driving test? Or will she come to understand that life doesn’t stop when someone is dying?
I wasn’t prepared for the way a wife grieves when her husband’s heart is broken. This is the first time I’ve watched my husband shatter. I’m the crier—the one who always falls apart. Learning how to be the strong one is complicated, and the dynamic between us shifts. It isn’t bad or wrong. I know the hole that will be left when she goes, and I ache for him. This purgatory we are in while she is sick is impossible to navigate.
So, I wait with him and I try not to cry too much. I try to shoulder the mundane so he has space to walk his own walk right now. It’s taken a while to realize that there isn’t a right way to do any of this, and we just have to make the best decisions we can, every day. We have to do the best we can with what we know, which isn’t very much.
I wasn’t prepared for my own grief to be at the back of my mind. Not in an altruistic way, but because the grief of my children and my husband are so intertwined with my own that I’m not sure how to separate them yet. When I was falling apart, my son thanked her for being his grandma and my heart swelled. When I thought I was doing okay, the oldest called us in shambles because she came in second and couldn’t tell Grandma she won her volleyball tournament for her.
We grieve and love together. My heart is broken a dozen different ways, but in helping my family heal, I will find healing.