So God Made a Mother Collection ➔

For most children, the concept of death is introduced with the death of a pet, an elderly grandparent or perhaps a poor raccoon spotted on the side of the road.

For my almost 2-year old, it was when he asked for his dad and I had to say, “Daddy died. We can’t see him anymore.”

When my husband of only a year was given 1-2 years to live along with his Stage IV colon cancer diagnosis, we decided that our dream of a family would not be crushed like our dream of growing old together. So we got the IVF ball rolling and we soon welcomed a baby boy into our lives.

Deep down, I knew that one day I would be a single mother to this little miracle, and that I’d have to explain to him what happened to his dad.

And so, during bedtime one night, as I held my son in my lap and we settled in for Llama Llama Red Pajama it started. He asked “Da-Da?”

“Daddy died. We can’t see him anymore.”

I knew he had no idea what this meant, and so I tried, as best as I could, to explain.

“Daddy is in Heaven with God now. Daddy was really sick, and didn’t feel well, and only God could make him feel better.”

My face was wet with tears.

“Da-Da ning ning?” This was his way of asking if we could call him, since he’d grown accustomed to doing so during my husband’s hospital stays leading up to his death.

At this point Llama Llama was wet with tears, too.

“No sweetheart, we can’t call him. We can’t see or talk with him anymore. But he’s watching us and is smiling at us from Heaven.”

Over time he’d repeat these phrases back to me—“Daddy. Heaven. God. Feel better. Happy.”

Through tears I’d muster, “Yes sweetie, Daddy feels so much better now and is so happy. God is taking care of him. He wishes he could be with us, but he can’t.”

These discussions have somewhat gone away, replaced by my son’s keen observations of when I’m sad. “Mommy miss Daddy. Be happy!” he’ll say.

We talk about Daddy all the time, making sure he is a part of our daily lives.

When he plays with his soccer ball, I tell him how Daddy played soccer back in the day and he’d be so proud of his skills. When we listen to music, I tell him how much his dad loved Pearl Jam and Widespread Panic, and how Daddy would pick him up and they’d jam to his tunes on the record player that now collects dust in our family room. When we roughhouse on the couch or have tickle fights, I tell him how he loved when Daddy would do the same and the two of them would laugh and laugh. So much so that I’d worry he only giggled for his Dad.

I know he’ll have more questions as he gets older, and I’ll have to explain to him what cancer is. Maybe, even, I’ll have to explain what an intestinal blockage is and how that lead to his death. What chemo, clinical trials, ports and a PleurX drain are. How we got second, third, and even fourth opinions at various forks in the road of treatment to ensure we were doing all we could. How we chose two clinical trials 500 miles away in New York City that meant bi-weekly and then weekly trips for infusions and checkups.

In the end, nothing we did was enough, and so I fall back on my belief that only God could make him feel better and I hope our children can understand that and find comfort in it.

I was seven weeks pregnant when my husband took his last breath, his hands in mine, and so I know I’ll begin to have this conversation at some point with our other son. Will it be easier to explain to him why he doesn’t have a dad? Perhaps. Only the explanation since it’s been rehearsed. But he will never have a single picture with his Dad, no speck of a memory of him exists in his mind. He’ll only know his dad through stories and pictures of a time when it was just the three of us. Will he feel left out? Jealous of his brother? Angry he was conceived when we knew he’d likely never meet his dad?

I’ll have to tackle those as they come. For now though, as I still work with my own grief, I’ll “enjoy” the one-dimensional understanding that my boys will have of their dad’s sickness and death. I’ll focus on fulfilling my promise to my husband that his children will grow up knowing what a wonderful man he was and that he loved them so much. That’s all a widowed mother can do.

Jennifer Gravely

Jennifer is a widowed mother of two little boys under three who recently lost her husband to cancer. As she muddles through the complexities of this new “title,” she is also trying to find a new definition of who she is besides frazzled mom and grieving widow. For now, she’s adding “freelance writer” to the list. More to come!

How Grateful I Am for a Mother Who Believed in Me

In: Cancer, Grief
Mother and grown daughter, color photo

It was a hot summer day sometime in the middle of high school. I was young and naive, but the ugly six-letter word was looming over our family: cancer. Although I didn’t know it then, this would be our last normal summer before my mother’s health would worsen. Cancer would give way to terminal cancer. It’s funny how something so big can seem so small in those moments. My mom and I were sitting on our back porch, encased in a narrow hedge of yew bushes. It was a yellow, lazy Saturday, and my brothers and father were at Cub...

Keep Reading

A Medical Diagnosis Challenges a Marriage

In: Cancer, Living, Marriage
Bald woman holding clippers over husband's head, color photo

It is no secret now that Albert Pujols and his wife have announced their divorce shortly after she had surgery to remove a brain tumor. As a breast cancer survivor, this news hit me in a special way. As I was reading through an article from Today, there was a quote that hit me hard, “But a marriage falling apart is far more common when the wife is the patient, researchers have found. A woman is six times more likely to be separated or divorced soon after a diagnosis of cancer or multiple sclerosis than if a man in the relationship is...

Keep Reading

When You’re Barely Hanging On, It’s OK to Ask For Help

In: Cancer, Living, Motherhood
Worn mailbox, color photo

I’m a bundle full of fun. My list of fun things include being diagnosed with cancer at age 33, having the BRAC1 gene mutation, doing six months of oral chemo, having a hysterectomy at 34, my ovaries and tubes out at 34, enduring a double mastectomy, and a million scans and procedures under my belt, followed by five months of oral chemo. I was a stay-at-home mom during this time with a 7, 5, and 2-year-old.  Sometimes I feel like I experienced a whole lifetime in one short snapshot of a year.   At the beginning of my diagnosis, our mailbox...

Keep Reading

This is What Cancer Looks Like

In: Cancer, Motherhood
Mother lying on bed with toddler sprawled across her, color photo

While I was going through active treatment and recovering from procedures and surgeries, certain moments during the day triggered this thought in my head, This is what cancer looks like. I envisioned a still shot of that moment and that title above it. One of the first times I had this thought was when I was lying on the couch watching my daughter play. I was fatigued and my heart was racing, but I was still a mom needing to supervise my 2-year-old.  She came over and held my hand.  This is what cancer looks like. In the days following...

Keep Reading

Cancer is Not in Charge

In: Cancer, Living
Mother with bald head holding child, color photo

My entire life, I’ve felt much pride and comfort in being a person who was highly organized, a planner, someone who truly enjoys predictability. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, everything that encompassed my normal way of living was disrupted. And there was no way to fix it. This was not a good feeling—frankly, it sucked. I’m a stay-at-home mom of three young children. My first thoughts after my breast cancer diagnosis were how this was going to affect them. Would they even still have a mother in a year? These are terribly hard things to think about when you...

Keep Reading

But Dad, We Were Supposed To Have More Time

In: Cancer, Grief
Man smiling at camera

September 5, 2015 was one of the worst days of my life. It was the day I found out my dad had “it.” The word I expected but didn’t want to face.  Cancer.  Stage 4 in his lungs, bones, and spine. A week later we were told he had about six months left with us.  Six months.  A half of a year.  He was only 55. People nowadays can live to be over 100. How was it possible that he was only going to live half of a life?  They were going to be releasing him from the hospital so he...

Keep Reading

I’ll Never Go To a Seafood Restaurant With Her Again

In: Cancer, Grief
Woman alone at table

I am 19 years old and it is the smack dab middle of summer and I am sitting outside—al fresco—at my parents’ favorite restaurant at a small, round, wrought iron table on an uneven slab of cobblestone bricks. Ropes of twinkle lights hang above our heads and spool in circles around lush green plants in terra cotta pots in the corners of the courtyard. The stemware here is so thin I imagine one gust of air from a sneeze might shatter my glass into a million tiny pieces. RELATED: Don’t Take Your Mom For Granted—I’d Give Anything to Have Mine...

Keep Reading

An Open Letter To the New Cancer Mom

In: Cancer, Child, Loss, Motherhood
Oncology room childhood cancer

This is an open letter to the early days me—when my son’s cancer diagnosis was first spoken over him—and to any other cancer moms out there drifting, surviving, and rising through the trauma. The early days, those raw, pouring, dripping emotions fresh from Elijah’s diagnosis day, 2-year-old Elijah, my son. “It’s leukemia,” said the kind-eyed ER physician. His eyes were so big and brown, mirroring Elijah’s signature feature. Another signature feature of Elijah’s—his long curly beautifully golden hair—soon to be falling on pillows, on rugs, in bathtub drains, until the day he bravely said I am ready to shave it...

Keep Reading

Cancer is Something I Carry With Me Now

In: Cancer, Living
Woman showing scar on chest, black-and-white photo

Two years ago in the winter of 2019, I found out I had breast cancer. I was a young new mother and completely terrified. Fast forward to today and I am healthy, have an amazing thriving two-year-old, and am planning my wedding with my perfectly imperfect soulmate. My hair has grown back thicker and wavier even than before, my body is my own again. I have found the confidence to build my blossoming writing career from scratch and am happier than I have ever been. You hear about this happening, people turning their lives around after cancer. I’m not the...

Keep Reading

My Mother’s Love Will Never Die

In: Cancer, Grief, Loss
Mother daughter

The night my mother passed away, my sister and I, along with our families sat by her side. We held her hand as she took her last breath. We talked to her and lingered near her side until they came to take her away. It was so very sacred. I couldn’t believe she was really gone. She had battled uterine cancer and was staying at my sister’s home to be cared for full time for the last four months. I had arrived from out of state only two weeks prior, and we spent every minute together, day and night until...

Keep Reading