The grief 'comes in bits and pieces when I least expect'

One woman's story of losing her mother to cancer amid the pandemic.

As told to Monika Warzecha 6 minute read July 9, 2021
Hilda Fox

Hilda Fox, a former teacher, loved music and had an active social life.

Alanna Fox’s mother Hilda, 74, was diagnosed with gall bladder cancer in late February 2021. Though Hilda didn’t live long after the diagnosis, passing away on April 5, Fox was able to spend time with her mother and brother in the palliative care wing of a Montreal hospital. Fox is still mourning the loss of her mother, a former elementary school teacher and social butterfly. But she feels lucky that she was still able to say goodbye, knowing that many people weren’t afforded such opportunities for closure during the COVID-19 pandemic, where visiting rules differed between institutions and provinces.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

My mother lived in a retirement home in Montreal. One day, she just wasn’t feeling fine. A nurse took her blood pressure and it was extremely low. She suggested that they phone an ambulance and get [my mother] to the hospital. My brother and I were alerted. They did a battery of tests and as they were examining her in the emergency room they noticed this huge lump in her stomach area. It ended up being gall bladder cancer. The diagnosis was at the end of February, she was in hospital for about a month.

Within two weeks I made the decision to leave Toronto. I have three little kids but I left home and came to Montreal. My brother and I got a dispensation for the curfew to visit her — at that point Montreal still had a curfew.

I think because it happened so fast that she had about a day to process the information. Her friend Sharon said, ‘She doesn’t want to talk about dying. She just wants to kind of live day to day.’

I think my mother was a bit in denial. I don’t think she really understood the gravity of it when it was told to her. And then she quickly sort of lost her mental capacity; I think she wasn’t taking in enough nutrients. She articulated to my brother before I came to visit that she was scared to die, but otherwise, when she had those moments of lucidity while I was there, it was just more just sort of laughing and interacting.

I know it sounds weird, but I feel lucky that she died at the right place at the right time, all things considered. And it was really the only positive thing about her death during the whole COVID process. Reading Lisa Machado’s story made me realize that the circumstances and the outcome for me would have been so different in Toronto, and would have been so heartbreaking otherwise.

First of all, I was able to spend the time with my brother. Because we live in two different cities and because of COVID we haven’t had a chance to spend any time together besides having FaceTime calls or Zoom meetings. I think on some level there was comfort for her knowing that she was surrounded by her kids. My brother is the biggest jokester. There were times that we were in the hospital with her and he was just doing silly things and joking around. It was almost a bit of normalcy.

The hosptial had a music therapist with a guitar — she was masked. It was lovely. My mother loved ’70s music; Olivia Newton-John, The Carpenters, Peter, Paul and Mary. The musical therapist was able to play parts of those songs for my mom, who at this point wasn’t really coherent. She was sleeping mostly. But we were told hearing is among the last senses to go — music in itself is so therapeutic on so many levels.

Because we weren’t going to have any sort of proper, immediate funeral, I wrote her obituary, most of it I wrote while I was in the hospital room with her, while she was dying. Being there with her reminded me of different things — it was cathartic. I was holding her hand and spending time with her. I felt very energized. I think it would have been very hard to write the whole obituary after she had died — the first few days [after her death] I was sad and weepy. We all process grief and the here-and-now very differently.

We got a call on Easter Monday that she had passed way at 6:30 or so in the morning. My brother and I went down to the hospital and they let us have time with her body. She looked exactly as we had left her. But it was a beautiful sunny day and the sun was shining right on her — she looked like an angel, she was so at peace.

I read her the obituary, saying, ‘I hope that you’re happy with these thoughts that I have shared about you and what you meant to us.’ That gave me a lot of closure.

I feel so lucky that the timing of everything [the lifting of COVID visiting rules] allowed us that chance to grieve and connect as a family in the weeks before she passed.

We didn’t [have a funeral] because most of my mom’s friends are older women in their 70s and 80s, and even though we were allowed to have a get-together of about ten people, it just wasn’t enough to ensure that all the people in her orbit could be invited. We didn’t feel comfortable picking and choosing who could say goodbye and who couldn’t — it just didn’t seem right. Our intention is to have a celebration of her life next Easter, ideally at the retirement home where she was living.

My mom smiled at everyone, she was probably one of the youngest people there. She participated in every activity, whether it was Bingo, Mahjong, Aquafitness. The day we cleaned out her apartment, the recreation coordinator said how much they were going to miss her because she was always the person who was gung-ho to do everything. She was always very social and friendly, smiling from ear-to-ear.

The grief kind of comes in bits and pieces. Like there’ll be something that will remind me of her and I’ll have a five-minute cry. And then it’ll be done. It’s not, for me at least, all-consuming, it’s not overpowering. It comes when I least expect.

When we were cleaning out the apartment at the retirement home, I took a some of her clothing that was meaningful to me, and my mother-in-law’s friend, a quilter, made a quilt with different pieces of my mother’s clothes. It’s sort of my gift to me so that I feel that she’s close to me.

quilt

Alanna Fox with a quilt made from her mother’s clothes. Getty

This story is part of Healthing.ca’s series on grief. You can also read Van Le’s story about how inconsistent visitor policies impacted her and her family’s ability to mourn the death of her father; Why are people dying alone in our hospitals which explores hospital policies around death during the pandemic, and A psychotherapist’s guide to surviving grief, an interview with expert Andrea Harnick on her advice for surviving loss.