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  • Writer's pictureCrysta Balis


“Everyone is living and dying at once,” my cancer coach had said, offering the kind of comfort that is on brand for the cancer world. We can’t pull the possibility of death off the table, she must know, so we have to find ways of looking at it – of sitting with it and tolerating it. This seems to be the strategy for talking about grief and death. It’s not a strategy I disagree with, but I’m still at the stage of trying to wrestle out of the chair at that Death Table. I think they call that denial?

What keeps me up at night? Eli and Mavi. Their tiny hands and curious eyes. Eli’s heartbreakingly cute conversations and the way he gulps air and smacks his lips between thoughts when he’s really excited. Mavi’s surprising departure from any notions of what she “would be like” based on who Eli is. She’s scrappy. Observant. Calculated. Yes- I know she’s a 1 year old. She calculates, I’m not just a gushy mom.

The agony of them has me hiding in my bedroom post-chemo session today, tears streaking down my face that I can neither control nor hide. I need them to know how much I love them. I want, so badly, to be part of their lives. For them to remember me. For them never to be haunted with the memories of a mother who died on them. For Mark not to have to shoulder the stuff I am good at- the emotional intuiting, the empathizing, the endless patience, the decision-making based on their patterned behaviours. I’m good at that stuff. They cry about their wants, and I immediately know their needs. That’s why they reach for me. They know this about me. They know I love them and that I know them and believe- like really believe in them and who they are. Who will know them and believe in them with the same conviction if I go?

Photo credit: Dagmara Brunst -

I cannot have them feeling I abandoned them. I don’t want my absence to stunt their growth. And maybe it’s selfish to feel so self-important and so instrumental in the lives of my children. They are their own people. They will find themselves, despite me. They will grow and learn and feel and fall and love despite me or Mark. But then selfishly – Oh I want to be there. What I would give to be there. I’ll do anything. I’m meditating. Trying to find God again – though I’ve always resented the notion of believing in Him out of desperation or some ROI afterlife. I have always wanted to believe in God for the sake of God – to believe in the principles of Goodness, and Compassion and Charity and Gratitude – not because I’m getting something out of it in the end. Having never truly mobilized myself on that front before cancer, I’m now reaching out to him in the very capacity I wished I never would – finding him because I’m scared shitless and I need Him, not because I need to believe in Altruism. Sigh. How human of me.

I’m grieving from my bedroom because I want to protect my young children, who paradoxically keep me going, yet trigger my most sorrowful, fetal-position, ugly-crying moments in all of this. I hear them running downstairs. Mavi is holding someone’s finger (she can walk on her own, but she prefers to run with someone beside her). Eli runs back and forth from couch to kitchen to self-regulate. I am up here listening, yearning, crying. Protecting them from the confusion of my tears by absenting myself from the scene entirely. Guilt-ridden for all these feelings. In my defense I just had a 3-hour chemo infusion, before which, they pumped me full of steroids. Previously, in June, I had 4 cycles of nausea-inducing chemo. This, today, was my second cycle of a new drug that has replaced nausea with epic meta-anxiety and grief. My nausea-medication-induced naps have been replaced by panic-stricken realizations that this is real, and while I’m up here and my kids are down there, the clock is ticking.

So what is grief? And what have I learned, sitting with the possibility of Death every day, even when colouring with my kids?

She’s right- my cancer coach: We’re all living and dying. None of us knows when. I might get the gift of knowing a basic timeline for my life. That could actually be a gift. Many people are taken in a moment, without warning. Without closure. We all go. And even the healthy among us are living out their life, with the same fate at the end of it. We all have life and death in common, we do.

Grief gives us the perception that we are alone; yet when we talk about our grief, we discover we are deeply, deeply connected to others. Grief is universal. My cancer is not unique. People dying is not unique. Grieving loss is profoundly ubiquitous. Reaching out in grief is surprising. It’s like standing atop a mountain, staring at a beautiful natural landscape and shouting profanities or poems or wishes into the wind. And then, touchingly, people come. People start to appear in the landscape, weaving through roads and rocky paths to get to you. They begin to climb your mountain, and suddenly you are sitting in the presence of many, some sitting a little ways away, others with their arm around you, all enjoying the view, connected in despair, wondering at life. Grief is a reminder that the human experience is patterned with loss and death and disappointment and varying hues of agony. Even people with drama-free existences begin to grieve a loss of that connection with others, because grief so brings us together.

Photo credit: Dagmara Brunst -

Grief is authentic. It’s real. One of the reasons grief is so connective is because it’s immune to phoniness. It’s pure and authentic and sincere. It replaces the banal with humanity. It topples the mundane and mediocre with its heavy weight. Being stuck in mundane and mediocre, as safe as it is, is numbing and dumbing. It makes us sanguine idiots, as my Grandpa called it. Grief gives us pause. It forces stillness, reflection, contemplation, and critical analysis. These in turn, can help us grow: wiser, more patient, more open-minded, more grateful. I’ve had to think- a lot. In the middle of the night, when I sneak into Eli’s room and grab his lovey. I return to my bedroom to hold it to my heart. Smell it. I know. It’s a brand of torture only a mom can bring about, opting to cry into their kid’s lovey in the middle of the night. His lovey has textures and smells and edges that are so weaved into my memories of his 3.5 years. I watch him, on the monitor, hold the lovey up so that fabric tickles his wrists and hands and fingers when he lies on his bed to relax. He does this because when I breastfed him, he would do the same with my shirt fabric – tousle and tickle his fingers with it. In grief I find nostalgia. I find the interminable and bottomless ocean of love for my children. It’s powerful. I sit with that instead of anything else, and yes, it’s fucking depressing, but I’m reminded that it’s what makes me a mother. I’m so proud in this role. In contrast, grief can whittle us down to less actualized versions of ourselves when we don’t sit with it – when we numb the grief with wine and double-stuffed Oreos. That was deliberately specific. But when we take a moment with grief, as heart-rending as it feels, we become more.

Okay, I will dismount from my pulpit.

In this experience, I have found gratitude in grief. I’ve begun to understand why I need it, and need to feel it, even when it feels like it is ripping out my insides.

If I ever get a mastectomy, I had this idea that if were to get reconstructive surgery, I would eventually have a poem tattooed across my new breast in lieu of a tattooed nipple (because prosthetic breasts, if you didn’t know, are nipple-less.) One woman whom I met in my cancer travels who helped me appreciate the beauty in grief shared a poem with me entitled “Kindness” by an Arab-American poet, Naomi Shihab Nye. Below is the excerpt from this poem I might choose as my breast tattoo. If not, this poem serves as a guiding star when I sit with grief, as I am now, in my room, my children playing downstairs. The full poem, written in 1952, can be found here.

Kindness (excerpt from)

…Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

637 views3 comments



Crysta: Rachael's mom here. This is so beautiful and profound and moving. You have nailed the thing at its heart. What a gifted writer you are, my dear. Hugs to you, you lovely, strong Woman Warrior Goddess.



What a wonderful essay, Crysta. You have given us all a great gift. Thank you.



Your are at the limits of language, but you still manage to find the words. Thank you.

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