On September 3rd, my dad died due to a very agressive and rare cancer of the kidney called collecting-duct carcinoma just six weeks after first experiencing symptoms. This was nine months to the day after my mom died from metastasized breast cancer two years after her initial diagnosis.
I've learned a lot from witnessing their deaths.
I learned that when someone is in the last stages of cancer, pain management is at two levels, a base amount of pain killer, and a supplemental medication - hydromorphone in my experience - that is given for breakthrough pain. Hydromorphone, commonly called hydromorph, is administered via a butterfly IV in the upper arm area, which will be clearly labelled as there is likely another IV on the opposite arm for other drugs - sedatives, or anti-seizure medication that becomes necessary when there are metastasizes in the brain.
I learned that there is a moment when the person you know as your mother or father is essentially gone, and you are sitting with them waiting for their body to die. You begin to talk more openly with siblings about their passing, about after, though seldom with bare words like die, which is a word that sits heavily in the room whenever uttered.
I learned that you sit, and you wait, and you start to learn about how approaching death smells bad, that you will involuntarily recoil from their breath as you lean forward to whisper what may be a final goodbye and wonder if they will be gone before you come back the next day, and part of you hopes that maybe they will be, as there is no hope left beyond the hope for this all to end.
I learned that the death rattle is real.
I learned to say thank you when people express their condolences, and to wish that there was something to be done when they ask if there is anything they can do.
I learned that sometimes the person having a really bad day is me, and that I can be the person distractedly texting while walking down the street, and maybe it is true that everyone is fighting a hard battle, even the irritating ones.
I learned that it is far, far better to have asked the hard questions when you have the chance so you aren't left guessing when there are hard choices to make.
I learned that my family are an amazing bunch and will somehow make it possible to get through this, even though it's hard and there are moments when everything hits me all over again like a forgotten memory, and I just want to go sit slightly apart from the rest of humanity for a while.
One of the things about this kind of education is that it's mostly about itself - all I'm learning to do is how to grieve these particular deaths. There are no shortcuts.