What happens when the grief of a terminal cancer diagnosis collides with the joy of a surprise proposal? Writer Celia Jones shares her story.
I realised that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with my boyfriend, Jack, when I spotted a charity envelope on our kitchen table.
At first I thought it was an outdated thank you note – he’d donated to a few races I’d run in memory of my Granny Sue – but instead, the letter was about a direct debit. Jack had been silently supporting the MS Society for years. When I asked him about it, he looked down, sheepish.
He said he knew how much my Granny meant to me, even though he’d never met her. I was overwhelmed with love for this generous, surprising man.
Jack’s ability to be there when I needed him the most was put to the test last September, when my mum was diagnosed with stage 3c ovarian cancer, an advanced form of the disease. It felt like Jack and I were keeping the tissue industry afloat, as I was so prone to spontaneous tear explosions and he was always magicking up a packet. It was awful to see my mum, my world, so unwell. To know she was sick and be unable to do anything but cry. Cry by her side, cry on the tubes, trains and buses that connected me to and from her hospital bed, cry myself to sleep while Jack held me tight.
Mum spent five weeks in hospital. At first, we thought it was just a stomach bug and she’d be discharged after a night, but as the days crept on our fears intensified. Then came the terrible diagnosis, followed by over a week of waiting until a bed became available at a specialist cancer hospital. Her tour of south west London’s medical establishments culminated in surgery to remove her ovaries, womb, and parts of her bowel and stomach lining.
My mum left hospital looking haunted. Her clothes hung off her and any mention of food that wasn’t a type of biscuit turned her stomach. The doctors started chemotherapy as soon as she was discharged to blast any microscopic remains of the cancer. She lost her hair within two sessions. “It saves me having to shave my legs,” she joked. I learned that eyebrow wigs existed and ordered 20. Neither of us were brave enough to take them out of their packets.
I was so preoccupied by my mum’s illness, I barely thought about a surprise trip that Jack’s parents had booked for us at the beginning of the year, long before cancer entered our life. From time to time, I’d remember and pester his mum and dad with questions about this mysterious plan, not suspecting a thing. Two days before we were due to leave, Jack guided me upstairs in our little one-bed flat, where a PowerPoint presentation beamed onto the TV screen.
“I’ve been lying to you,” it read. “We are in fact heading to Iceland…”
Images of our itinerary popped up and I screamed with excitement.
Iceland came at a strange time: I was in a frozen state of anticipatory grief, struggling to process the emotions that come with facing a parent’s mortality. So, as I sat in the departures gate at Gatwick Airport, I was brimming with guilt. It didn’t feel right to be so full of joy and love while my mum was struggling.
But I got on the plane and had an incredible time, checking in on my mum arguably too much, as she urged me to put down my phone and enjoy the moment. On the last evening, as Jack and I nestled in a glass igloo, exhausted from an otherworldly day of lagoons and geysers, he proposed.
I said yes. I’d never felt so sure of anything before. I was so happy that my heart felt like it was going to thump out of my chest. We called my mum first and she knew – she’d seen the ring. She loves Jack too, and she was delighted to have him in our family.
I didn’t sleep that night. I stared up at ragged wintery branches through the igloo’s ceiling, straining to see any signs of the Northern Lights. I was so manically happy. I kept touching the ring constantly, rolling it around my finger, shining my iPhone torch on it to watch it sparkle. But I couldn’t shake the worry about my mum’s health. Intrusive thoughts battled alongside my elation, all variations of the same thing: what if my mum isn’t here for the wedding?
Eight months on from the trip, I still grapple with these conflicting emotions of joy, guilt and grief.
Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the expectation that my wedding must be the best day of my life. I’m desperate to fast forward time so I can be there with Jack, on our big day, celebrating with the people we love. Then I feel terrible for wishing away the days, for not treasuring the time I have with my family. How could I have the “best day of my life” if anything were to happen to mum?
Grief doesn’t just rob you of moments, but your ability to fully engage with the world around you. There have been times of total happiness, like going wedding dress shopping with my mum, sister and 85-year-old grandma, everyone’s eyes shining with the novelty of the moment. But flashes of pain and worry can strike at any time. I feel paralysing anxiety around my mum’s regular oncology appointments. The fear the cancer will announce its return. I struggle to think of anything else on those days.
A close friend whose fiancé died told me how she had learned to manage the unimaginable. She made a choice to separate her bereavement and her happiness for others. She remembers sitting on a bus, hearing about a friend’s pregnancy, and thinking: I can be happy for her and sad for myself, I can have these two feelings at once. Now she looks back on those memories with no regrets, as she found a way to enjoy milestones and excitements. She has an incredible strength I’m learning to build.
There are certain landmarks that feature in every card shop: moving house, having a baby, getting married. There’s an expectation they should be celebrated and enjoyed, leaving little space for anyone going through a difficult time. My situation is not unique, and I have to remind myself how lucky I am to have both parents, a fiancé who makes me feel completely loved, and friends who listen and support without judgement – especially my stoic little sister, who is my maid of honour. I simply cannot imagine how hard it must be for anyone under different circumstances.
Just as Jack quietly donated to the MS Society, he has intuitively taken the reigns with our wedding planning. He chose the venue, is head of menu and music, and chief correspondent with all the suppliers. I feel immense pride that I’m committing to a life with someone so kind. Someone who has supported my family through the worst, just by being himself.
Grief has already threatened to take so much, so I’m doing what I can to build resilience and take things day by day. For my mum and for my love.
5 tips for preparing for special occasions during a loved one’s illness or bereavement
An expert from online counselling lead at Sue Ryder, the charity that supports people through the most difficult times of their lives, shares her advice.
1. Plan in advance: What do you think might be the most difficult obstacles for you on the day? Think about how you would like to respond to questions or situations in advance, so you don’t feel as much anxious anticipation. Communicate your needs to others. People are not always aware of how you may be feeling or what support you might need.
2. Seek out support. During difficult times, it’s important to seek out support from an understanding friend or family member. If there is no-one immediately around to help, consider reaching out to a support service.
3. Be accepting of your experience. It may seem a big ask to allow yourself to feel or express sad emotions on what is considered to be a ‘happy occasion’. Acknowledge your feelings and allow yourself to feel sad. If you need some private time, remove yourself from the situation for a few minutes of quiet contemplation.
4. Involve your loved one. If your loved one is not able to attend the special day or you have lost someone important in your life, include them in the day. This can be a shared or private activity, such as talking with other people about the person, writing them a letter or performing a meaningful act such as planting a tree or lighting a candle in their memory.
5. Last but not least, be kind to yourself. Don’t place yourself under too much pressure to be ‘OK’. Emotions come and go and like waves, they can wash over us and seem overwhelming. Allow yourself to feel and experience and know that in time, the waves will eventually recede.
This piece was originally published in August 2019
Images: courtesy of author, Unsplash