5 Things I Learned from My Dying Mother — And How I Said Goodbye

Had you told me a few years ago that I would be sitting at my computer writing this tribute to my mother, I would have called you crazy. However, it's true, I recently said goodbye to her and this is what I learned along the way.

Had you told me a few years ago that I would be sitting at my computer writing this tribute to my mother, I would have called you crazy.

janine engevik high school photoI grew up with a mom who usually seemed as strong as steel. She was rarely sick, composed of DNA that kept my grandma alive into her 90s, my grandfather into his mid-80s, and great-grandfather past 100. However, I’ve learned over the past 24 months that cancer doesn’t discriminate. Once it grabs hold, it may never let go — to any of us, at any time.

The following isn’t about the disease. Instead, it’s about what my mom, my brother and sister, and I learned along the way.

Deep breath… and so here it goes. I hope the following words help you as much as I think they’ll help me.

1. Never Take the Simplest Things for Granted

The end began in September of 2014 — when Mom’s bladder was so full, her insides felt like they were on fire and something was about to burst. I got to her house where she was crying in the bathroom. Urine was pouring out of her like a waterfall. Plus, she could barely make a bowel movement and she couldn’t eat.

It was more than obvious she was having a recurrence from her first diagnosis from December of 2012. A huge tumor was compressing her insides.

After being rushed to the emergency room and admitted to Loma Linda University Medical Center, she was given a catheter and an emergency colostomy.

She would never use the toilet again — her urine went in one bag and her feces into another.

One day shortly thereafter, I found myself in the bathroom thanking the universe for the ability to have a bowel movement and empty my bladder. I’d never considered what a luxury it could be — something so simple.

Mom was soon unable to walk without a walker, then had to be transported by wheelchair, until finally she couldn’t leave her bed.

I’m now more aware than ever that a single step is a blessing. The freedom and energy to take a shower by myself is bliss.

And the ability to walk up and down stairs? A miracle.

2. It’s Not About Me & Control Is an Illusion

“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans,” once wrote Allen Saunders. Cliché, isn’t it?

mom in wheelchairBut it’s also true. Mom didn’t have any control over what was happening to her body. Cancer ripped through her insides like a wildfire. My siblings and I tried so hard to make it not true. We tried to give her the right food, inspire her to keep moving, get her to the doctor for a solution. The list goes on.

Surgery was scheduled for November 17, 2014. They were going to try to extract her massive tumor. Long story short, they couldn’t. Her surgical team had to close her back up.

“Treasure every moment with her,” her surgeon told me. End of story.

The only control I had in the situation was to pour myself into her last days of life, and that I did. Once she returned home, I slept next to her nearly every night. I’d hold her hand and tell her I loved her every chance I got.

Life takes us not necessarily to where we want to go, but to where we need to grow. I’ve grown in ways I never thought possible, and I’m thankful for this now.

3. Perseverance Is Essential

When Mom came home from the hospital, she was determined to be a fighter. She’d do the exercises her physical therapists gave her — even when she hurt like hell. She tried her best to keep her wits about her, even when she was clearly losing the battle.

To be honest, sometimes I felt like running away. Watching my mom dwindle down to skin and bones was horrendous. Several times she shook with pain and even screamed out loud. This rocked my foundation to the core.

“You’re given what you need when you need it the most,” my mom had shared with me over the years.

I became certain — the best thing I could do for my mom was put on the strongest front possible. And then, in my private time, I could cry my eyes out and ask the universe why the hell my mom had to suffer. Sometimes I had to make split-second decisions over doctors, medicines, and other major issues. These moments began to fuel me with the understanding that I could stay focused and balanced under pressure.

Yes, it’s true. I know now that we’re all stronger than we think. We’re powerful beings (both you and I) — we’ve just got dig in and face the raging storm with passion.

4. Love & Tenderness Are Everything

The final night of my mother’s life came all too quickly. I stood watching her shoulders rise and fall with her labored breath.

I held her hand to my mouth and kissed it. I ran my hand through her beautiful hair. I kissed her forehead, her high cheek bones, and her shoulder. I tried to memorize each of her moles and scars.

“Mom, I love you so much. You are my best friend,” I told her. She was unresponsive at this point, but it felt right to tell her everything that was on my mind. “I promise to make you proud.”

mom before surgery 2In this last moment, memories of our journey together flooded my mind. The times that I was able to feed her, get her ready for bed, and try my hardest to assure her that everything would be alright.

I recalled her attempts to be tender as well. The sweet messages she’d leave on my phone, even when she was in the midst of her greatest suffering. Or when (with the very little energy she had) she’d take her slender fingers and attempt to tickle my head or back — like she did when I was a child.

5. She Lives in and Around Me

Mom took her last breath at around 4 a.m. on January 17.

That night, I discovered one of her phone messages from December 28, one of the evenings I had decided to drive to my home for a bit of a break. I had never listened to it.

Please listen to it before you continue.

Upon hearing this message, tears began to flow. How could our journey together be over? How the heck could I live without her for the many years I have left to live?

I began to panic. But just when I felt like I was slipping into to a full-blown panic attack, her soft and beautiful voice began whispering into my consciousness. She took me to a recent memory — the moment she was about ready to go into her last major surgery.

Mom was laying on a gurney as the nurses were getting ready to take her away, and she said to me, “Jen, anytime I get really stressed about something, I just close my eyes and breathe. I can transport myself anywhere I’d like. Always remember that you have that ability.”

I remember looking at her and thinking to myself, We have a fucking rock star of a mother.

And so, I closed my eyes and laid down to sleep — the first night that I was motherless.

I transported myself to the happiest moments in time with her. I could see her smile, hear her laugh… feel her hand in mine.

I then drifted off into a deep sleep.

mom and family 2My dear mother — as we (Craig, Ann, and I) lay you down to rest, we want the world to know about your graciousness. Your beauty. Your strength. You are a champion of dreams, unconditional, and truly authentic.

Thank you for giving me life.

Love, your daughter and forever friend,




  1. Jen, I am in tears, what a very, very moving tribute. Brought back losing my dad, and all the feelings that come with such a sad loss. Your mom sounds like she was a complete rockstar.

  2. I just discovered your website, or rather my daughter did. We are suffering the loss of my daddy. But he was daddy and husband to my daughter. She’s the one that was closest to him ever since my mom died eight years ago. We still miss her so much. My parents, my daughters grandparents were the best to me and my daughter. We both on only children and both of us have made bad choices in husbands. My mom and dad were the ones that filled in all the gaps for all the downfalls we have had with our husbands and so called friends through the years. They were substitute parents for my daughter’s dad moving on with his new family and forgetting her. My parents always helped her with feeling so abandoned my her dad as well as me. I’m guilty too. I had a hard time after being married for 10 years amd wasn’t always there for her. I just wanted you to understand that my and her loss of my parents was so devastating. Your articles have made us both cry and makes us feel better at the same time. I’m so glad we have found you. Like I said we are still grieving from 8 years ago. Then my dad just died April 12th. His death was somewhat unexpected. We have had a really hard time. Thanks so much for creating this website. We both hope to keep reading and being comforted by your articles. Sometimes it’s like you are speaking exactly what we are feeling. Thanks again. Raven

  3. I lost my dad to cancer may 25th 2016. My brother two years before. I to took care of them both. About 2 weeks before my dad died he started telling me there were 3 people n his room. It scared him at first because he didn’t know why they were there or what they wanted. He said he asked them one night and the one girl told him they were there just to hang out n visit with him..it made him unsettled at first. They’d come about 5 times during the last couple weeks of his life. I asked him if he knew them. He said i don’t think so. One day he said do you see him sitting over there and i said no daddy those are your angels watching over you n being here for you so i wouldn’t be able to see your angels. On the day he died he didn’t say much. I told him that us girls were going to be alright n that my mom n my brother tim would be waiting for him at the gates of heaven. I told him don’t be afraid that my great grandpa which he adoredwould be the one to come walk with him. I know this sounds stupid but i could feel mygrandpa n that room so i just knew he was there for my dad. Just like when my brother got sick. I told tim that mom was probably going to be the one who came to take him to heaven. He’d say oh i hope she is. Then a couple days before he died i said that again to try n give him comfort. He looked me directly in the eyes and said oh i know she is. And the morning he died i could smell her n feel her n that room. Gave me such peace to know she came for him. So i do believe that when there at there worst that angels n loved ones come to visit n give them relief in knowing there not alone through there last journey

  4. My mother died several years ago , I remember the call from my sister to come to the nursing home as it was mums time to leave us . I rushed along and arrived to see my 3 sisters and brother grieving beside my mother who had just left us . As she lay there at peace her eyes still slightly open , I gently placed my fingers on her eyelids at the same time embrassing one more time as I whispered I loved her, I was aware of a feeling I had once before . Some hours later as I was walking along the coast feeling surprisingly calm . I suddenly remembered where I had felt the feeling earlier before . I was astounded to recognise it at the birth of my first daughter Grace that was again time stood still for me in awe of this new life . My overriding understanding of both the birth of my daughter and mother’s death these were the bookends of life and they were both so full of indescribable love and peace . All that we fill in the middle is mind made stuff we attach so much importance too . Not now thank you mother in your last moment you showed how death can be our greatest teacher x

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