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Ambushed By the Dead

Breast cancer survivor grieves the loss of her mom to metastatic breast cancer and considers how she keeps deceased loved ones in her heart.
PUBLISHED June 12, 2018
Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools–We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at,or

It has been almost a year since my 84-year-old mother died from metastatic breast cancer. As an adult only child, I miss my parents and feel very separated from that life, especially without siblings to help remember the history and to share childhood memories. Sometimes, in life, I find that the dead ambush me. I get caught by a thought or a memory at times when I least expect them. These reminders sometimes capture me. Has that happened to you?

Something will remind me of Mom or Dad and I try not to dissolve into a puddle of tears - after all, I am in my 50s. Yesterday it was the hydrangeas in the spring magazine I was paging through. My mom liked hydrangeas and successfully dried several I had brought her a few years ago. At another moment, there was a Danish modern-style coffee table in an advertisement that reminded me of the one my parents had in my childhood home. A week ago, it was driving by the pancake house where I would take Mom and later in that same day, the build-your-own frozen yogurt store commercial got me; this was an activity where Mom never had to get out of the car, but we could still enjoy a treat together. Would you trust me to pick out the yogurt and toppings for you? Mom did! There is no escape from ambushes like these.

With Dad, the ambushes often focus around things he said to me as I grew up. I might be in a discussion with one of my daughters and his words would come to mind: "Parenting is a job always done by amateurs, and unfortunately, children do not come with instruction manuals." Or, I would be in a moment of feeling bad about something I did or didn't do, and I would hear his voice saying, "Sometimes the goal is simply to try to have the good things you do in life outnumber the bad things, even if it is only by one."

Maybe that is a good thing. These "ambushes" sometimes bring sadness, tears and a reminder of loss, yet they help me keep those very precious memories alive. A photograph may preserve a moment in time, but compared to the memory of a shared experience, the photo is very one-dimensional. To preserve the memories, I try to journal about them when they pop up, when I am ambushed. I roll them around in my mind, shed quiet tears, hold them close to my heart and preserve them in my journal.

Life is short and so very, very sweet. Cancer survivors are acutely aware of this on a daily basis. For me, cancer is a negative and a positive in this way. Our days count more to us because they are numbered. Cancer survivors understand that fact of life. Cancer survivors grieve the loss of people around them when the inevitable happens.

Gone, but not forgotten. Gone, but still loved. We ultimately let the dead go because we have no other choice, and we also keep them with us. Loss and grief are part of life and we move forward. I am in my fifties and I feel like I am still learning this. It is okay to be sad and to miss those people. It is normal to grieve our losses. It is normal that life continues. It is part of life to get ambushed by the dead, and that is OK.

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