When Our Very First Caregiver Dies

When my mom first was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just over a year ago, a very dear friend left me a note with flowers that said, “We will take care of you, so you can take care of her.” And while my parents retired to be close to us over a decade ago, it was the very first time I had to acknowledge my own parents’ mortality.  The universe didn’t seem to understand that my mom was my person. My caregiver. The one taking care of me so I could take care of everyone else.

Heather Krill and her mother

Growing up with a mom who cared meant always having someone sit on the edge of bed and be present even if I didn’t want to talk about whatever was bothering me. I do my best to channel my mother’s patience and empathy when my own 12-year-old daughter is venting her emotions about whatever life’s most recent challenge or obstacle has pissed her off. I do my best to channel my mom’s sense of humor and blind optimism (a term my brother coined in reference to her) in dealing with my son’s love for jumping off bridges and roofs and hucking himself into the air on his skis.

One of my favorite childhood memories was her letting my brother, who was maybe 10 at the time, build a raft and then drop him at an actual river. They arranged to meet downriver a couple hours later, and I was with her when we got to the spot where he was nowhere to be found. I panicked at 12 years old that he had drowned or gotten stuck somewhere or the current was faster than expected and he was already in another state by now, but our mother remained very calm simply stating that he must have gotten out of the river earlier and we would just drive up to the next spot. He was fine sitting on a rock waiting for us; the reality was that his raft wasn’t as river worthy as he thought, and this natural consequence was good for him to learn.

As an adult, she knew there were times when Geoff’s spinal cord injury made certain things harder, and I didn't burden Geoff with those things as they were mostly beyond his control. When mother nature dumped snow, I was the one out there with the snowblower. When cords of wood were delivered every spring, the children and I stacked, and Geoff “supervised.” When a baby or toddler cried out in the middle of the night, I was the one who got up every single time. I made the dinner and the school lunches and did the laundry and the grocery shopping. Mom listened. And I always felt better after venting to my mom. Sometimes we just have to throw our frustrations out into the universe and then we pick ourselves back up. But even the best caregivers need their support people. When I was sick, my mom made me chicken soup and did our laundry and read my kids stories at bedtime. She always bought me clothes for my birthday and Christmas knowing that I no longer shopped for myself as money was always tight. But mostly, she listened and reminded me to laugh.

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And in the months and weeks that led up to her death, she knew I would do anything for her. The fact that she was dying made me incredibly sad, but the fact that she was hurting left indelible marks on my memory. She was always my caregiver, the one who took us to the doctors when we were little, sometimes a little after the fact as she had a “let’s wait and see” kind of approach to injury and emergency rooms.

To say my family is lost without her is an understatement. My dad would have been married to her for 55 years on May 31. My husband understood our relationship and appreciated her strength and support. My brother has been incredible and with us every step of the way as we now start to live life without her in it. Her grandchildren will always remember her awesomeness. But as she was our mother, she will always be with us, reminding us from afar, her voice an echo, that our kids will survive being teenagers (and we will also survive them being teenagers)- we just need to love them and let them learn from their mistakes. It’s as easy as that.

Click here for Resources for Caregivers. 

About the Author - Heather Krill

Heather Krill is a writer- wife- teacher- mom, living in northern New Hampshire with her husband Geoff, a paraplegic adventure athlete, and two tweenagers, a son and daughter aged 13 and 12. A high school teacher and coach for 26 years, Heather has been a blogging contributor for six years.

Heather Krill

The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $10,000,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.