Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: I need my mother by my side, how can I stand by and watch her die?

My mum's refused another round of chemo, even though it could give her another six months of life. I feel so betrayed

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

My mum’s had cancer for a few years, and chemotherapy, and now she’s got secondaries and the doctors say if she has more chemo she might have another six months. But Mum’s refused. She says she can’t bear it and is happy to die. I’m at university, and just can’t understand it. I feel so betrayed by her, and feel she should do anything to be with us a bit longer. My brother, who lives at home, says he understands, but my dad is in pieces. Is there any way we could persuade her? By the time six months is up they might have found a cure.


Yours sincerely,


Virginia says...

I’m afraid you have to face up to the sad truth, Rebecca. I can tell you categorically that there isn’t going to be a cure found in six months. Your mother is going to die. Every person facing bereavement imagines there’ll be a miracle cure and every one of them is disappointed. What you’re trying to do is to put off the evil day when you lose your mother – and you’re prepared to ask her to go through the most horrible effects of chemotherapy just to make things easier on yourself.

Your mother’s already had chemotherapy. She knows what to expect. Your brother has probably witnessed her agonies and has understood that she can't bear to go through the pain, indignity and misery of this poisonous treatment with no chance of having anything more than a few more months. And what kind of months would they be anyway? Have you thought of that? She’d feel, probably, wretched and weak. Instead, she’s taken the decision to live her short life to the full rather than stretching it out like some agonised piece of chewing gum. It’s quality of time left she wants, not quantity.

I’ve had lots of answers to this problem. Some readers suggest you take a sabbatical from university so you can spend this time with your mum. Many recommended Macmillan nurses. And one reader, wisely, recommended that you get your mother to make a living will or Advanced Directive, to be sure that when she gets nearer to dying, she can die peacefully and won’t be given any painful resuscitation.

But the real problem with all this is timing. You haven’t reconciled yourself to the fact that your mother’s time has come. She, on the other hand, has come to terms with it. It’s often difficult for people to understand that when it's time for them to go, the terminally ill often feel far calmer and more accepting of death than those around them. Trying to nag her into having more treatment will make your mother feel worse during her last months. Don’t go on about it. You’ll only feel dreadfully guilty later.

Pour out your feelings, instead, to a bereavement counsellor now, and try to make these last months of your mother’s life the happiest they can be for her, so that this can be a time you to look back on with sadness, but also with reassurance that you put her feelings first and did your best for her in her last days.

Virginia Ironside’s new book is ‘No! I Don’t need Reading Glasses!’ (Quercus £14.99)

Readers say...

Show her your love

I have been volunteering at a hospice for more than two years and I have seen so many times patients for whom the real battle is not facing death but having to deal with all the needs and baggage of those around them.

The most important gift that we can give to each other is freedom. And this is the ultimate freedom that your mother wishes to exercise now. Please don’t try to deprive her of it. Enjoy those most precious of days left and use the opportunity to say and do all the things you’ve wanted to do together. You have a great chance to show her how much you love her.

Charlie, by email

Let her go

When my mother was diagnosed with cancer she refused the offer of an operation. She couldn’t face it and was ready to die. It was so upsetting and we tried and tried to get her to change her mind. I remember saying to her that I wished I was 10 years old so she’d have to have the operation. After a time we realised we had to accept that it was her decision and move on to supporting and caring for her and you will, too. It is a terrible situation and I feel for you.

Jean, by email

Next week’s  dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I’ve been married for two years and we have a small baby. But I’m a cameraman and have to be away quite a lot. The problem is that every time I leave to do a job, my wife gets extremely clingy and upset and yet every time I return she is moody and angry. It’s getting so there are only a few days in the middle of my return that things are OK any more. It’s as if we can’t stop rowing the rest of the time. It seems that my job is the problem, but I can’t do anything else, so what can we do to make things better?

Yours sincerely,


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