“The Bitter with the Sweet,” by Ellen Herion Fingado

The Bitter with the Sweet

On August 29, 2012, I found out that my husband and I were going to have a baby.  I was filled with an array of emotions (which I am confident happens to many people) – “I can’t wait to be a mom,” “Holy crap, I am going to be a mom,” “We can’t afford a baby right now,” and “I am so happy I can cry” all within seconds.  We hugged each other, cried and talked about what to do next.  Inevitably we talked about how and when to tell our family.  There are many websites, doctors, people, etc. that will tell you that you need to wait until about 8-12 weeks for viability which makes a lot of sense.  But that can be difficult to balance with the excitement of this life-changing information.  For me, there was one person that I just couldn’t wait to tell.  And in some ways I was preparing myself to break this person’s heart.  It was my mom.

In May of 2011, my mom was diagnosed with stage IV cancer.  After brutal surgeries, countless procedures, rounds of chemotherapy and radiation things just weren’t working the way that we all had hoped.  In early August of 2012, my mom’s medical team let us know that we needed to start having the conversation of preparing to bring my mom home to make her comfortable and focus on quality of life versus quantity.  When we shared the baby news with her (not long after my husband and I knew ourselves) she was truly elated.  I cried as I told her because even though it was such a truly happy moment there was an overwhelming feeling of wondering what “could be” as we go through this process.  She then looked at my dad and said, “I really want to be around for that.”

After putting up quite the fight, on October 3,2012, my mom passed away peacefully and I was blessed enough to be right by her side holding her hand with my brother and my dad.  I have no regrets about the relationship that I had (and continue to have) with my mom.   When I deliver my baby in early May, I know that my mom will indeed be right by my side.

Not long after my mom passed I had to meet with one of the business administrators at my doctor’s office to complete some paperwork that they needed in regards to my pregnancy.  I didn’t cancel the appointment because it was an opportunity for me to have a much needed distraction, even just for an hour.  When the woman came in, she greeted us with a huge smile and said “congrats” and “how exciting for you” and all those wonderful things you love to hear.  I tend to be a fairly private person and all I wanted to do was get through that meeting and finish the paper work and pay the bill.  I wanted to do tasks and talk logistics and not spend a lot of time on the emotions.  But in that moment, I decided to just tell this woman what state I was in.  I let her know that my mom recently passed and although it is an exciting time in my life, I am filled with much grief.  She then shared with me how she lost her mother when she was young and how difficult it was for her and her family.  And then she told a story of a tradition in her community that when two individuals get married they have almonds at the ceremony to represent the bitter and the sweet of life – having to take the really amazing times with the really challenging ones.  For some reason, there was something about that almond story that really resonated with me.  We all know too well about the ebbs and flows of life; knowing that sometimes things aren’t fair, easy or make sense but that there are oftentimes many great, unbelievable and amazing moments, events and experiences that sometimes put everything into perspective and fill us with gratitude.  And we try to hold on to those high moments of bliss and gratitude because they do help us get through the times of strife, struggle and pure exhaustion.  And we know (or hope and have faith) that those difficult times won’t last forever and joy will be coming.  And when those moments of joy do happen we are reminded that we must cherish them because they too don’t last forever.

I share this story because life really is about taking the bitter with the sweet.  It makes me sad sometimes (honestly, many times) to think about not being able to share great moments in my pregnancy with my mom.  Or knowing that she physically won’t be there with me when I deliver.  But I also smile at the fact that I was so blessed to be so incredibly close with my mom.  And that all the little, but important life lessons she taught me, even when she was sick, will stick with me and keep me strong.  I know that she is watching over my family and that she will be next to me the day the baby arrives and I will feel her presence.  I also know that my mom is at rest and no longer in any pain.

Over the past couple years I have done some really difficult but important work on my overall spirit and wellbeing.  It wasn’t that I was angry or felt lost, but I knew that there were some things I needed to explore to obtain a deeper sense peace and serenity.  Losing a loved one to cancer and finding out you are going to be a parent can raise some interesting and deep questions about life.  We have all been there in our own ways.  And I know that sometimes we think that we would burden others by talking about something we are struggling with or sharing a significant challenge in our life.  Or we think that they “just won’t understand” or know exactly what you are going through.  Or finally, we think that we just have to be able to handle everything as it comes because we might be afraid to ask for help or to really be vulnerable about the fact that we are uncertain or scared.

I am reminded of the quote by H. Jackson Brown… “Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something.”

In sum, I encourage you to not only always be honest and authentic with yourself, but with others in your support system.  Let people into your life.  They just might surprise you.

Ellen is the Assistant Director, Office of Conduct & Conflict Resolution at Northwestern University.  Contact Ellen at e-herion@northwestern.edu.



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11 responses to ““The Bitter with the Sweet,” by Ellen Herion Fingado

  1. Ellen,
    I just need to say three things….
    1) I love you.
    2) Anyone watching you, your mom and your family on your wedding day was a witness to the incredible love you all share.
    3) Your mom lives on in you! And soon, in the spirit of this little one.

    Thanks for being brave enough to share this story.

  2. Jennifer Luttig

    What a truly lovely testament to your mother and growing family.

  3. Ellen – I’m crying right now in my office, this really hit something in me because my mom is very ill right now. You’re so brave, thank you for sharing this, I really appreciate how honest and heartfelt this is.

    Much love, and congratulations on soon-to-be motherhood!


  4. Brandy

    Ellen– Thank you for sharing this post, I sometimes feel as if no one can truly understand what I have experienced and the strength and will it takes to get through it. I, too, lost my mother when I was 3 months pregnant with my son at the age of 23. She had a massive stroke that took her life in 2004. My son is now 8 yrs. old and still to this day I think the very same things you wrote in your post. The birth of a child and death of a parent will quickly put things into perspective. The bitter with the sweet will never go away but I strive everyday to live as my mother taught me how. I hear her voice when I need guidance as if she were here. She will be by your side and guide you through motherhood every step of way. Congrats on your pregnancy and remember you are equipped with everything you need as your mother has already given it to you.

  5. Art Munin

    This is perfect, beautiful and inspiring. You are going to be such an amazing Mommy!!!!!

  6. Shannon Greybar Milliken

    Ellen-I love that you shared your story and that some of us struggle with showing vulnerability, particularly given our in our field. I think it is great that you are willing to acknowledge the highs and lows, and remind us of the balance of them all likely will even out to our benefit. I am so impressed with you and wish you nothing but the best!

  7. Debbie Martin

    Ellen, terrific blog. Many thanks for sharing and for inspiring 🙂 Good luck with the MOST amazing adventure of your life!

  8. I JUST came across this blog and it brought up so many memories (and tears) about my own journey into parenthood.

    We found out we were expecting weeks after my grandfather passed away after a long battle with cancer. We weren’t planning to have a baby (yet) so this pregnancy caught us so by surprise, but I felt comforted by my grandfather’s spirit throughout because family was of utmost importance to him and one of the things he wanted most was more great grandchildren. One of the last things he told me was “You’re not getting any younger. Time to have babies!” Our story became even more meaningful when my partner’s grandmother passed away hours after our son was born. She had been in hospice for a month and outlived all expectations. I firmly believe she was waiting to hear that Charlie made his entrance into the world.

    With my grandfather in particular, I was BITTER for what cancer did to him, but once my son was born, that seemed to melt away and allow me to appreciate the gift he gave us (I jokingly blame my grandfather for our surprise pregnancy) & his spirit watching over us as I clumsily wander this parenting path that I didn’t feel prepared for. I swear my son–now a toddler–has his grandfather’s sly smirk when he’s being mischievous. The memories it brings can be overwhelming and sad, but joyful all the same. The bittersweet analogy with the almonds couldn’t be more true.

    My condolences on the loss of your mother, but it sounds like her life ended with such joy for the legacy (your child, family, love) you gave her in her final weeks.

  9. muhammad kamara

    am really touched,i have come to realise that luv is the most important thing in life.may God make the bond between you and your baby stronger!!!! Luv is everything

  10. Ellen is such a ;wise beyond her years young woman. I know she will be as a fanta!stic mom. Her mom will always be close by in spirit thru out all life’s rollercoaster of events and emotions.
    Thank you Ellen for sharing …!!!
    God bless you and you’re family !

  11. pat hare

    Ellen: You’re trust in knowing your mom is and will always be with you is much more inspiring for me to read than you realize.
    I’m so happy you and your mom were close & shared real feelings, thoughts, unconditional love, truth, and didn’t have to wear a mask or monitor the precious love you two shared.
    You and your mom ( life…), may as you wrote, not have the quanity both of you should have had, you did & Will always have the Tremendous amount of Quality in your relationship with each other !!! Thank you for sharing & celebrate always Debbie’s Love !!!

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