Navigating the Sickness (and Death) of a Parent and Running a Business

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Being a college student is hard. Owning a business is hard. Adulting is hard.

And losing a parent, while playing all three roles above, is really, really hard.

This site is all about being vulnerable, honest, and raw in order to help others follow their dreams. Because of that, and because today is the 2-year anniversary of my mom’s passing, I’m going to share my story on how I survived those 2.5 years in their 4 stages: the diagnosis, the difference, the decline, and the death.

The Diagnosis

My mom was diagnosed with Glioblastoma–a Grade IV brain cancer that’s fast-growing, likely to spread, and malignant (source: The Brain Tumor Charity)–in January 2016. As I attempted to process and comprehend everything that was happening after receiving this news, I emailed one of my favorite professors to ask what I should do. Having been in college for only 4 months at that point, I had no idea who to talk to or what to say… but I knew that I needed to notify somebody because there was no doubt that my schooling would be affected, too. Once I met with the right faculty members, I was onto my journey of this “new normal.”

For the first year of my mom’s diagnosis, we say that she was mostly “good.” Her only symptoms of the cancer were fatigue and difficulty with speech, so despite getting sick during her rounds of treatment, she remained her usual self throughout the remainder of 2016: happy, talkative, and independent. Although we always had friends and family members visiting, she was well enough to be at home alone and take care of herself, which made her feel good because she was the type of person who felt guilty for depending on others.

She was doing so well that it gave me hope that things would be different, despite what her prognosis said… until things changed one day.

The Difference

In February 2017, my mom had a stroke. Losing most of her ability to use the right side of her body and becoming significantly weaker on her left side, my very independent mom was no longer able to have her independence, now needed to rely on other people for everything, and had to use a wheelchair with the help of others… which was difficult to see.

Although sitting with her in our family room was an easy task for family and friends, getting her ready in the morning involved a lot of physical labor that wasn’t possible for just anyone to do. Thanks to my dad’s incredible work who encouraged him to take as much time off as needed, he was able to come home every morning to help her while I worked part-time at a coffee shop before school, while my sister attended nursing school, and while my two older sisters worked full-time.

Eventually, it came to the point where although my dad could still come home each morning, it wasn’t the best option. As he started to worry about how he was going to be able to find someone who would be able to help him out, I said…

“Why don’t I quit the coffee shop and do it?”

I had already scheduled my classes to be in the afternoon so that I could have more time with my mom earlier in the day, and I didn’t live at school, which meant quitting that part-time job would open up my mornings for the responsibility. And I was physically capable of doing it.

At this time, I was probably making less than $2,000 per month from clients, but I also had a few babysitting gigs that could cover me–and truthfully, how much money did I actually need as a college student? Not much.

Because my dad has always believed in me, he supported my suggestion and that was really all I needed to take the leap. So, at 20 years old, I quit my job to focus on school, my mom, and my business.

Moving forward, I did everything that I could for my mom in between going to class and working–getting her out of bed, helping her in the bathroom, dressing her, guiding her (and eventually carrying her) down the stairs, feeding her, and sitting with her. Because she usually slept in until 10:30 am and didn’t need too much help once she was actually downstairs, I based my entire schedule around hers.

I still woke up really early to go to the gym and do client work. I was taking calls and feverishly typing away on my laptop while my mom was sleeping or watching TV. And I was bringing work with me when I was visiting her any time she was in the hospital.

Although people always say not to mix your personal and professional life, I truthfully felt like it was the right thing to do–to be open with my clients. As a solo entrepreneur, my business revolved around me… so if something came up last-minute and I had to move things around, it’s much easier to send over a quick email to a client to let them know rather than having to send a long email trying to explain myself. Of course, because my clients are just the best, they were beyond supportive and understanding, which made this whole situation just a little bit easier for me.

But, if I’m being brutally honest with you, this was a very dark time for me. I had to put on my happy face for my mom and my business, but beneath it, I was feeling pretty deep emotions for a 20-year-old.

Frustration for not being able to live a normal young adult life. Anger for watching cancer take over my mom’s body. Stress for trying to balance too many things. Sadness for knowing that my time left with my mom was limited.

I was constantly being pulled in a million different directions, and I now think about some of the things I went through and wonder how in the world I actually did it…

The time when I needed to cancel a one-hour phone call with a client last-minute because my mom had a seizure and I had to put her in an ambulance right before we were supposed to talk (and then I had to immediately speed to school to take a Corporate Finance exam).

The times when I just cried and cried all morning because my mom wasn’t having a good day, and I had to power through my to-do list regardless of how I was feeling.

The time when I needed to leave my mom at home to go take a Spanish quiz at school but she was so incredibly sick from chemo that it physically scared me, so I had to call my dad to come home, drive to school to tell my Spanish professor I was not in the right state of mind to take the quiz, and then drive back home to cry on my mom’s lap.

The times when I was in a constant state of exhaustion because I was stretching myself thin between completing work projects and school assignments.

And that’s not even half of it.

2017, my 20th year, was overwhelming, challenging, and depressing. But although I was emotionally dealing with preparing myself to say goodbye to my mom one day, I was determined to build Dash of Social to become something that would make her proud while she was still here with us… so I did.

I did everything in my power to grow a successful business. I created an attractive marketing strategy that would position myself as an expert, I networked with people all the time, I said yes to any project that came my way (although not always a good thing), I poured all of my time outside of school into my business, and most importantly, I never gave up.

At the beginning of 2018, when I turned 21, I could physically feel this shift happening. My business was only half the size then as it is now, but I knew that if I kept going in the direction I was in, I would get to where I would want to be… and I was right.

But as things were improving in my business, things were declining in my life.

The Decline

We could all see my mom’s health start to decline even more throughout the first few months of 2018, but at the end of that May was when things became significantly worse. And on June 4th, 2018, her hospice nurse informed us that we would have less than 2 weeks left with her.

I don’t even know how to describe the feelings I had after receiving that news. It’s like getting punched in the stomach, then thrown off a balcony, and then ran over by a car. Times ten.

I also had a hundred different thoughts running through my head…

How am I supposed to cram all of the time left with my mom for my entire life into two weeks, or even less? How am I going to juggle being present with my family and keeping my business running? How am I going to give myself time to heal while also keep moving forward?

Those were pretty heavy thoughts for a 21-year-old to deal with.

As I began to prepare for taking time off, I have to say that this process was a lot easier than it could have been because of the fact that I’m an extreme over-planner–something that isn’t always a good thing, but in that moment, it was. I’m someone who always thinks I’m falling behind on work, even though I’m not, so I’m always getting ahead on tasks. That means that I already had a few weeks worth of vital work completed by this time, so all I really needed to do was cancel any upcoming calls I had and give a heads up to clients on what was happening.

It’s like a huge weight was lifted off of my shoulders during a time where I really needed it most. Rather than worrying about deadlines and trying to complete work during an emotionally draining and traumatic time, I was able to be fully present with my family and our close friends as they came to our house to say their goodbyes.

And after the longest yet shortest week of my life, we finally said goodbye to my beautiful mom on June 12th, 2018. That day was my first day as a changed person.

The Death

Although my mom’s diagnosis influenced me to change so many things in my life that were no longer serving me, her passing took that notion to a whole new level.

I worked at night and on weekends only if I wanted to. I chose to only work with kind people. I vowed to never put work before life. I understood my value and worth and reflected that throughout my business as such. I cut toxic relationships with people. And I promised I wouldn’t feel guilty for taking time for myself if needed.

The first few months without my mom were difficult to adjust to. I was so used to spending so much time with her that I suddenly noticed I had so much free time that I didn’t know what to do with it all–and it made me sad that it wasn’t spent with her. But on the opposite end, having this new time gave me so many opportunities to pour these hours into my business, and I knew that’s what she wanted me to do.

I knew I hustled while she was sick, but I really hustled once she was gone because I wanted to continue to make her proud–and it paid off.

By the middle of my senior year of college, I hit my first six-figure year when I was just 21. And within less than a year after that, I would move onto graduating, taking Dash of Social full time, getting an office space, paying off my student loans, and giving a TEDx talk.

I mentioned earlier that I felt a shift happening within me… and this is where it became evident. In the song “Blackbird” by The Beatles, I always reference the line, “take these broken wings and learn to fly” because that was me. I was alone, heartbroken, and numb, but I channeled my anger, frustration, and sadness into motivation, creativity, and inspiration to keep moving forward.

For someone who was so healthy and full of life, my mom’s passing proves we really don’t have as much time as we think. And if we aren’t living life how we want to, it’s going to go by in the blink of an eye and make us wish we made changes in our lives so much sooner. That’s exactly why I made changes in mine.

I miss my mom every single day, but I’m beyond grateful for the large impact she made on my life and continues to make. Thank you, Mumma, for molding me into the 23-year-old I am today.

I am a strong woman because a strong woman raised me.

Ashley Mason is a marketing consultant, speaker, and founder of both Dash of Social and Student to CEO.

Starting her business at the age of 19, Ashley successfully grew it to reach six figures by the time she was 21 and now works for it full-time. Since then, she has been featured in prominent publications such as TEDx, The Huffington Post, Thrive Global, SWAAY Magazine, and more.

Passionate about pursuing entrepreneurship at a young age, Ashley hopes to inspires others to take that leap, just like she did.

8 Comments

  • Ashley, this is such a powerful story of your love, devotion and strength. You will help so many people you don’t even know about by sharing this.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Ellie! I truly hope that it helps others who may find themselves in the same situation.

      Reply
  • Ashley that was beautiful and so well written. Mom would be so proud,

    Reply
  • Such a wonderful story from such a wonderful daughter!! You’re mom thought the world of you girls, and wanted the world to be in your hands!! She is so proud of you, your accomplishments, and the values you have shown this world! Keep moving forward and setting the wonderful example you are are. She could have asked for nothing more!!❤️❤️

    Reply
  • So inspiring, you are incredible Ashley! With such success before even graduating college, I can’t wait to see how far you go throughout your career!

    Reply

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