I woke up this morning knowing I must write about this. Usually I feel the rush of words dictating my next blog at other times: during a walk, as I cycle to work, even while reading a book. Not this time.
This is tough to write, a topic some may say best for intimate conversations. Yet, had I read bits of it before, it would have helped me. For all the details I read online as Mom was dying, none of it told me all what I might share here.
When Mom died on March 6, 2021, I felt tremendous amounts of sorrow, grief and relief. She was ready, her body exhausted, and she had agreed days before she passed that her life had been rich and good. She had people, so many that loved her, some who will finally get in person next week to celebrate her life, albeit as we do what we can to reduce virus exposure issues. She had used her lifetime to pursue those things deeply important to her spirit. She had spent decades with her life partner, even spending eight years apart before re-confirming to herself that the partnership was authentic, open to growth and long-lasting. She had grandchildren and children that she adored, dear friends to the end, and passionately loved our natural world. What more could any of us ask for?
Of the few things I can say positive about the pandemic, as I’ve written before, a silver lining was that I was able to bring Mom home. My only occasional regret is, rather than having her for just over four months, that I wished I had brought her home a year earlier. But that hint of regret doesn’t trouble me much, I know that rethinking that doesn’t address all the other factors that might have influenced my decision then. Back when we had no idea what the next 12 months would be like.
The thing I knew as she began to eat and drink less, as she slept so much more, was that things were changing. Although she would sing along with the songs and laugh at the books we read together, a piece of her was beginning to be somewhere else. As death nears does a part of us start to test out the other place – if there is one? The other realm that none of us know or can fully imagine? Russ and I are watching “The Good Place,” a break from news of fires and spreading virus. It’s creative and humorous and sometimes stupid. I doubt Mom would have liked it. Was Mom reliving or revisiting time with her mother or on a journey on the PCT in those moments? Or simply drifting? No, none of us know. When I was young we learned about the term astrotraveling and during Mom’s last months I asked her if maybe she could “pop out for a bit” and hike that beloved trail or return to Thailand. She nodded and laughed.
What I did know, thanks to my friends who have been with loved ones experiencing this before, was it was time to check in with hospice. I didn’t want to be too late. I didn’t want to not do all that I could for Mom as she entered whatever this next stage was. I am forever grateful that I did, and as I have before, I thank the hospice team from Housecall Providers (read my testimonial). I learned then, as I believe today, that until you go through this experience with someone you love, while you can be compassionate and empathetic, you can’t fully get it. Even being next to my dad as he died in a hospital is on a different level than being in one’s own home without healthcare providers making each moment’s decision and carrying out all of the necessary tasks and functions.
Here are some things I would offer others on this journey.
1. Inquire about hospice even when you’re not sure it’s time. They know what they are doing and it doesn’t hurt to ask.
2. Trust the advice you get from those who know. While it may feel scary when you receive morphine or other drugs to keep your loved one comfortable, know that you will be fully supported throughout the process. I appreciate that until her last moments of trying to get air, Mom appeared comfortable, peaceful and pain-free.
3. Reach out to friends who have recently also been involved in hospice or have supported a loved one through the dying process. Although each experience is different as are our responses to it and our relationship with the person dying, so many of the decisions and emotions are similar. It couldn’t have been a coincidence that the mental health therapist I lined up for myself early in the pandemic was not only an art therapist but that she had taken care of her mother during her last moments.
3. There is a time to withhold food and drink. The body really doesn’t need or want it anymore. And by being the one to do this, you are trusting what we know about death and the dying process. Even if you understand this prior to doing so and didn’t imagine it to be difficult, it can surprise us. I was relieved and later thanked the visiting nurse for advising me that, yes, now was the time to no longer offer food based on Mom’s own responses.
4. When most people finally die, it isn’t a last peaceful swallow of air. When our dad died after his heart event and his heart stopped, his breathing did truly slow and then stop. He was in the hospital and it was different. Mom did have the rattle of death, though for most of the time it only sounded like a light snore. But yes, in the end she did gasp for air. Her heart was still strong and she had no other health issues: but her body was shutting down and knew what it needed to do. When I discussed this later with the chaplain, she shared with me that this is the one part she feels hospice can’t prepare people for. Maybe it’s because we are used to a Hollywood version.
Thank to my friends, Mom’s friends and all who have walked through this journey with those they love. It is of life’s most difficult and beautiful experiences.
"I have no fear of death, only for the projected loss and sadness by my loved ones, or more truthfully, fear of an extended period of pain and suffering, that often precedes death. I know that each of us is made of particles from the original Big Bang, and that when my body dies, I will return, particle by particle, to the great universe. I know, also that my essence will continue to be sensed by those who are aware of such a possibility...." Memoir, Patricia Merillin Daum Montgomery, May, 2008