Four years ago today I watched my mom die. Each year I think I won’t write about it. But I am compelled to, as today is a significant day for both me and my mother. It is a day I put aside to ponder death, and those whom I’ve lost. I don’t speak of my pain very often, and am not one to wear my heart on my sleeve. I am the type who will be first in line to offer help, but last to ask for it. I keep my sadness close to me. Writing has helped me find my voice and my voice has solidly landed here in my blog.
My mom died three weeks before my 42nd birthday. I thankfully saved her last voicemail wishing me a happy birthday. I play it to myself once a year. This year I cried when I heard the first syllable. I cried through the whole message. I am always hoping I will find joy in hearing her voice but it just reminds me of how incredibly sad I am that she is gone from my life, and the life of my children. When I heard her voice, it was so apparent to me that my wound is still fresh. It hasn’t healed over the last four years. I’ve just become better at bandaging it up and tucking it further into the crevices of my heart. I take it out on holidays, and birthdays, and seemingly joyous events. I unwrap a layer at a time behind closed doors and cry by myself. My sadness is always firmly stashed back in place before I open the door and reenter the world. I have a damn good game face.
As time passes, I always think I should be further along emotionally. Our society is so linear. We assume that as the years pass so should our grief. There are stages, and as you go through them the process will complete. I’m not sure grief goes away. I think you just get accustomed to having a gaping hole in your life where your mom use to be.
My good friend suggested I listen to the podcast Caleb Wilde is a Funeral Director. Caleb suggests that grieving is a form of worship. I think more specifically it is an extension of your love for the person who has died. And why would you want that to go away? I want to talk about my mom, and celebrate her awesomeness. I want to remember all of her crazy quirks, her capacity for love, her sense of humour. I want to talk about her so she is not forgotten. So I don’t forget.
North American culture is so uptight about death. No one talks about it. It is as if it doesn’t exist. You will die, as will every single person you love. It is even uncomfortable to write that last sentence because my first instinct is that it will offend some of my readers. But it is simply a fact. When it is going to occur is the unknown, not death itself. We need to become more familiar with death to be able to process it emotionally. Our lack of dialogue, our need to look younger, using machines to help the sick breathe, and our customs after we die separate us from our natural and inevitable relationship we have with death.
After my mom died, I had to catch a train back to the County for my daughter’s birthday. The funeral parlour needed me to identify my mother’s body before they sent her to the crematorium. I was pressed for time, and asked for an earlier appointment. The funeral director refused stating that my mom hadn’t been prepared yet. I argued that I had watched her die, and was quite comfortable seeing her fully dead. We compromised and I waited. I was shown to a curtained off area. My mom lay on a table dressed in her best casuals with too much makeup on. She had been costumed to look more alive. The dead don’t wear rouge or dress for company. I understand the aim of this charade was to cushion my emotions against the reality of her death, but the assumption that I needed to be shielded seemed misplaced. A clean set of clothes and some makeup wasn’t going to change the fact that she was dead.
Living is so inextricably tied to death that is seems a natural extension to mix the two together. Pour a little death in your cup of living. If it is going to happen to all of us, shouldn’t we speak of it more often? Shouldn’t it stumble into conversation more frequently? I am so ready to talk about death but only do so with close friends who share the same sorrow I have. I keep waiting for my friends who haven’t been to camp death to bring it up, but I know they don’t know what to say. I hesitate to bring it up myself because I don’t want to be the downer friend who can’t stop talking about her dead parents and all the soul crushing details that that entails. I don’t want to describe all the minute heartbreaks that occur when you are caring for someone who is dying. I know that one day they may know. When they do, I will be there when they step over to my side and join the club no one wants to join.
I would of liked to have been prepared. I would of like to have had more meaningful conversations about death with my mom. We joked about it. She said she would come back and haunt me. We even had a safe word in case her haunting was freaking me out, or I just wasn’t in the mood for a spiritual visit. Our conversations were practical and regarded her finances, and the destination of her belongings. We didn’t talk about my impending heartbreak because it was too close at hand. We should of started talking about it when she was well, and we were both strong enough to confront death honestly. I’m not sure we would of known what to say, but it would of been a beginning.
We don’t talk about death because it is uncomfortable. It tends to only become a subject of interest when someone you love is dying or already dead. Emotions are running so high at those times that it can hard to find the words to describe your grief, and your fears. So many of us go into the world of the dying unprepared. As soon as we start to prepare ourselves we allow others the space to do the same, simply by opening up the conversation.
Several years ago I heard about Death Cafes. The first Death Cafe was organized by a Swiss anthropologist in 2004. They are “group directed discussions of death with no agenda, objectives or themes”. Strangers come together and talk about their fears, ideas, and experiences around death. There have been thousands hosted all over the world. I’m dying to go to one. Yes, the pun was intended. There was one in the County a few years back but I was too overcome with grief to attend. I want to go to one and hear what people have to say. I know I am not the only one who wants to talk about it, but I also want to listen. It is not grief counselling, but feels similar. I feel like I may find my peeps there.
We need to begin the conversation, and continue it no matter how uncomfortable.
If you have someone who has loss someone close, take the time to reminisce with them. Open up the space so it is no longer awkward. You won’t hurt their heart, you’ll warm it by showing that you care enough to talk about their dead. We don’t have to forget the people who have died. We don’t have to have closure, or get over them. We can keep them alive by remembering, and talking about them out loud, in the open.
And if a loved one is dying, bridge the gap. They may not want to bring up death because they want to protect you. Let them have a chance for their voice to be heard. Be the strong one and ask them about their fears today, and their hopes and dreams after they are gone. Be the friend they can talk to even if you can’t possibly understand what they are going through.
I am going to repost the essay I wrote when I was struggling to cope after my mom’s death. I was in a hole and couldn’t see the light. Writing helped me process my thoughts when they were so crammed in my head that I couldn’t think straight. It was a place where I could leave a trace of my pain, and take a break from it. I am able to articulate on paper what I only share with a small few in person, as it pains me to hear the words.
I know there are others who have lost loved ones this year, and the pain is fresh. Find a way to let a little of it go by talking or writing or any other medium, so you can let life back in. My friend who lost her son, told me to live for the moments between the grief. As time passes, those moments will get longer. It doesn’t mean you have to forget, it just means life will come back to you even though you may feel as dead as the one who died.
I wonder if there will be a day when I don’t think about her. At each celebration, will I forget that she should have been here to experience it with us? If I need advice or want to share my day, will there be a time when I don’t reach for the phone to call her? I wonder if the time will come when I don’t relive those last few days in the hospital with her — knowing the end was coming, wishing it would come quickly, and not wanting it to happen all at the same time.
I was always very close to my mom. She was full of adventure and laughter. She was the kind of mom who would melt orange cheese on toast and cut it into pumpkin shapes for Hallowe’en. She would sew matching dresses for me and my favourite doll. She would pretend that she was a kissing monster and chase me as I ran screaming around our apartment. Often we would go on long hikes in High Park and nearby conservation areas. My mom would pile as many neighbourhood kids as we could fit into our broken down blue station wagon. The horn on our wagon needed to be fixed. It would go off unannounced for an undisclosed amount of time. My brother and I would slouch down below the window in embarrassment, while my mom would laugh and wave as people stared. She could always see the humour in every situation.
We didn’t have much money growing up, as she left an abusive marriage when we were young. Not once during my childhood did she say a negative word about my father, even though there were a few to say. She never let us know that the child support cheque hadn’t arrived, or that money was tight. She wanted us to be happy, and to have it all. When we moved into our small two bedroom apartment after the divorce, she let my brother and I both have our own rooms. My mom opted for the couch in the living room for her bed. She gave us the best she could give. We were taught to be grateful. There was always someone in the world who had it worse than us, and therefore there was no reason to complain. Everything was attainable if we worked hard. She supported everything we ever did, and truly believed that we could do it all.
My mom had a long fourteen year battle with non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, with a little thyroid and skin cancer thrown in. She had a brief period of remission, and then got Leukemia as a result of her past cancer treatments. We would spend our hours together at the hospital doing the crossword puzzle. We had our system down pat. If she was well enough to walk in, I would drop her off, park the car, and return with our morning coffees and the paper. When she was unable to walk, I would wheel her in and run from the car park to her side. Once she was settled, I would bring her her coffee. It was never drunk on those days. I didn’t need to hear the doctor tell me that her blood counts were too low, or that she had an infection. I always knew from the untouched Tim Horton’s coffee. We got to know the other patients in the Hematology clinic, not by name but by symptoms. We would talk about how the overweight guy who always wore overalls wasn’t looking very well, or the skinny lady with her chatty husband was walking and not using her wheelchair, or that young mother who sometimes brought her daughter no longer needed her IV. If one of the regular faces wasn’t there it was never discussed. I think we both secretly hoped that they had miraculously been cured. There was an unspoken desire for everyone to get well. If they could beat cancer, then there was hope for all of us, both the ones in the waiting room and the ones yet undiagnosed.
My mom did countless rounds of chemotherapy, and radiation, in addition to a stem cell and bone marrow transplant. She lost her hair and her sense of taste many times but they came back. My mom always came back. She was a fighter until the day she died. She never gave up until I told her she could. One of the hardest things I ever had to do was tell my mom that she was dying. She didn’t need to have her blood work done, or take her medication. She didn’t need to eat or drink. It was ok to let go.
She died the next day.
There is relief in death that is seldom spoken of. I am relieved that my mom no longer suffers, that it isn’t a struggle for her to eat, swallow, breathe. All the things that healthy people take for granted every day become near insurmountable challenges when you are fighting to stay away from death’s door. I am relieved that my mom doesn’t have to watch the seasons pass through a hospital window. She was such a lover of nature. She found pleasure in the simplicity and never ending beauty of all animals, and flowers. She drank it all in. She would marvel at the intricacy of an insect’s wing, and be equally awed by the expanse of a colourful sky. I am relieved that she is no longer tired, or nauseated, or just sick of being sick.
I am also relieved for myself. Most caregivers don’t allow themselves the freedom to be relieved after a loved one has died. My mom was an oncology nurse for 18 years. She saw death every day, and knew the anguish those left behind endured. There is no shame in relief. It does not negate the love you feel for the one you lost. There should be no guilt. We need to tell ourselves and others to let that relief flow. We need to allow ourselves one soft landing in a world of sadness.
I did all I could to help my mom while she was alive and while she was dying. But I am relieved. I am relieved that I don’t have to spend countless hours every week at Princess Margaret Hospital. I am relieved that I don’t have to watch her struggling to suck liquid up her straw because she lacked the strength. I am relieved that I don’t have to watch her skin slowly turn dark yellow from liver failure. I am relieved that I don’t have to wipe her mouth when she can’t. I am relieved that I no longer have a front row seat at death’s dance. I am relieved that I don’t have to put my life on hold for her illness. I am relieved that I no longer feel so helpless. I am relieved that I don’t have to demand that the doctors do something, anything to stop my mom from dying.
I miss her.
I’ve dreamt of my mom twice since her death. The first dream was the night before her funeral. We were at the Art Gallery together, laughing and rushing to the next installation. “You know mom, they told me you were dying.” My mom looked at me with a mischievous smile and said “Well then, I’d better go see a doctor,” and ran off, taking her smile with her.
The second dream was just last week. I was in my daughter’s room while she was sleeping. My mom flew through the door, and past my head. “Mommy! Mommy!” I cried out. She paused briefly on a window sill very high up, looked down at me and disappeared.
I have been told that grief gets easier with time. It is true in a way. It changes. The shock subsides. My daily phone calls with my mom have morphed into thoughts of her. I no longer reach for the phone. There are days and sometimes weeks when I feel normal, not happy, but normal. Then it returns. Grief goes on vacation but it always comes back. It’s harder to get out of bed, to enjoy life, to get outside. I understand that these periods without grief get longer. That one day, grief just doesn’t return. It finds a fresh wound to thrive in, leaving me and my family room to heal. I’m still waiting for that day. I am not convinced it will come but trust the counsel of those who have taken this journey before me.
I try to live the way my mom would have if she were here and well. It is hard. I am not sure I am fully up to the task at the moment, but I plan to be one day. I try to take my mom’s advice, pretending she is by my side and whispering it in my ear. Go outside, laugh, walk your dogs, be kind, forgive, iron your clothes, have fun, play a mean game of Scrabble, love, read a good book, go on an adventure, water your plants, do a craft, and most of all be happy,
These are words we can all live by, except maybe the one about ironing.