I must interrupt the story of my husband’s passing and my subsequent grief recovery to write about my mother’s death.
My 92 year-old mom died last night, January 15, 2020, at 4:30pm, just one month and one day shy of her 93rd birthday….AND approximately 15 hours shy of the anniversary of my husband’s death 3 years ago on January 16, 2017.
So today, January 16th, I am suffering the loss of my husband AND the loss of my mother, almost exactly 3 years apart. Death has no calendar. Death has no schedule. Death comes when a person’s life journey has ended. We have no control over another’s death schedule. Perhaps that’s why death is often portrayed as the Grim Reaper, that tall skinny guy with no face, a black hooded robe and a scythe. I get the analogy, that death comes for us when it’s our time and sometimes we aren’t ready or we don’t want to leave.
I have a lighter, brighter view of death.
I like to imagine our transition as a choice that we made long ago, back “home”, with our higher power and the group of souls we hang out with. The conversation (through thoughts and feelings of course) might go something like this:
Soul: “Hey, guys, I’m thinking of going back into a body.”
Group: “What? You just got here.”
Soul: “I know, but I don’t feel like I finished my work, what I was supposed to learn. I checked out too soon.”
Group: “Ok, well anything we can do to support you, we’re here for you.”
Soul: “Thanks. I’m feeling like I’d like to live a very long life this time."
Group: “What are we talking about here? 80? 90?”
Soul: “Yeah, 90’s I’m thinking. I want to know what it feels like to be really old. I’ve not done that before.”
Group: “Okay, but seriously, that can be a difficult row to hoe.”
Soul: “Maybe, but I can die in my sleep, right? A lot of old folks do.”
Group: “Yeah, that’s a possibility for sure, but you could also die some awful slow death, like from cancer or heart disease.”
Soul: “That’s true. I could get arthritis and creaky joints and I may have to wear diapers.”
Group: “Ugh. Why would you want that experience?”
Soul: “To understand it. To know what compassion for elders feels like. Maybe next life I’ll be a caregiver.”
Group: “Ah, that makes sense. Good luck. We’ve got your back.”
Of course, I have no idea what happens in between lives, and I hope I don’t offend anybody’s sensibilities, but if it makes me feel better to believe this way, then I’m all for it. I’d rather imagine my soul group coming to usher me home than a black-hooded guy with no face!
I think the fact that my mom and my husband died within hours of each other, 3 years apart, is strange and magical and probably not a coincidence. During year one and year two of my grief recovery, I would naturally feel very sad and depressed on this day. This is common; anniversaries can trigger remembrance and feelings of deep sorrow. Now I’ll grieve two loved ones every year in the middle of January. I wonder what was going on in the spirit world with my husband and my mom? Collusion of some sort? Keeping my grief anniversaries to a minimum? My mom always was practical.
I’ve been thinking a lot about her transition choice during this past week as I sat next to her bed and held her hand. She was a tough cookie, having survived the depression and WWII. Married at 17, first child at 18. She worked her whole life because she believed in the American dream of “getting ahead”. And she did. She pushed my father, and they both worked hard, eventually realizing a very comfortable lifestyle. She could relax and enjoy her life. She was married to my father for 32 years and then my stepfather for 32 years. After he passed, she traveled all over the world and at the very end of her life said that she was ready to go; she had experienced everything she wanted to and was content.
Nice way to go out, but…
…my mom’s death wasn’t on the calendar. We weren’t prepared. Nobody talked about it. Even though she was 92 and had serious short-term memory loss, she seemed fit as a fiddle. She would only allow a visit to the doctor once a year and each time her vitals were normal. She had a strong heart. She took no drugs. On her 90th birthday my family took her to see Celine Dion in Vegas. A dream come true for her. Just 6 weeks ago my sister took her to see the spectacular crystals at Kirshner Caverns and she loved it.
It turns out, even though my mom was a strong woman, she couldn’t cheat death. She kept saying she could live to be 100. Knowing my mom’s personality and constitution, we kind of believed her. We never talked about her death with her. Oh, she prepared practically and financially; she had a will and all the other important documents, but it was never discussed emotionally. So, when we found out my mom had cancer at the beginning of November 2019, we were shocked.
But she’s perfectly healthy. She has her regular check-ups. Yeah, she’s slowing down and sleeping more, but heck, she’s 92! Unfortunately, things went quickly after that. 2-1/2 months later she was dead.
In retrospect, as I sit here processing all this, I can see the signs. She WAS sleeping A LOT. She wasn’t eating as much and definitely didn’t hydrate anymore. She began to need a walker to get around the house and had to hold onto someone when she went out. (She refused to use a cane in public.) She didn’t want to visit anybody or have anybody over, preferring solitude, even though she was a gregarious, outgoing individual throughout her life.
Looking back, I feel she orchestrated her final days and her transition to go exactly how she wanted it. She knew something wasn’t right with her body, but she was secretive about it and pretended she was fine. She was adamant about not leaving her home, adamant that she didn’t want to go to the doctor, never showed us any signs of pain or distress, didn’t want help or comfort. She would say that she just wanted to go to sleep and have God take her. I wish this last part had come true for her.
I spent her last days by her bedside in the facility where she ended up after falling and going to the hospital. The doctors wouldn’t allow her to go home. At first we thought she might recover enough to live there for a while, and we even fantasized about her going to the retirement community where we had rented her a nice apartment on the third floor with a view of the mountains. But after a month in assisted living she took a turn for the worse and I got the call.
My daughter and I had just returned home, two states over. We had spent two weeks cleaning out my mom’s house over the holidays. We flew home thinking we would come back on her birthday, February 16th. I was so stressed out. Even though I used all my self-care tools, my immune system, already challenged, collapsed. I became very sick with a virus. During the same time, my mom was declining. Coincidence? I don’t think so. These are mysterious, unseen connections that we may rarely pay attention to, let alone acknowledge.
When my sister called, she said mom was failing fast. “Don’t be shocked” she said, “when you see her.”
I felt anxious and afraid. I didn’t know if I could handle seeing my mom in her dying process. Over the next 48 hours I vacillated between wanting to remember her as she was and wanting to be there with her. I was afraid if I went back it might trigger my PTSD, since I experienced so much trauma with my husband's illness and death.
I finally decided to go be with her. It was the right decision. And I surprised myself. Granted, I had to take a lot of natural anxiety remedies, but I was able to spend my mom’s dying days with her without having PTSD.
Even though I saw my husband leave his body, I had never just sat with a dying person. It is a real honor and I'm so glad I did it. There are Earth Angels who work with death every day. I commend them. I bless them. We all have our gifts and that is their gift. I couldn’t do it on a daily basis. I am so super grateful for them.
What I am amazed about is how strong I was. My grief recovery enabled me to sit with my dying mother. I’m proud of that and thankful for it. We kept the room quiet and played music she loved. I held her hand and talked gently to her, thanking her for everything she did for me in my life. I told her she was so loved and that she was safe to cross over whenever she was ready. There were times when I felt she was already out of her body and times when I could succinctly see her soul through her eyes. You know that old saying, “The eyes are the windows to the soul”? It’s really true during the dying process. It was as if I could see my mother's soul go in and out of her body.
My mother will be cremated tomorrow and in mid-summer we will go to her favorite place and scatter her ashes along with my stepfather’s, the love of her life. She lost her beloved husband too early, like me, and held that grief for 20 years. She isolated when he died and didn’t do any grief recovery. It wasn’t in her awareness. Like everything else, she hunkered down and dealt with it, keeping her pain and sorrow to herself. She was the master of her life, and of her death.
Today I will grieve the 3-year anniversary of my husband’s death and grieve my mother’s passing. Thank you for letting me tell my story in this forum. I am a writer, and writing is my balm. It is comforting to put my feelings to the page.