Note: This series is an exploration of my own grief in the wake of my mom's cancer diagnosis and ultimate death on June 24, 2013. Skip to the TL;DR section at the end for the takeaways if you're not in the mood for a long read. Here are Part 1 and Part 2.
Sometimes death is a relief.
My mom was in a coma for the final eight weeks of her life, medicated with morphine and, we hope, dreaming the whole time. Although medical professionals were confident she wasn't in pain, it was hard to see her in this state.
I imagine it's a heartbreaking decision to "pull the plug" on your spouse of 44 years; although we all knew my mom's wishes (she didn't want to live if she couldn't live), it took us some time to come to terms with our new reality. My dad had to have some exceptionally painful conversations with doctors, social workers, insurance companies, hospital administration, family members, friends and me. I still don't know how he found the fortitude.
My mom persevered for 24 days after we withdrew her feeding tube and respirator, 10 of which were at home. That's a lot of time for us to contemplate and prepare for death, especially since the doctors didn't think she'd last longer than a few hours after withdrawing life support.
Her heart and lungs were so strong... but anytime I had a glimmer of hope that her status would ever change, the neurologist's grim words echoed in my ears. The higher-level brain functions -- those that govern thought, personality and ultimately her waking up -- will never return.
It was hard to sleep, hard to focus, hard to do anything enjoyable. I jumped each time the phone rang or a text message chimed, thinking it would be the call. I felt guilty going out and having a few beers with friends, always worrying the worst: What if she passes away and I'm drunk?
Well-meaning friends and family checked in regularly, asking about her status.
"No change," I'd report.
"What a strong woman your mom is," they'd reply.
My mom didn't pass on in the hospital, nor did she during the four days I was in the house visiting. She didn't when longtime family friends visited to serenade her for her birthday and say goodbye. No, she began her final journey the day after her birthday, while my dad was away for a planned nine holes of golf -- his first time out in months.
The nurse called my dad as soon as he pulled into the parking lot: "I think you'd better come back." He did, and texted me with her progress. I cried my first tears in a few days, and whispered "unconditional love" over and over, mostly to my mom's spirit, but perhaps to myself too.
My dad made it home in time. Although Mom's breathing was shallow, she was relatively stable for the moments after he rushed in. He told the nurse he'd head out to the driveway to get his clubs from the car -- a process that took just a couple of minutes. He went out the front door, it shut, and she died.
A few minutes later, Dad texted me: "Mom is in heaven."
Despite my grief, I knew that from that moment on, we could all move towards finding peace. Mom was free of her pain and the physical limitations the coma caused. And we could focus the energy spent on worry and sorrow for the events that led to Mom's condition on rebuilding ourselves and each other, on finding and creating our best selves in her memory.
- While you have the luxury of life, live.
- Imagine you were going to lose the capability to fully live tomorrow but still had to fulfill your usual obligations until then. What would you do differently today? How -- and with whom -- would you spend your time? How does this differ from the way you're spending it now?
- Do your family members and heir(s) know your wishes? Do you have an advanced directive?