The Problem with Dying


My mother-in-law passed away a week ago. On Maundy Thursday to be exact. April 17th, 2014. A curious thing, how time becomes compressed within minutes, hours, days and weeks. Minutes can stretch out into hours, and days can spill over into the middle of the next week, and before one knows it, the block of time between the words “it is inoperable” and “there is no heart rate” morphs into an entity with a will and character all it’s own. That time capsule carries within it the dearest and most desperate of my desires to say all that should have been said over years when I thought that minutes could be wasted with impunity. All of the little annoyances- those irritations that we rolled our eyes over (“that’s mother AGAIN”) are not there to embarrass. And now, when I have come to the place where unconditional love has found a seat at the table of my heart, her seat has been vacated.

Death has always brought a chilling numbness to my spirit. A kind of emotional lidocaine. I go into an utterly functional mode, looking for tasks that need to be done, for others to look after. The well wishes and condolences are gratefully acknowledged, but I almost feel guilty for not being completely and breathlessly devastated. I wonder if I am truly capable of feeling anything at all. On one level, I realize that I have not had the depth of attachment that others have had, and so I could not possibly experience the depth of loss that others feel. I know that if my husband were to suddenly pass away tomorrow, my story would be a different one entirely. Still, I wanted to be an integral part of her care from the moment that mother was diagnosed with her liver cancer. After all, I was a palliative care nurse. I should be able to do that for her. It was my way of saying ‘thank you’ for all of the many kindnesses that she had shown us- even if some of them had come from an oblique angle.

I am not close to my own siblings. There is only one sister that I would ever consider opening up to. The other two are distant, disinterested, and otherwise preoccupied with their own lives. I have tried to be a part of their planetary system, but I guess I am just not their type. I don’t judge them. They don’t have to love me. At one time I hoped that they would. I tried to please them, to win their hearts. I guess I just didn’t have what they wanted. I am now at a place in my life where I have stopped caring whether or not they want me. You can only bang your head on an iron gate for so long before the blood running down your face starts to become noticeable. What I do know is that I feel closer to my cousins, who live in Alberta, and to my coworkers on the Hospice unit. The love that I have for them, and the love that they have for me is real. It tells me that I am human. My mother (Pat) used to tell me that I was ‘book-smart and people-stupid’. My step-mother told me that I was abnormal.  I hated myself for years. I think that they both might have been wrong, but back then one did not even consider contradicting them. Now I trust my gut feelings, and have stopped trying to be something that I am not. I can, and do love- perhaps not in a way that others want me to, but it is there none-the-less.

It is said that one revisits every loss with the death of each loved one, family or friend not withstanding. I don’t know if death gets any easier with time. Or if faith makes that final journey one of deep meaning. I do know that losses bring any pain that is below the surface up through the protective barrier of emotional defenses. I have seen it on the Hospice unit. I am seeing it play out in the drama of our own family. I can only hope and pray that resolution comes in as gentle a way as mother’s final hours. I will cherish the words that she shared with me- the way that her eyes lit up when we came through the door. I cling to the hope that forgiveness will creep into the vocabulary of the next generation.

There comes a time when one has to let go of the hands of companions on this side, in order to grasp the hand of the Unseen Other. And so, as you said mom- “God and I will take it from here”. The problem with dying is that those left behind have to find new ways of living without the ones who have left. Losing one’s parents is the final declaration of emancipation- “you are fully adult”. May we make you proud. May your memory be for a blessing.

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