We don’t speak of death. We have few conversations around what to expect at the end of life, but we do have many misconceptions of what it is to be elderly. Most of us don’t prepare for retirement until it looms close. We don’t talk to our children about death because it is not a subject filled with toys, balloons and cake in our culture.
This morning I spoke with a friend about aging parents. I told her about how my mother in the last months of her life aged decades. Nothing prepared me for the weekend my aunt Mary and I sat with my mother as she was dying. My mother took secrets with her to her grave– that I found out while removing her things from the house the week after she died. That weekend my mother fought for her life even as she was dying. She was frightened and confused and disoriented because of her physical condition. In moments she was lucid and venomously angry with me for fixing the oxygen tube she kept pushing away. She spoke once and said she did not want to die. She was restless and slept and didn’t recognize me. When she died on that November evening, my aunt had stepped out of the room. I would like to say that something profound happened, but my mother just died. There was nothing momentous or dramatic about her death. The lack of great meaning made a huge impact on me. I had witnessed her struggle all weekend and easier than breathing, she had died.
I Haven’t Seen Much Death
Over the progression of my life, I haven’t seen much death. Goldfish, a few guinea pigs, the thirteenth puppy in a litter of puppies my dog had when I was growing up all died. And my grandparents. But I did not see them die. I saw them after they had died. I went to their funerals.
When my guinea pig died in my hands of a seizure, I was about 14 or 15. And it bothered me for weeks. I didn’t know why the guinea pig had had a seizure. The pain of the animal’s passing distressed me. I didn’t know what I had done wrong. I was kind of used to goldfish dying. They seemed somehow fragile.
When the thirteenth puppy in the litter died, I cried and cried. I did not know why that puppy had had to die. My dog had been able to care for all the other pups. It bothered me greatly.
My great grandfather was the person who taught me to read. I grew up on his tales of when he was a young man and had been quite an adventurer. He and my great grandmother moved out of their house and into a nursing home when I was in fifth or sixth grade. He died when I was in tenth grade, months after the guinea pig and the puppy dying. My mother, grandmother and I were out of town when he passed. I dreamt that night of him before I had known he had died. He had said good-bye to me in the dream and I had been confused. When I found out he was dead, I was speechless.
My great grandmother announced she was dying on a regular basis after that. And whatever relatives were within range would come to her side. I was in college when she finally did die. She said good-bye to me on the way out as well and her passing was not much of a surprise.
When my mom died she was somewhat young. Not an age you think of someone as being ready to die. I had no dreams of her saying good-bye. I sat and said good-bye to her, she didn’t respond. There was just silence, as she was no longer there.
We don’t discuss the impact of other people’s deaths on us. We expect people to respond in very prescribed ways. Kubler-Ross wrote about the stages of grief so people look for a smooth progression through these stages, but it is like find stone markers on an overgrown path and you may loop around a bit.
The week after my mother’s death time warped. Moving through a fog, I had no context for the new reality of my mother not being alive on the planet. I don’t remember crying. My mother didn’t want a funeral. She wanted to be cremated; her ashes sprinkled where her husband’s ashes were; and she wanted no memorial service—we had a wake and only one of her brothers attended.
Life, Death, Time and the Universe
There are few children’s books about death. We don’t hold classes or discussions to prepare for death. We hardly have any education to prepare for living our lives, let alone finishing our lives.
Every day fills with errands and work and trifles and beautiful moments and lucky finds and so much more. We are such small creatures in a vast universe and our lives are miracles. This is humbling. And expansive. And death is part of life and time sweetens or sours things depending on your point of view and if you can find the balance.