Coping with Grief, Death, Hospice, Parenting, Wisdom

How Do You Process Dying?

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Mom yells a lot lately. This is usual and unusual. Usual because she is hard of hearing so she frequently shouts “What?” Unusual because she’s yelling about who didn’t vacuum the carpet correctly, arguing and then dashing to her room crying.  

She has a reason for anger, frustration and tears. Her oldest sister, who has had dementia for four years, is dying and in hospice care. She is not expected to live past six months. 

Mom was orphaned by age twelve. Both her brothers are gone and her youngest sister died of leukemia six years ago. Although no stranger to grief, this news about her sister is incredibly hard for Mom to process and accept.

Growing up with my single parent mom was a lesson in stoicism. Mom talked about strength, not how she felt about circumstances. 

Instead she silently prayed at the bottom of our staircase where a tiny alcove held a delicate figurine of the Virgin Mary in celestial blue robes and gold stars above her head. Moms fingers could work a rosary like a Swiss watch maker works a tiny tool. 

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As I grew up I learned to discuss feelings, tiny step by tiny step, by reading self help books, the Bible, and talking to friends, and therapists. Before I talked to my mom about my aunt, I read some articles about end of life and hospice care.This is not an area I know well and I wanted to combat my mom’s usual “Be strong,” phrases. Advice that resonated with me was this:

“Maybe they don’t feel strong and need to feel like they can be afraid. You need to give them the space for their fears.”

Finding out a way to give my mom space for her fears was difficult to initiate. Her defenses are still agile.  

Yesterday, before we went to visit my aunt, Mom and I had a conversation. I didn’t want her to pretend everything was okay and then blow up at someone. We discussed that fear, anger, and grief are absolutely normal. 

“How do you feel about going to see your sister?” I asked when we were on the telephone. She cried-a lot.  

When I picked her up the next day to take her to visit I asked her again how she felt. 

“Everyone will be gone, I’ll be alone, all of them gone…do you have my living trust? I have to update it this week.” she says.

The switch from feelings to action were that sudden. 

So I talked about how I felt.  Although I have a biological father, I don’t know him or have any relationship with him. My stepfather, who was estranged from us for most of our life, died last year. None of my cousins have their parents any more. Mom listened and nodded.

My aunt’s deteriorating health and imminent death brings my mom’s own mortality right up to my face, telling me to look at the inevitable, which is much sooner than I’m ready for, if anyone can be ready. I know Mom sees it too. 

We went to visit my aunt, who looked 200% better than she did in the ICU last week, but my mom was last to hug and talk to her. She made busy conversation with my aunts two daughters. We prodded Mom to talk to my aunt about growing up and the old times. My aunt rarely talks, so my mom didn’t think that was a good idea. “She doesn’t recognize me, she won’t remember.” 

However, my mom took a few stabs at talking to her sister. After an hour or so we said our goodbyes. My aunt looked at my mom leaving and grabbed onto the edge of the dining table, pushing herself in her wheelchair after my mom. It was heartbreaking. 

“Mom,” I said as I pushed my aunt’s wheelchair towards Mom. I wanted her to turn around and she finally did. 

“Don’t go,” my aunt said. 

It was then that Mom let tears come into her eyes and felt her feelings, just for a brief minute. All the way home she kept in the tears and talked about visiting again. 

There will be no escaping death. Things won’t get easier, they’ll get hardier. We’ll process it and support our cousins and my mother through this time. And I’m grateful that we have family and friends to talk to about dying and death. We won’t be silent about our feelings.