Five years ago, I was bracing for the impact of my mom’s failing health and impending death. She had recently been transferred from an assisted living facility to a nursing home. She had lost most of her speech and was confined to a wheelchair. Throughout her life, my mom was the epitome of independence and strength. She struggled with raising seven kids, a marriage to an alcoholic, and battling Bipolar Disorder, which required hospitalization every few years. Mom managed most of this alone with grace, dignity, strength, and humor. In her final months, I dealt with the struggle of letting her go.
Moving through each phase of the letting go process was not easy, but like those who suddenly find stores of adrenaline to move insanely heavy objects seemingly with ease during a crisis to save a loved one, this was no different. Within all of us lies a deep well of strength to draw upon when necessary. We don’t plunge the bucket deep into the well to find it either, we just reach, and there it is, filled to the top.
My first shift to a daughter who takes care of her mom happened when mom called me one day in a panic.
“How do I write a check?” and the next call not long after saying frantically “I forgot how to dial the phone, someone had to help me call you.”
Mom slipped quickly from there to not being able to communicate. In rare moments, she struggled to say simple, yet vastly important things like “I love you,” but if I held up a pen and asked her what it was, she would say a car. Her mind was a jumbled mess. As her only daughter and the only one of her children living geographically close-by, I was delegated the duty of managing her care. I was angry, sad, and resentful at first that I was elected to the role by default. I was managing my own mess at home – a messy divorce, still living with my ex thanks to the crappy housing market, and raising a young son mostly alone. Yet, somewhere in that mess, I was honored to be that person for her and was later joined by one of my brothers in the caregiving. I learned the following:
1. Embrace What Is
The first step in letting go of what was is to embrace what is. I found myself talking more to my mom than I had in years. It was a one-sided conversation in terms of words, but I could pour out my heart to her, and she would listen undistracted. I could make her laugh, and I loved the sound of her laughter. In the first morning light, on spring mornings, you can find glistening dew drops on a spider-web, and, even if you hate spiders, you forget all about the lurking spider. You only see the beauty of the dew and its motif clinging to the delicate web. Embrace and cling to wherever you find the beauty.
2. Missing is Part of Letting Go
I had no idea how to handle this new and painful role at first. Sure, over the years I had become very adept at navigating the broken mental health system to find my mom help, care, medication, and hospitalization when needed. This was vastly different. When mom’s grip on sanity came loose, she would go for treatment, be pieced back together, and afterward, my fiercely independent mother came back to me – every single time. I had to reconcile with the fact that I was losing my mother in minuscule bits and this time, she would not be patched back together.
Missing my mother was very familiar to me. For my entire life, I went without a sane version of her for extended periods – months where she was lost in her illness. I grew accustomed to the feeling of missing someone I loved deeply, but the thought of her return always brought me soft, warm comfort. I knew I could endure the missing because she would return and the missing would end. This time I had no comfort to latch onto in the way I was used to. Yet, she was still there, and while I missed her the way she used to be, I made sure to try to treasure each moment I did have with her.
Be sure not to get so lost in the grief of missing the person that you knew before, that you forget to treasure what you still have before you.
3. Acknowledge Their Loss, Too
I asked questions of the doctors. I wanted to know a timeline. I wanted to know how long it would be before I no longer had a mother, but no one could give me concrete answers. I was faced with an immense, deep loss of the woman I had spoken with on the phone at least two times a day. The woman who had always been there as my mother – through good and bad, crazy or sane – she was simply there. I could clearly see the fear and pain in her eyes when I visited her in the nursing home where she spent her final months. Sometimes I did not visit to avoid my own pain.
Eventually, she wanted to go. She was ready, exhausted, and at peace with whatever lay ahead. Her eyes pleaded with me to see it – I tried not to look away. She told me she loved me, even though it was a great effort to form the words. I was humbled that she found the strength to say those words one last time.
Don’t be afraid to say goodbye, for everything you are losing, so are they. Look into their eyes, even though it hurts to acknowledge their fear and pain. Acknowledging their pain and loss will provide you comfort when they are gone. You will feel honored to have been a source of comfort.
4. Be Open to the Unexplained
Over the next nine days, we watched mom slowly make her journey to the mystery of whatever lay ahead. Those nine days were the most horrific, yet in hindsight, the most healing of my life. I had the honor of seeing her to the end of her journey here. My brother and I experienced several unexplained events while we sat with her. There were a blue jay and a cardinal both sitting on her windowsill – the favorite birds of my grandmother and my brother who had both passed. It was as if they were welcoming her to the next place. The light above her bed flickered and sparked brightly one evening. And, still another day, while the priest was giving her last rights, the CD player that had not worked all week, suddenly started to play her favorite song. Finally, on the night before she died, two of my brothers and I were in her room gathered closely around her bed. I lay my head on her chest and began to sob. Suddenly, I felt her gently stroke my hair. I looked up to see her still motionless in bed. She could not have physically touched me, yet, I knew she had in some way and was saying her final goodbye. It was my assurance that she was peacefully passing on.
There are so many things that we still don’t know about life and death, be open to whatever strange experiences may occur.
5. Give Yourself Time
Four years ago, I wrote a piece about my first Mother’s Day without her. The day held an endless plain of memories and a violent thunderstorm of tears. I missed her smile, I missed her hug, I missed her laugh, I missed her warm, kind eyes. I missed her strength, and I simply missed the intimacy of my mom – the person who had known me since conception, whose blood ran through my veins, and whose heartbeat I feel asleep to in the womb.
Four years later, I still miss those very things. At some point in every day, there is always an ache for her. The width of the ache has become smaller over time, but the depth of it remains the same. It has taken time. Time does not heal all wounds. I do not think we ever ‘get over’ someone dying, but we find our place among the sad feelings of missing and the warm memories that provide comfort. It will take time, so give yourself that time – as long as it takes – but a sort of gentle peace will eventually come.
6. They Are Always with You
Five years later, I miss her, but I also find that she is still here. I look down at my middle-aged hands and realize they are starting to resemble hers – venous, smooth and wrinkled at the same time. I look in the mirror and although I always thought I favored my dad, I see parts of her looking back at me – my smile, my expressions, the shape of my eyes – and I smile. I feel her presence when I am patient, kind or compassionate, as those were her bountiful gifts. I see her in Spring when her favorite flowers – lilacs – are in bloom. I become her when I make a cup of tea for my son with a little sugar and a lot of milk. I hear her gentleness in my voice when I respond to my son when he is sick or sad. I feel her pushing me forward with her strength and independence when I face challenges. And sometimes, on those days when I’m feeling lost and alone – usually while driving in my car – I swear I feel her placing her hand on my shoulder from the back seat, telling me everything will be just fine.
There are always parts our loved ones leave behind. Reminders of themselves, knowledge, skills, and history they imparted to us through their voice and simply through their DNA. They are never truly gone from your life.