Four years later...
I lost my mother on May 19, 2008, less than three months after my husband and I moved her and my stepfather from Arizona to our home city. I knew that she was not well and that time was short, but I didn’t realize how short and how confusing and difficult the dying process was. I was busy with work, having to go out of town several times after they moved. After being gone for a week, I returned to watch as my stepfather frantically wrapped her legs because they were oozing with fluid. After they went to their room, my sister told me that earlier in the week, my mother had told my stepfather that she “felt like she did in Arizona” which my sister took to mean that she felt she was dying. I felt so out of control because I didn’t know what to do. I knew intellectually that she would not be with us long, but I wanted some quality time with her – to talk about her emotional and spiritual preparation for making the transition to life after death. The second time I had to travel was the week before she died. The day before I was to return home, my husband told me that she was in the hospital and that her personality had changed. She was accusing my stepfather of colluding with the doctors to kill her. I called our parish priest and asked him to deliver the sacrament of healing, and my husband and I met him at the hospital the day after my return home. My mother was in good spirits when she saw him (she could always be charming when she wanted), he conducted the sacrament and left. My husband then left, and I stayed behind to visit during which one of the doctors came to the room. He asked me into the hallway and told me that my mother had refused to take her medication and that I should try to convince her to do so. I wish I knew at that time that that behavior was a sign that she knew she was preparing to die.
On Saturday, my husband and I visited the hospital and she was in very scary shape to me. Her eyes were closed, she was agitated, and she kept trying to take her hospital gown off. These were other signs that I learned later were signs of dying that would have been nice to have known at the time. Perhaps I would have been more patient, more loving, more supportive to help her “let go.” But I didn’t. I didn’t know how to communicate. I didn’t know how to console her, to talk with her tenderly.
On Sunday, the doctors told us there was nothing else they could do, and they offered to let her stay at the hospital to die. She was uncommunicative but still rather agitated. She tried to speak a few times, but we couldn’t interpret what she was saying. I was trying to moisten her lips and talking to her when she shouted, “Shut up!” I was stunned, hurt, confused, and I felt like she had rejected me. I didn’t say anything more that day, but rather kept to myself. Hospice workers arrived this day. The nun who was part of the team spoke with mother and prayed with her. They gave us some reading materials – what to expect from someone who was dying (I wish I had gotten that material three days before) – and they suggested that we play some of her favorite music or read to her. I had no idea what kind of music to find for her, and I didn’t think that she would want to hear the books that I was reading. In hindsight, I did have some music that she would have found pleasing, and I could have read from one of my spiritual books. I don’t know why I couldn’t process that at that time.
The day she died, I arrived at the hospital, greeted my stepfather and my brother who had arrived from Texas. My mother was no longer in an agitated state. To calm her agitation, they had quadrupled the amount of morphine overnight. I told my brother that she had told me to shut up the day before so I was going to focus on completing some work. It had been a number of years since he had seen my mother and he was shocked to see her so helpless. I called my husband who was at the airport ready to leave on a business trip and told him she was dying. He asked if I wanted him to stay home, and I didn’t know what to say. God bless him for making the decision to do so. I then called my closest friend to let her know. She rushed to the hospital and sat with us through the morning. I knew it was hard for her to be there because she had lost both her parents only a few years before – one year apart from one another.
As my mother lay dying, we were all silent – I continued to work. I wanted to talk, but I was afraid she didn’t want to hear my nonsensical chatter. A little before 1:00, my friend said I think she’s dying. We all stopped and stared, and I watched the vein in her neck slow down and finally stop. It was then that I stroked her hair, kissed her and told her that I loved her.
It is now almost four years later, and I feel that I can’t release the guilt of not doing the “right” thing, whatever that may have been. In talking with others who were with their loved ones at the end, I heard stories of how they shared stories and how they expressed their love for one another. We didn’t have that – we had silence and tension. I haven’t been able to let my emotions out about her loss because of this guilt, so they are bottled up inside until they come out at inopportune times and I start to sob only to have to stop and pull it back in. That happened today when I was at a church retreat and tried to express how much I feel blessed to have my husband as my partner in life. I wanted my story to be full of love and focused on him, but instead I immediately choked up and was barely able to finish two sentences. People in the group thought that something terrible had happened to my husband and that I was grieving for him. I don’t know how to let the pain of guilt go or how to let the heartache of my mother’s loss be expressed. I’ve tried to talk with my husband and with my stepfather. They tell me that she is better off because she is no longer in pain and that I didn’t do anything that I should feel bad about – but I do even four years later.