This is a picture of my mother, Grace Mundy, six months before her death in 2006. We shared a home during the final nine years of her life. Being her friend and caregiver through to her death was a walk through the valley of the shadow of death. It taught me the following life and death lessons that I will always treasure.
1. It’s okay to be afraid. It is perfectly normal to have fear about your own death or that of a loved one. Every fiber of our being has been acculturated to survival and to fear of the unfamiliar. So, don’t deny your fear — you can’t move past it until you own it and realize that it is just one of several possibilities of how to view the situation. Fear can either stop us in our tracks or be used as a steppingstone to learning and growing and strengthening ourselves. The choice is ours to make.
2. Let nothing be more important than loving each other. When all is said and done in our lives, most of us find that our greatest treasures were tender and heartfelt moments shared with others. So remember that as you journey through your life. Next time someone you care about is feeling blue, receives a terminal diagnosis, or is simply getting really old, make time to share your heart with them. Override the inclination to buy into your own excuses about how you don’t have the time or energy or don’t know what to say or do or it simply isn’t convenient to show up for them.
When my mother was dying, there was one person she kept asking to see because there was unfinished business between them. Four times she asked — one when in intensive care with a 50/50 chance of making it through the night. Each time I called this person and shared my mother’s request, she showed up four days later with an entourage that minimized the opportunity for them to have one-on-one time together. The resolution never occurred between them, but my mother made peace with the situation in her own heart before she died. Ego positions prevent the flow of love between people.
3. Everyone who is dying needs an advocate who loves them. When someone is critically ill or simply frail, they need their own energy just to cope and to heal if that is an option. There may be all kinds of specialists being called in to consult on the case and all too often the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Someone needs to keep track and connect the dots.
In my mother’s case, for example, she kept getting infections commonly spread in hospitals. Each infection brought on yet another antibiotic with another set of side effects that would make her susceptible to yet another opportunistic infection and another antibiotic would be prescribed and so on. I used to spend seven to ten hours a day with her when she was hospitalized just to keep track of all the things they were doing to her and I was busy all the time. It wasn’t until after it was all over that I realized I should have kept a notebook handy and that the specialists were myopically focused on treating her symptoms.
4. Death is not a popular topic among doctors. The medical model for terminal disease and death is a work in progress. Many doctors, having taken an oath to preserve life, perceive a patient’s death or the need to surrender them to palliative care as a personal failure. So expect most doctors to do everything they can think of to keep your loved one going and don’t expect them to broach the subjects of palliative care or death.
Between hospitalizations, my mother paid a lot of visits to the ER and it was there that one brave doctor finally took me aside and told me that there was really nothing further medically that could be done for her and suggested that we consider hospice care. I burst into tears, he held me, and comforted me until I was over the shock of hearing what no one wants to hear — that your loved one is, indeed, going down a slippery slope toward death. I will always be grateful to him for telling me the truth so we could adjust our plans accordingly.
5. No matter how anyone else’s behavior looks to us, they are doing the best that they can. I’ve adopted a favorite expression that we are all doing the best we can and this is what it looks like. Each of us is a complex assortment of skills, abilities, fears, traits and preferences. Compassion comes forward when we realize that how we think another “should” behave is of no significance, for indeed, if we walked in their shoes, we would likely behave no differently than they do. Particularly in stressful times, compassion for one another goes a very long way.
6. When someone you love is dying, it is their dying not yours. No matter how smart you are or how certain that your own ideas of what should or should not be done are the “right” way, your job is not to lead the way but rather to follow the lead of the one who is dying. Let them die their way, not yours. If they want to be alone, let them. If they don’t want to eat, let them. If they want to change their will, let them. If they want to talk about dying, let them. Your job is to support them not to direct them.
7. Don’t leave yourself with any regrets. Whether you are the person dying or the one loving and supporting the dying to their death, your job is simply to do your best to be true to yourself without hurting others. Pay attention inwardly and be bold about honoring yourself. If there is unfinished business, let the one who is dying decide whether or not to tend to it. Don’t forget to practice forgiveness and to lavishly let those you love hear you tell them so or to experience that love through your actions.