What is it like to be there when someone dies? Death, just like birth, is a profound experience that is mysterious. I talked to a friend, who is a doctor, hoping he could shed some scientific light on what I experienced, and put it into concrete black and white terms. But instead he said that out of the hundreds of deaths he’s wittnessed, they are all profound. He said there is definitely another presence in the room whenever someone comes into or out of this world.
Today marks the second year anniversary of her death. I was with her when she died, and it was the first time I had ever experienced death. It was peaceful and it was joyful.
After over 20 days in ICU on a ventilator, I had not seen my Mother open her eyes or speak. (Although, my brother did, for a few brief moments about 3 days before her death.) I never doubted in my mind that she would live – it was just taking her an awfully long time to get better.
On June 19, her doctor said she was doing so well, they were arranging long-term care for her. Despite the good news, her vital signs showed a dramatic downturn on the 19th. It was so dramatic, that the nurses assumed it was a miscalculation. But, that day, I got a bad feeling that I could not shake. I had this terrible sense of foreboding that life was going to bring me a change I did not want. I want to the hospital late, around 10 p.m. to see her again, and to try to talk her out of her coma. Instead, her door was locked; the nurses were giving her a sponge bath. I watched her from the window. I looked at the soles of her feet, and thought of all the places she had walked, her arms, her hair, and her hands. I watched how peaceful she was. I realized she had a history before I came, that I knew little about. She had been to, and would go, many places without me.
I sighed, feeling so helpless, and went back home. I vowed to pray all night long. I said that everyday. But instead, I would fall asleep in the middle of my prayers, before I was through.
On June 21, the nurses called me to ask me to come to the hospital. They knew, based on her vital signs, that she would not make it through the night. But, I still thought they were wrong. Her color never looked better, and yes, she looked so peaceful – as if she was finally healing.
I remember being so tired. No, not tonight – I have so many other things going on. It was 8 p.m., and I knew I had a full day ahead with the boys, and I just wanted to go home and get some sleep.
Those nurses – they just shook their head at my unfaltering belief in my Mom’s resiliency, unable to convince me for the last 22 days that her death was inevitable. I would hear none of that. They gently told me to go home and get some sleep. I was only 10 minutes away, and they would call me if anything changed.
So, sleep I did. The phone rang at 1:11 a.m. They quietly said, it’s time to come in. “Should I call my brother? He’s an hour away.” Yes, definitely, they said. They did tell me she was still with us.
I dressed in gray, white and pink, and left the house. My husband offered to go with me – but I needed him to stay with the boys. I cannot remember driving there. But when I walked into her room, I saw that her face was already starting to loose much of its color, with small spots already turning blue.
Now, I realized, that yes, it was time. I saw finally, that there was no way she could come back to the life I wanted her to have. And no, after 22 days of waiting, I would not get that one last chance to speak to her again.
But, seeing here there, I became filled with a state of self-less compassion that made it possible for me to let go of my own wishes, and to finally accept her death. I was ready to face the present moment – strong and brave with whatever was going to happen. Thankfully, I was blocked from seeing how much grief and pain I would face in the days to come.
Some people need to be alone to die. They will wait until their loved ones are out of the room to do it. I needed to be there. I needed to see death before I could accept that this was her time. Mom – or the death angel – if there is one – knew that too.
There were tubes everywhere on her body. The kind, gentle nurses, arranged them so that I could find a way to put my head on her arm, right by her chest. Yes, right then, I thought – this is the person who bore me, held me and took care of me as a baby – and she’s leaving. This is it.
I felt a very strong sensation in the top of my head – almost as if my head was being split open, and vibrations were pouring into and out of me at the same time. I felt strangely peaceful. But I paid little attention to this – I was praying so hard and so feverently.
I realized that I was sitting in a very uncomfortable position – and I tend to get stiff necks easily. So, as much as I wanted to stay touching her, I knew I needed to shift my position. I lifted my head, and I remember feeling so light. As if I was on one of those awesome drugs they gave me after my c-section. I was aware of my body – but it did not feel like I had any weight or substance.
The nurses would come in often to ask me if I needed anything. I never knew what to say to them. I mean, did they expect me to say coffee? Newspaper? What? They were kind – but I needed to be alone with my prayers at this point. I needed to concentrate. I felt so peaceful. There was nothing I needed.
The nurses were also concerned about my brother. Where was he? I was not concerned – I knew it would take awhile. But the wiser, more experienced nurses knew how to read the monitors like a book, and they knew it was only a matter of minutes before she would be gone.
Finally, at their persistence, I called his cell phone. He was about 15 minutes away – he had been careful to drive the speed limit. He was afraid that if he did get pulled over for speeding, by the time he explained to the officer where he was headed, he would have lost time he couldn’t afford to loose.
He arrived with his wife. He saw Mom, and was obviously shaken to see how badly things looked for her. But, as he opened the door, her heart rate went up briefly. He said, “Look, she’s coming back.” But within minutes after his arrival – she left us. And she was gone.
No one ever dies alone. There were unseen forces at work – looking back, I remember feeling as if there was a lot of movement, all around me, that I could not see. But the most dramatic thing, I think, was the peace. Somehow, I had the strength to sit there and watch her die and not go out of my mind. There was a profound presence of peace.
And so began the next chapter of my life. The one where my 3-year old at the time would say, “Stop crying over your Mom. You don’t need a Mom. You already are a Mom.” And, yes, I can finally say that now, my tears are much less frequent, and I do allow more peace into my heart again.
Read more, Seasons
As a child I used to think that I wouldn’t need my mom when I was grown up but to think about losing her now is harder than ever. She’s my best friend next to my husband and on Monday she moved away. We’ve always lived together close by and now she’s on the other side of the world. I miss her but appreciated your post and the things it said. I’m so sorry for your loss, even time doesn’t completely erase the holes.
Wow that is a profound experience. I’m sorry for your loss.
Oh, Susie- this brought back such memories for me with my dad. Daddy died last September so it’s still pretty fresh for me. I wasn’t there at the exact moment although I was there for the 20 hours or so that hospice came in. My brothers and sisters and I stayed with daddy the whole time and I went home to be with my mom who couldn’t be there. It was during those final 4 hours that the hospice nurse told my family that they needed to let daddy be alone for a little bit so he could make his decision to go- and not long after they returned, he did. It was so peaceful they told me- he just stopped breathing. They called me immediately and I raced in and when I saw daddy I cried but felt relief and a blessedness at the same time. He looked so beautiful, I have to tell you- his face was so peaceful and I kissed and kissed him and told him how much I loved him. He really did die peacefully, I think.
I knew I couldn’t be there though- it would have been too much for me. I had been with him during the whole time he was sick, but I couldn’t be there then… but I don’t regret it.
It is a beautiful thing to be there with them as they go through their transition- it changes you- deeply and wonderfully and painfully.
And just one more thing- the hospice nurses were incredible. I would recommend anyone using them during their loved one’s last days.
Love to you, Susie on this very special day.
My thoughts are with you today.
Omigosh, SusieJ, you’ve done it again. Put feelings into words. Incredible.
I know how hard it was to write that – thank you for sharing it with us. You have an angel in heaven watching over you and your family.
Thank you for sharing. Nurses really do know more than we give them credit for. I am glad that you had a good group to help you.
Peace to you and your family.
I left a comment but it got lost.
But anyhow, I love the way you put this into words. And am glad your tears fall less frequently.
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This is beautiful Susie. My mom passed away last month, it is hard, it is unfathomable…but somehow we get through it.