This is a question from myself to myself. It is five years in the writing.
Q: Dear Susie: my mother is dying and I’m wondering what I can do during this time. I’m trying to take care of Dad and help Mom as much as possible. Sometimes I feel helpless; other times I feel overwhelmed. Any advice?
A: Dear Susie: I have much to say to you, a lot that has not been articulated before. My first and perhaps strongest suggestion is to take care of yourself.
In the midst of a crisis, it’s easy to focus 100% of your energies onto someone else. But if you’re not keeping your well-being at the center of your life, everything can quickly deteriorate.
As much as possible, establish a self-care routine and make it an absolute priority. Take some time every morning (and throughout the day) to take some deep breaths and center yourself. Try stretching (you sit bent over in that hospital chair 8 hours a day), take walks, do some yoga or tai chi.
Take the time to eat, small meals and often. Avoid hospital cafeteria food. The only healthy thing I’ve found there is bottled water.
Schedule a massage, a short coffee break with a friend. Remember to brush your teeth. And try to laugh. Always remember to breathe.
Talk to your mom. Touch her arm, stroke her head, tell her how much you love her. Reminisce about funny things (I reminded my mom about the incident that involved a cup of water and a mirror—we laughed for an hour—don’t ask).
Friend Tom Holtey, the pastor at Hospice of the Red River Valley, recommended a great book called “The Four Things That Matter Most,” by Ira Byock, M.D. These are four simple phrases to say to someone who’s dying (or heck, just to say to anyone you care about). They are:
Please forgive me.
I forgive you.
I love you.
He notes that there’s a fifth one—good-bye—but sometimes we get squirmy when we think about saying good-bye to someone. It sounds too final. Check out his website at http://www.TheFourThings.org.
I thought about my past with Mom and touched upon one incident in my teen years that I wasn’t sure was resolved. So I thought further about what had happened, what I needed to forgive her for, and why I needed her to forgive me. I saw everything in a new light, and I felt great relief that we were able to talk lovingly and candidly about what had happened, and to feel a real peace about it. I think we can still talk to those who’ve died, but it’s a lot easier while they’re still alive.
Your mom’s your mom. She was your cheerleader, your support, your ear, your shoulder to lean on, your source of advice and inspiration. You need her, yet here she sits in her hospital bed, barely able to speak. It’s not supposed to be like this! A part of you wants to be that nurtured little girl forever.
I have two words for you: grow up. Time rolls on, like turns on a kaleidoscope. First you were a child, weak and vulnerable. Your mom took gentle care of you. Then you were both adults, strong and capable.
But now your mom is weak and vulnerable and you have the distinct and sacred honor of completely releasing your limiting notions of relationships and stepping into a new world with your mom. You will never forget, nor regret, these present times when you are now able to take gentle care of her.
Be present. Be comfortable enough to just sit with her. Take the time to memorize her features: her soft skin (how can it be so unlined? I hope I have her genes), her beautiful hands and perfect fingernails. Look at her heart beating in her chest - she’s alive today, and you are with her!
Talk to her. Does she want to make funeral plans? Don’t shrink away even if others are uncomfortable or say, “Oh, don’t talk about that—you’re going to be fine!” Baloney - she’s going to die. And that’s all right.
What quotes or passages would she like read at her funeral or memorial service? What songs does she like? Who would she like to speak? Does she want to be cremated? She may feel relief that someone’s actually listening to her, and you’ll feel relieved that you won’t have to make these decisions when she dies, and you’re in the center of your grief.
We get so hung up in our culture sometimes - we try to deny that death is ever going to happen, stow our elderly quietly away in homes so we don’t have to deal with them or it (death). Dying is natural. It’s a part of life. Everything lives and everything dies. The breath that I just took is now gone. Should I be sad?
But it’s your mom. I understand. She’s different than a breath or a flower or a fleeting thought.
Mom doesn’t want to miss anything. She loves a party! She has five daughters, five sons-in-law, and 18 grandchildren. That’s a lot of partying going on!
What’s going to happen? Will Matt get married, will Kari become a pastor, is Laura pregnant? It’s all so exciting and fun.
But I suggested to her that maybe when we die, that part that is “us,” (call it our soul or essence) melts back into that place where everything is connected and together, somewhere higher “up there,” so if that’s true, she’ll have an even better seat to keep track of us all. We may not physically have her with us, but I’m darned sure she will be with us.
Whenever we think of her, dream of her, hear her favorite song, she’ll be there. I think that once we love someone, a beautiful golden cord connects us, heart to heart, and that connection can never be broken. That I know for sure.
What we live down here is only a small part of what’s out there. I know that from my work. This is just one plane of reality—there are layers upon layers. And we are energy. Energy never dies, it only transforms into something else. So when our “energy” leaves our physical body (which is only earth, after all), our body can no longer function, so that part “dies.”
So where does our “energy” go? It transforms into something else. But it doesn’t die. Everyone has their own personal beliefs about life, death, and life after death, and since no one really knows for sure, I only offer my opinion. It makes sense to me.
I told my mom I thought dying was like taking off a shoe that was too tight. She liked that idea. We were both looking out the hospital window and saw beautiful puffy white clouds. “I think that’s what heaven is like,” I tell her. “I was thinking the same thing,” she says.
The best thing I have done for my mom is to love her unconditionally. I could care less about what she did or didn’t do when I was 3 years old. I don’t care if she gets crabby (she’s got every right to be). I don’t get frustrated or impatient.
I look at her and only feel my whole chest get warm and expand with love what an amazing being she is! What an amazing life she’s had! How many thousands of lives she’s touched, how much better the world is for having her in it.
I am grateful to be her daughter this time around, and I’m thankful for all that she’s done to make me who I am today.
Love your mom, appreciate her, respect her, listen to her, then turn to your dad and do the same. Be there for them, but also be there for yourself.
These are intense times, but they also shine with a brilliant luminosity that can only come from soul work well done. Just let them know that you understand, and care about what happens and know that all is well. That doesn’t mean it’s happy happy peachy keen, but that everything is perfect, just as it is. And tomorrow it will be something else.
Above all, never underestimate the power of a decaf skinny latte during difficult times. God speed to you all.
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