The Ceremony of Being Present with the Dying
Waiting for a loved one to pass can take stamina. It can also take a lot of time and focus. It is not a time to be faint of heart or selfish but a time to give passionately so that your loved one can feel that love as their body ceases to be a vehicle for life force and their spirit flies.
If you are sitting with your beloved friend or family member during this end of life time, reading about what to expect, how to handle the details after death, and accepting the support of those who offer it are all great ideas. Allow someone to bring your meals to you or clean your house or care for your pets. Read and understand what dying may look like and be sure you know the name of the funeral home their body should go to and where they want to be be buried.
I’m no expert, please know that. I have not spent years sitting with my dying loved ones. I can tell you that my very first memory is of washing my Grandaddy’s feet and placing cooling cloths on his forehead as he lay dying. I was two years old.
For me, one of the most gargantuan struggles while my mother was dying, was and is forgiving those caregivers who did not care. At every rehab facility my mother was sent to, orders came along with her that she could not feed herself but needed someone to feed her and that she must have her liquid intake and output monitored. None of this ever happened and she left catatonic from dehydration. Every. Single. Time. It is one thing to realize that someone is dying… It is another thing to neglect or abuse them to the point where it seems that she has been tortured rather than cared for. This is a point upon which the hospital staff in every ward she ended up in strongly agreed with me: she was not only neglected but abused. Me, my brother, husband and children spent all of the time we could with her and it was not enough. Among the last things she said to me was this, “I have seen some terrible things in here.”
I do not feel anger about this…it’s a feeling much more difficult to pin down but it could be defined as abject sadness. I don’t understand a world that pays and empowers people to go to work each day so filled with rage that they can ignore another human being to death. Literally.
By contrast, the staff at the hospice were fabulous. I can only imagine the depth of soul required to go to work every single day and shepherd the dying and their families through the transition. They were kind and sweet and very, very respectful of Mom and of us. After she passed, they didn’t push us out the door but allowed us to sit with her for as long as we needed to, for those who weren’t there to arrive and say one last goodbye. I will be forever grateful for their compassion.
Having been through this, having lost a parent, I feel like I’ve joined a whole new category of adulthood. Those of us who have walked through this particular fire know things that those who have not don’t understand. Because of this, we are here and ready to offer help to those who are going through it. I appreciate the support, knowledge and advice of those who lost parents before me more than I can say. I appreciate the staff in the hospital who treated my mother with kindness and dignity. I appreciate that my father and his wife visited Mom as often as they did. Ditto for my children and husband and cousins. I really appreciate my friend, Melody, who has written a fabulous (and, as yet, unpublished) book on the subject of dying for sharing her manuscript with me. It was like a warm hand on my shoulder through some of the big things, especially when I was putting Mom’s makeup on her at the funeral home and felt the shock of how cold she was and noticed the smell of embalming fluid that was not like my mother’s smell at all.
The day my mom died, I had a strong urge to climb into the bed with her and hold her. I will forever regret my decision not to do that for fear that I would cause her more physical pain than she was already experiencing. Instead I sat close by the bed and maintained physical contact at all times, a hand or a foot always touching.
Mom had one last laugh at our expense. Somehow the combination of her patterned top, the way we had to lay it to cover her embalming wound and the lighting and air conditioning at the funeral home made it look like she was breathing. In her coffin. I thought I had lost my mind and didn’t mention it. Several of my family and friends who seem to have more confidence in their own grasp on reality mentioned it. That made me feel much better.
I think that from the moment Mom realized that she had suffered a stroke she knew that she was dying. She said, “I woke up this morning and I was dying. Mog did that. I’m ready. I’m ready to go be with Mog.” (Mog, aka Mary Margaret, was her sister). I told Mom that I would be there for her whatever she needed to do and that it was her decision to make.
When she got to the hospice she was barely able to talk or even to think in this world, as her mind was already moving into the next Most of her conversation was unintelligible or directed at the already-dead, but she pushed through the sickness, the pain and the thickness caused by repeated strokes, pneumonia and a systemic infection. She said, very clearly, “Always remember, always remember, always remember…I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Right back atcha, Mama. I love you, too.