Hug Death Up Close
Posted on April 14, 2012 in Fulfillment, Gratitude by Sandra Bienkowski
“It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on Earth … and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up … will we then begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.” –Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Mom. Cancer. Surgery. Didn’t get it all. Radiation. Cancer spread.
A friend told me about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s popular book, On Death and Dying, and thought it might help me. I couldn’t focus to read the book cover to cover, but I flipped through pages reading a few paragraphs here and there.
My mom was diagnosed with bladder cancer and three months later she was gone. At first we hoped she’d beat it, but after surgery and treatments, the cancer spread. Suddenly doctors said she only had a matter of weeks to live. My dad called me and could barely get the sentence out, “When you fly up to see your mom this time, you will have to say goodbye.”
Everything from that time is frozen in my memory. It’s hard to board a plane knowing you are doing so to say goodbye to a parent. I wanted to be a 4-year old again, crossing my arms and stubbornly refusing to go—as if that would stop my mom from dying.
I arrived in the Pittsburgh airport and at the bottom of the escalator, my sister was waiting for me. It was a painful hug. Normally it was both of my parents smiling at the bottom of that escalator—because it was vacation. It was Thanksgiving. It was Christmas. This time it was cancer. I felt powerless.
My sister drove us in darkness and light snow to the hospital. My mom was in a special hospice wing so we were allowed to see her off regular visiting hours. She opened her eyes briefly and knew I was there, but she couldn’t talk. She was hooked up to oxygen and wasn’t fully conscious, but she squeezed my hand.
The plan was to stay with mom for a little while. The next day she would go home for hospice. Somehow we both knew not to leave the hospital that night. We were still by her bed early the next morning when my dad arrived. We told him she was too weak to be transferred home and we thought it was her last day.
Sentences from the book ran through my mind.
Don’t be afraid to get up close to death.
Tell your loved one it is okay to let go.
Have the strength and the love to sit with a loved one dying in the silence that goes beyond words.
I crawled onto the bed beside my mom and held her. I listened to her heart beat. I held her hand. I cried. I told her I loved her. I said goodbye. I told her it was okay to go. We all did.
With the three of us surrounding her, she passed that afternoon.
Reading those words gave me the gift of a treasured last memory with my mom. If I wasn’t nestled up close to death to tell her it was okay to go, I may have selfishly tried to get her to hang on. I may have kept a comfortable bedside distance trying to be an appropriate hospital visitor. Or maybe out of fear of her dying, I’d pace her room, but not really be present.
Instead, I was holding her as she took her last breath. The doctor came in and said, “I don’t hear a heartbeat.” She looked so breathtakingly serene and beautiful after she passed.
I share this story so fear won’t prevent you from getting up close to the death of a loved one. While it doesn’t make death any less anguishing, it does let you experience loss without regret.
Later that evening, my dad methodically called people to let them know of my mom’s passing. I kept hearing him say, “The girls held her as she passed.”
And I felt like my mom was comforting me.