A Death Observed, Part Two

In April, I began this series of reflections on my mother’s death.  A few weeks before she went to be with the Lord, I received a little blue booklet called Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience (The Dying Experience) by Barbara Karness.  I found it very helpful–brief and to the point, written with compassion–and if not a Christian book, one which borrows from Christian ideas of death.   This is my attempt to give you some of that basic information, along with a bit of spiritual reflection on what it was like to walk my mother through this process.  To read the first in the series, see A Death Observed, Part One.

One to Two Weeks Prior to Death, Symptoms:

  • Disorientation: aimlessness, lots of sleeping, and confusion about more and more things.
  • Physical Changes: from blood pressure to pulse to body temperature, the body is no longer able to maintain itself and thus will alternately rev up or slow down.  See here for more descriptions on skin color, breathing changes, etc.

My suggestions for caregivers and loved ones:

  • You may get a lot of last minute hail-mary’s from doctors.   By all means, pursue whatever possible healing you can for your loved one.  But also prepare for saying goodbye.
  • Be sensitive to your loved one’s needs emotionally.  Don’t push them into letting go, or ignore them if they’re ready and you aren’t.  They may experience a range of emotions from sorrow and grief to anger or rage.  Whenever possible, give them the gospel.
  • Pray!  Don’t bottle up your emotions more than you have to–cry out to the Lord in the calm moments.
  • If you have the resources, hire extra help for the coming days and weeks if it’s needed.  Even just someone to sit with them at night could be a huge blessing.

Two Weeks Prior to Death, Emily’s Reflections

For us, this fell on the week of Thanksgiving.  We of course didn’t know we were so close to the end.  There had been some disappointing doctors reports, but my mom was on new kinds of medication.  Still trying a new combo of chemo’s, and some homeopathic drugs that had been shown to slow the growth of cancer.

One of the most difficult things about this week was that I was just one person in a larger family.  I wasn’t the only one losing someone, and everyone else in our family had to deal with it their own way.  While my young children were oblivious, the adults all had their own coping mechanisms.  Mom herself dealt with her situation by among other things making the dressing for our Thanksgiving.  She would rise and clang around in the kitchen for ten minutes or so, until she had to rest, and then when she caught her breath, she’d slowly get up to do it again.

However, she was obviously going down hill.  She slept in each morning until 11 or so, and she would go to bed early.  My Mom and I would always stay up to talk after the girls went to bed, but we only got to do that once during the week we were there.  I was aware enough to know I ought to make that talk count, and I am so grateful for that conversation in which I shared with my Mom some of how God was working in my life.  She and I both shed tears of joy and sorrow.  Even at this point, she was still mostly concerned about how to make sure the people she loved would be taken care of after she was gone.  I think this conversation really comforted her in that way, reminding us both that He was working in our lives.

One of the saddest things about the holiday was that my mom wasn’t really able to play with my girls.  She managed one game of chutes and ladders, and she read them a few books, but she didn’t relish it very much.  She was in too much pain.  I remember her saying sadly, while they played at her feet, “The hardest thing is to see how easily they don’t need me.”  Which wasn’t exactly true.  But their grief is certainly different from an adults’.  Really, now that we’re six months after the fact, the fact that their grandmother is gone is still only beginning to sink in for them.

One very joyful moment from that week that I can share is the evening she felt like taking a walk with the girls and me.  It had just rained, and the sky was a deep cobalt blue, with many brittle leaves still shivering above us in the trees.  I held Momma’s arm and we walked slowly down the drive and out to the road.  The girls ran ahead, bouncing and romping and giggling about who knows what.  So full of life and energy.  Mom was so delighted.  As we walked, we kept looking up at the sky, as if the Lord had painted it just for us.  That day I saw something I’ve never seen before or since.  The birds of the neighborhood–starlings and black birds and robins–were wet from the rain, and as they fluttered to and fro, their feathers looked like golden glitter strewn across the blue sky.

We only walked as far as the end of the neighbor’s yard, and then we had to turn back.  I had the feeling it was a special moment, and I started to sing quietly, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty….”  but then I paused.  Feeling like maybe I was embarrassing Mom to worship so openly.  She said encouragingly, “Don’t stop.”  But then the girls came bouncing by again, and I let the moment pass.  It’s something I’ve regretted many times since.  I would have regretted it more, but I did get a second chance to sing it to her.  A few weeks later, at her bedside, in the quiet surrounding us as she strained to breathe.  I was so grateful to the Lord for that second chance.

By the way, I recently found a few picture books that might be helpful for families to read together when dealing with grief.  Hope to do a full post on them soon….but for now, the one I like best is When Someone Dies: Finding Comfort in Jesus.  The art is a little too Thomas Kinkade for my taste, but the author has really short sentences on each page–sometimes just a word–accompanied by quotes from real children about how they felt regarding the death of their loved ones.  I think it’s optimal for inviting discussion and helping kids understand that everyone reacts a little differently to death.  (For instance, one of my daughters couldn’t believe that someone might feel angry, but my other daughter confessed she had felt anger over her grandmother’s death.)

To read the next post in this series, see A Death Observed, Part Three.

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  1. Jenny White on May 10, 2012 at 11:18 am

    Oh, Emily, thank you for sharing this sweet, sweet post. I have tears in my eyes. What a terribly beautiful time you have captured in words. Thank you for your transparency.

    with sisterly love,

    • emily on May 10, 2012 at 11:32 am

      I’m so glad it meant something to you, Jenny. You wouldn’t believe how God had to tighten the screws to get me to write it. : )

  2. Marlo on May 11, 2012 at 5:22 am

    Emily, I’m so glad you are sharing this. I feel honored that you are letting us in on this special and difficult time with your mom. I’m fortunate enough to have both of my parents still living, and to have even moved back home near them, but there are days I’m reminded of their aging . . . and what that ultimately means. This is another reminder, but in a good way. These reminders help us to live intentionally.

  3. emily on May 11, 2012 at 5:50 am

    Thank you, Marlo. I knew before this happened that the Lord gives special strength in time of need. But having walked through it now, I know it so much more deeply. I hope that comes across in this series–that the Lord is in our rising up and our lying down–and that He really does provide a table before us, even in the presence of that last great enemy, death. Enjoy your mom this weekend!

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