I’ve been thinking a lot about death and dying lately.
The single most defining moment of my life was the loss of my mother. Being one of the best people I have ever known made the loss of her so hard for me. But she isn’t the only one that I’ve been thinking about.
I keep thinking back to other times. The loss of my grandfather when I was 8 and how I didn’t have the same reaction as other people did. The loss of someone I knew in high school and how I didn’t grieve in the same way my classmates did.
I didn’t cry. Is something wrong with me?
When I lost my grandfather, my little 8-year-old brain just completely got it. Grandpa wasn’t in pain anymore. He had been so uncomfortable for years. I don’t remember him ever being healthy. I have distinct memories of his pill box with multiple pills, for multiple times of day every day of the week. I remember his knobby joints and just generally not being well. He was older and he passed. It made sense. He was at peace and I was at peace with him.
Others in my family didn’t really feel the same way. They had years more of memories with him. They knew him when he was young and healthy and it was harder for them to come to grips with the fact that he was gone.
Don’t get me wrong – I loved my grandfather but felt much more relaxed about his death than any other person whom I’ve ever known. It was his time. I believed it completely with all my heart.
In high school, a boy in my class died in an accident. He was riding his bike wearing headphones and got hit by a car. From what I was told it was completely his fault as he wasn’t paying enough attention to the road. We didn’t really wear helmets back then, but I don’t think it would’ve helped him anyway. My classmates, for the most part, were devastated. This boy was incredibly well liked and was an integral member of our football team. For weeks after he passed there were people crying in the hall.
I never cried.
I remember asking my mom about that, because she was always my go-to person to talk about all things emotional. I wanted to know why I couldn’t cry – why I wasn’t as sad as others. This is what she said.
“Death isn’t about the person who died. It’s about those that are left living.” She also said “Those people that are sad are having a hard time seeing their life without that person.”
I really sat with that for a long time. It made sense. This boy was in my grade and I had a few classes with him, but I wouldn’t say he was really a friend. I was involved with the football team but it wasn’t that he factored into my life that much. I liked him in that he was a genuinely nice guy, but his loss didn’t affect me. I didn’t cry because my life was not really changing.
Later on when a family member died I ended up talking to my mom and she used the same language again “Death isn’t about the person who died. It’s about the living.” Only this time she was talking about the funeral plan. It wasn’t the person who died that decided how or when the funeral was going to happen. It was the people left living that had to figure out how to go on and what to do. Her words were so true.
When my mom was dying, those words came back to me. The sentiment was there only this time I didn’t know how I’d go on. I didn’t know what life would look like without her. I always talked to my mom about small things and she was my go to when I needed to talk about the big things. Let’s face it – I have a lot of BIG thoughts and BIG feelings and sometimes need someone to help me navigate them.
The doctors at the hospital gave her 2 weeks to live so we took her home. I worked out a deal with my job that I could work half days for the first week so that she had someone to care for her in the afternoons. I did the best I could and brought her anything she needed. But mainly, I talked with her. We talked about the big and the small things. The memories. I asked her questions about her childhood. The last time we talked I knew it was near the end because she was struggling to get words out. She asked me about family and we started talking about growing up and different memories. I started talking and she smiled and laughed at the stories until she couldn’t talk anymore. She fell asleep peacefully as I continued to talk and talk. I was the last to hear her voice as she slipped into a deep slumber that she would not wake up from. That night she slept while the rest of us had a pizza party – no one had the energy to cook. It was all good stories and memories with her just in the other room. Everyone slipped in at some point to sit with her for a bit, but we all knew what was coming.
The morning after she died I cried deeper than I ever had before. I don’t think I’d ever been so distraught. My husband just held me and let me cry as long as I needed. Losing my mother was the worst.
Planning her funeral became something that I needed to be involved in. I needed to do the best I could for her – but it was truly for me. I was at her house daily going through photos and trying to get them organized into a slideshow. I designed her funeral booklet and went with my dad to arrange what to do with her body now that she wasn’t using it anymore. I even did a eulogy to a packed church where there was standing room only.
I tried to do the best I could. I needed to do that to find closure.
About 6 months after my mom died, I wasn’t handling it well. I had retreated within myself and felt like I was going through the motions in my life but not actively participating in it. I knew I had to do something and after talking to my Dad, decided to have both of us sign up for different sessions with the Coping Centre.
It changed my life and became a big part of my healing journey. Sitting in a room with strangers helped me to understand that the dead are not meant to be elephants in the room that we no longer talked about or acknowledged. That it was okay to be angry at them for dying or for the circumstances of their death. When I talked in the group about all that I did for my mother’s funeral they were in awe and made me feel like I was 10 feet tall. They didn’t think they would’ve been able to stand up and talk about their mothers in the same way that I did. When they lost their loved ones (partner, sibling, father) they were far less clear in what to do.
I learned that no matter how much you know that death is coming you are never truly prepared.
My mother’s cancer went from May until September 2021. We saw it rapidly advance through her body and we knew that the end was coming as she was already stage 4 by the time it was found. But I wasn’t truly ready for her passing.
My Aunt came to me the day my mother died and held me in the tightest hug. She whispered in my ear that my mother loved me so much. That single moment has stayed with me every single day. I could feel my mother in her arms and I could hear her words through my aunts. I can close my eyes and still see the light shining off the deckboards on that incredibly bright fall day.
That aunt passed away after a car accident less than 6 months after my mom died.
At the funeral I went to each of her three children and I told them that I need to hug them in the same way their mom had hugged me. And I told them the exact same thing she said to me. I hope that they know how much that hug was truly from her. She gave it to me to give to them – of that I truly believe.
Since my mom’s death, I’ve had many friends and relatives experience what it’s like to lose a loved one. Some have lost a parent or grandparent that I have also known. I’ve found myself fully feeling for them and knowing what they will be going through. I know that nothing I do or say is going to change anything for them, but I can give them a hug and let them know that they were loved.
I’ve spoken at a few funerals too. Something I’ve been happy to do when asked for someone that I cared for. If I can help ease that burden and help take the pain away even for a little bit, I’ll do it. It’s not about the dead after all, it’s all about the living.
The dead are at peace. No matter how they went, they are no longer suffering. The only ones suffering are us – those left to go on.
Tomorrow I’m heading to another funeral. A dear uncle has passed on. My Dad and I are going to hit the road and head north together to pay our respects. I’m sure there will be lots of stories and memories shared but what I’m looking forward to most will be the hugs – the ones with his kids where I tell them the same thing my aunt told me, that they were loved. I can’t take their pain away, but I can at least do that.