My mother is dying.
At 81, she has been a widow for more than half her life. I remember the day Dad died, aged 40. I was 13. It was a sunny day in the summer holidays and I was lying on a rug in our garden reading a book. My brother Dave came out to tell me, “Dad’s dead.” He had gone to work that day as normal, felt ill during the morning, accepted a lift home from his boss, stopped off at the doctor’s surgery on the way, walked into the waiting room and collapsed there. The doctor, having been unable to resuscitate him, was left with the task of coming to tell us the news.
Sudden death is shocking. The world changes immediately and then you adjust and move on.
My Mum’s death is different.
She has always been an anxious person. Throughout my adult life she has had periods of severe depression at about 10-year intervals, requiring inpatient treatment. Between those times she has tended to worry about things, so that my brothers and I have not relied on her for emotional support in our own big decisions. However, although she has worried and often criticised, she has always supported us in the end and been proud of our achievements. She has also retained her Christian faith, in spite of trials and doubts over the years. Indeed, I credit her with one of my own foundational experiences of faith when, in the aftermath of Dad’s death she told me she was going to stop asking God why he had died and start trusting that God knew best. I never heard her again being bitter about her lot, and when asked in the future how she made such a success of lone-parenting three teenagers, she always claimed not to know: “I just trusted God!” God and she did a good job.
In recent years she has had vascular dementia. I think it was probably diagnosed fairly late in the process, as her previous mental state made it difficult to decide when dementia had arrived. With the dementia her misery deepened. In the care home she lived in for the past few years she has been constantly unhappy and consequently difficult to visit.
After a long, gradual decline, a month ago she stopped moving and was completely unresponsive. The care home sent her to hospital where they wondered if she had an infection and gave her antibiotics for two days, but when those dealt with her temperature without improving her overall condition, we all knew this was the end. My brother Pete and I, who both live in the south of England, flew to Scotland prepared to stay until the end. Dave and his family hospitably put us up and we arranged a rota for about 10 days so that one of us was with her most of the time, intending that we would be there when she went.
After 10 days, Pete and I had to come home; Dave had to work and our rota collapsed. We are now waiting and checking our phones regularly for the news that she has gone, and she is confounding all expectations. It’s now, remarkably, a month since she has had any significant calorie intake, and a week since they stopped her subcutaneous fluids.
In all this, it’s hard to know how to feel. People assume it’s a difficult time for me, but actually there have been many blessings in this time. So I have decided, in the words of an old hymn, to count my blessings and name them one by one.
Blessing 1: Family Gathering. There has been a joy in being with my brothers, and in us all being with our Mum. About a month before this final illness, there was another occasion when she was hospitalised and we thought that her end might have come. So again we gathered. On that occasion she recovered and returned to her nursing home, but there was one special moment when the three of us were round her bed and she looked at us all and said, “How lovely to have you all here.” It had been many years since we had all been together. In that moment Pete and I knew we had been right to fly up to be there. And in the beginning of this final illness we also knew it was important to be there. We are family. We don’t get together very often, but it has been special
Blessing 2: Agreement. There have been no arguments among us, or between us and the hospital staff, when important decisions have been required. We agreed that we did not want, nor did we think that she would want, invasive medical treatment to prolong her life. The priority has been her comfort. So: drugs for pain and distress; fluids to avoid thirst (though for a while she was also able to have sips of drink when she wanted them) until she lost consciousness and seemed still peaceful so they could be stopped. We are grateful that we have hardly even had to discuss all this – it just seemed obvious to us all.
Blessing 3: The NHS. We are currently in election mode in the UK and the NHS is mentioned frequently as a political issue. We are experiencing its benefits practically. Our Mum is having excellent nursing care in a hospital acute ward. No-one has expected her to live for so long, so there has been no talk of transferring her to a hospice or anywhere else, but we have never been made to feel that she is a burden, that they need the bed, or in any other way negative. The ward staff have been unremittingly kind to us all, allowing us to ignore the usual visiting hours and be there as much or as little as we wanted to be, supplying tea, conversation and laughter, and a very comfortable reclining armchair on which we spent a few nights. And, because this is the Scottish NHS, there is free hospital parking and free wifi! Such things make a difference.
Blessing 4: Honouring our Mother. I realised recently that I have had some problems in honouring my Mum. There have been years when visiting has been a chore and it’s been hard even to talk of her in a positive way. (On that note I must honour Dave, who has lived near her and been the one who has looked after her and visited consistently. He is a hero.) But in this last illness we had a chance to serve her. Being there, interpreting her needs, holding the cup for sips of water, have given me more precious memories in this time than in the last few years put together. Though for the most part her conversation was basic and concerned her needs, there were also times of tenderness such as the one where she looked at me and gave a huge smile, and when she told Dave and Pete that she loved them. We have been able to love her and honour her in a new way and I’m grateful for the time.
Blessing 5: Eternal Life. This is what makes death bearable in the end. That it is not, in fact, the end. When I knew I would have to leave I kissed her and said goodbye, but then, “I’ll see you again.” And I believe I will. And when I do, we will both have been transformed. The frustrations of this life will have gone; all our sins which affected our relationship will be forgotten. Death will have been swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54). Ultimately this is why I am not sad – what lies ahead is so much better than what has been.
Our Mum’s death is being very different from that of our Dad. Whereas his seemed like a life suddenly cut short, she has come to the end of hers and has achieved a dignity in death which was largely absent for the last period of her life. For that I am truly grateful to God.