Death is typically depicted in our society as a mostly negative event. It’s terrifying, loud, abrupt. Like most people, I used to be afraid of death. Maybe I worried if I were exposed to its clutches too long, I would end up sucked into its gaping maw and flung into the dark void of loneliness, despair and nothingness. My oh my, how perspectives change! There is nothing to be afraid of with death at all. It can be beautiful, peaceful, raw and real…and will happen to us all eventually. Naturally.
The event of birth and death are strikingly similar. Both involve periods of witnessing, waiting and silence. Grasping of hands. Rubbing of foreheads. Breathing through pain. And finally…releasing. Sweet sweet release.
About a year ago, my mother was in the “actively dying” phase of Alzheimer’s Disease in the midst of the pandemic when vaccines weren’t yet readily available. Thankfully, my mom was one of the rare patients to receive her shot at the assisted living facility. Her death taught me the most simplest but profound lesson of all: How to love. The following is my story and how I saw things unfold.
Here I am sweating in a PPE/hazmat suit in the stifling room where my mother lay curled up and stiff on her tiny hospital bed, breathing her last breaths. Here I am hearing her slow breathing in and out, in and out, each pause between lengthening until for endless moments there is no more breath.
Here I am waiting for that final pause, that signal she has left her body. Here I am observing this mystical and sacred transition. Waiting for the clouds to part, for the bells to chime, for angels to sing. For God to bellow, “Thy Will Be Done“.
But there is none of that. It’s waiting and waiting and my heart receives nothing in return but silence and her diminished breathing. The moment I think she is gone, suddenly she gasps deeply again and lives some more–that flicker, that God spark still burning inside of her body. I long to be there when she leaves her body, to perhaps catch a glimpse of a sliver of light drifting up toward the heavens and surrounded by a band of angels.
But the universe offers no majestic scenes. Instead, I merely hold her hand, rub her forehead and look out the window at the red squirrel staring back at me from his vantage point atop a mountain of snow. I focus on him over several hours that bright and quiet winter morning. Red is my mom’s favorite color. Maybe the squirrel is a signal from God? Maybe it’s her soul preparing to leave? Maybe it’s me looking back at me?
I know the little creature is all three.
In the silent room, I witness my mom’s breathing is not her own, but God breathing for her. Source is within her and breathing out of her body for me to witness. Expand, contract. Expanding, contracting. And the sum total of the entire universe is contained within the silence in between:
This is what I am offered as I sit next to her in that little room. A gentle reassurance, a whisper of comfort all around me. Presence. Peace. Connection.
For several hours I chatter incessantly to her, knowing that hearing is the last sense to go. I chuckle when I mention Tom Brady won the Super Bowl again…but with the wrong team. I tell her how my son will graduate from high school soon, and my daughter from middle school. I tell her how much her grandkids love her and will miss her.
I tell her how much I love her. I tell her I love her over and over again.
Expand and contract.
A few days before her last day in hospice care, my brothers and I alternated visits with her due to the raging pandemic. Each day she was only allowed to see one of us for one hour. During my day to visit I held out my phone to her ear as her youngest child, who lives in North Carolina, told her he loved her and said his last goodbyes.
She roused from her deep sleep and responded with a whisper, “Love you. Love you. Love you.”
Although she was on serious medication for comfort and was mostly unresponsive, she found the strength to grasp my arm like a small child. And while very close to death, she still managed to ask in a raspy voice, “Have you seen God? I’m looking for God…where is God?” Then after a moment she groaned and sighed,
“God is here… Just a little while longer, he says. Just…a…little…while…longer.” Peace spread across her sunken face.
My last hour during my last visit alone with her, I traced the veins in her curled hand with my gloved fingers. I felt the thready pulse in her stiff fingers. I thought maybe if I kept my finger on her pulse forever then she would not die. She had lost so much weight she was unrecognizable, but on her face was the most beautiful smile.
Now her breath was very content and loud. It would stop completely for over a minute, long enough for me to stand up in astonishment, ready to yell for a nurse that she was gone. Then she would gasp again. This went on for a few hours. In a moment that I knew would be my last with her, I lifted my plastic goggles, took of my mask and kissed her forehead, trying to communicate to her the love I felt. She loudly let out a loud blissful sigh. She knew I was there with her.
Then I let go of her hand.
My visit was over. I left my mom.
I often think about the last day I had with her. On the day she died, when I was sitting next to her in her little room, I watched the red squirrel jumping in and out of the snow, scurrying around in circles up and down the birch trees. He brought me great comfort as I sat there in the sun holding my mom’s stiff hands.
Funny, I was sitting next to my actively dying mother and it was beyond surreal. So surreal it was ordinary. The sun’s rays were still streaming through the snow-covered trees. People out in the hallway were still talking and laughing. Meanwhile my mom’s heartbeat was counting down to the end. It struck me as the most natural thing. Something we all go through time and again. The squirrel continued its hunt for food. It’s not like the movies with the dramatic music, thrashing and weeping. It’s a single tear sliding down your face. It’s feeling the miraculous pulse of life through stiff fingers. It’s the ball of fear boring into the pit of your stomach as you lean over and peer into the abyss. It’s realizing deep in your bones that it is going to be fine. There is nothing to fear.
She passed away that night after I saw her. The nurse found her the next morning at 8 a.m. and called me to say, “I’m sorry but your mother’s passed away last night. She died very peacefully.” I burst into tears, feeling the tremendous loss but also sheer relief that her suffering had ended. Yes, but I wasn’t there with her. Did God show up? Was my dad there? Angels? Did she slip out of her body with no problem? Did she know where to go? Did anyone on the other side help her? Is she okay now? Where is she now? What is she doing? How can she be gone already?
The next day I was to pick up all of her belongings in the little room at the facility. Her rings, CDs, books, her wooden angel figurines. Her entire life left in a cardboard box on a shelf. All the things we cling to in life unceremoniously left behind. Of course, she needed them no longer. She was really gone. When someone dies, the loudest and most earth-shattering change is the silence. The quiet. The heavy quiet. The absence of their presence in this life.
I’ve learned in my life that death is not the end, but an incredible journey back to Source and to our higher self; who we really are. And Source/true self was there all along, just underneath the surface, patiently waiting. I know she is okay. We’ve both endured suffering and struggles together in this life to learn how to overcome. Her failings are my failings. To love her is to love myself. She is me and I am her. She is love and so am I. Acceptance and forgiveness brings love into the light to grow and expand infinitely like a field of daffodils peeking out of the mud.
My mom was buried a few months later on a beautiful clear day in May. When she was alive, we often talked to each other about where we go after we die and what it all means. I used to joke with her and ask if she could give me signs after she left. The day of her funeral was no exception.
As I was getting dressed, I asked her aloud, “Mom, can you show me a sign? Make it rain today. If you are there, make it rain.” I giggled at myself at this ridiculous request. It was a clear sunny day with no clouds in the sky, but I threw it out there to the universe anyway. For good measure I even told my husband and kids about the “sign” I asked of my mom as validation.
As we pulled into the cemetery, I said aloud again, “Mom, make it rain if you’re here!”
A small group of us gathered around her casket and each one of my brothers gave their eulogies. Some were funny, some were sad, but all of us tried to capture our mom as we knew her. I was the last to stand up and say a few words.
As I stood up in front of my family, the wind began to stir. I opened up my Bible to 1 Corinthians 13 as drops of rain began to fall. Tears rolled down onto the page as I realized with astonishment, it was raining. A sudden shower out of the clear blue sky. Raining only down on us standing around my mom.
I took a deep breath and read aloud:
The last few days of Mom’s life were as difficult as they were precious.
All of us took turns by her side, holding her hand and trying to comfort her in her final hours.
Despite her weakness and confusion, she managed to say one thing repeatedly
Love you. Love you. Love you.
And we all made sure to tell her we loved her back.
Love is the most powerful force in the universe. It transcends all space and time. It heals wounds. It feeds our souls.
We all have regrets, we all suffer. We all have failings.
But love is always the answer and is infinitely available to us if we only open up our hearts and let go of fear.
One day each one of us will also be facing the end of our own life. I hope and pray that we can say that we loved each other, despite our failings.
Love is always the answer.
Love is all there is.
As I walked back to my seat, the swirling wind and rain slowly stopped.
Love you, Mom.
My mom died from Alzheimer’s Disease on February 4, 2021, two weeks after her 87th birthday.
You can read her story from the beginning in Love You (Part 1)