Death reminds us how fragile and uncertain life is. After a three-day vigil, my mother’s death occurred on September 22, 2010. Six weeks later, my father died in his sleep on January 7, 2011. I held my mother’s hand as she took her last breath; I held my father’s hand shortly after death had already taken him away. Both had died from the complications of advanced age. Their time here had simply run out. And when I eventually stood up again and looked around me, the world had changed forever.
The On the Loss of My Parents series is a tribute to my parents, Bruce Alger (1918-2011) and Vi Alger (1919-2010). It is the origin and foundation for my project, “Aging in the Second Half of Life.” On the Loss of My Parents is also an example of how transformative writing can cultivate healing, self-renewal, and understanding that is good for self and others at the same time.
And then death came, and my mom was gone forever
My mother died four days before her 91st birthday. Her health had rapidly declined in the last few months of her life, but her will to live remained strong to the end. Dying was a long and stressful process for her. And then her last breath came, and as we held her hand, she became completely still and silent.
My mother was a beautiful and resilient person who possessed a strong will to live. As the effects of aging intensified, she had to learn to manage a number of age-related diseases including insomnia, macular degeneration, glaucoma, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, and fibromyalgia. Pain and physical discomfort was something she endured for many years, and at times I sense it caused a lingering touch of depression in her spirit.
We can’t avoid death, but I now wonder if we are needlessly extending the process of dying. Our bodies are designed to deteriorate over time until they can no longer function. To what extent should we be delaying the normal course of dying? We might be able to briefly extend life through medical intervention, but at what cost to the quality of life?
The final year of my mom’s life made me wonder, “Did she live past her time?” But we are not supposed to think those kinds of thoughts. Isn’t it better to have my mom in my life as long as possible? At one time I felt the answer to that question was a resounding, “Yes!” Now, I’m not so sure anymore.
It was during the last two years of her life that the effects of these various ailments significantly impaired her quality of life. She had already lost a significant degree of independence. Regular home visit from personal support workers, a nurse practitioner, and the pharmacist helped my father to manage her needs. My sister and I were closely involved in providing help. It was an effective support mechanism, while it lasted.
As her health declined I noticed that she was becoming more depressed. It must be a profoundly sad experience to be so full of life yet trapped in a body that is beginning to expire. It wasn’t long before dementia began to make itself known. here mental and physical life was now in pain. Dying had secretly emerged in her life well before her death took place.
Mom was still alive, but we were already losing her.
In the nursing home, my mother had developed a bed-sore on her tailbone that never healed. She also suffered from infections more frequently, and pneumonia threatened to take her life on a number of occasions. Dementia had become more pronounced. She had lost an incredible amount of weight and was incredibly fragile. When someone tried to help her switch positions, she would moan in pain. Dying was now giving way to death.
My father rarely left my mother’s side in the final weeks. My mom’s dementia had become unsettling, and there were times when mom didn’t know who dad was. She was, in a sense, already gone.
Eventually the decision was made to make her as comfortable as possible and help her to pass away. For three days family and friends came to pay their final respects to my mother who was, quite sadly, often distressed and delirious.
It was a heart-wrenching experience.
On the morning of her last day in this world, I sat with her and we listened to big band music together. I would call out the name of a song as it was playing and she would still give me a little smile of recognition, even though she was now unable to speak. I used to play trumpet in a swing band and my mother was my biggest fan. She loved big band music, and it was the last music she ever listened to.
The feeling of that music is changed for me now. I cannot hear big band music without feeling the presence of my mother. We still listen to “In the Mood” together from time to time.
Soon after that, I found myself sitting at the side of her bed with my father and sister, holding her hand and leaning in close to her, while she took her last breath. The sense of silence and stillness that came over her was overwhelming.
And then death came, and my mom was gone forever.
I’m sorry to inform you that your father has passed away
My father was a physically and emotionally resilient person. He had enjoyed a long and successful career with S.C. Johnson and Sons. He had survived a cancer operation, two open-heart surgeries, two knee replacements, and a hip replacement. At age ninety he passed both a written and a road test to hold on to his driver’s licence. He is the definition of resilience for me.
Eventually the effects of advanced aging will overwhelm even the most resilient among us. Ever so gradually my father’s health became more and more fragile, and his ability to recover was deteriorating. Dementia had also, ever so subtly, started to make its presence known in those final months.
My dad spent his last days, as he had already done for several years, taking care of mom in any way he could. His sense of dedication to her was remarkable. even in the nursing home he watched over her trying to do everything possible to make the woman he loved comfortable.
I can’t imagine the grief my dad must have felt. Sitting in his wheelchair, he was constantly by her bedside trying to comfort her. Statistically, men predecease women. My dad always thought that he would be the first to die. Not this time. Eventually, all he could offer mom was his presence while she passed away.
My father’s death is intimately connected to my mother’s death.
My dad rarely complained about anything. After mom died, a deep sense of isolation and loneliness inhabited my dad’s spirit. His heart was shattered, and the love of his was now gone. Part of my dad died with mom’s passing. His identity and sense of purpose had been assaulted and traumatized.
And even in the face of profound loss, my dad never complained. Though his suffering went very deep, his attitude remained remarkable and inspiring. Not only did my mother die, but their marriage of more than sixty years passed away as well. His inner strength and courage sometimes brought a tear to my eye.
When a person dies, a cascade of events is released that moves out and fiercely alters the world around us. Relationships are broken down and our sense of belonging is traumatized. The death of a loved one requires us to re-build our identity and place in the world. Simple to write down in words, not so simple to do.
When my mother died, part of my father also died with her.
A phone call at 4:45 am on Friday January 7, 2011 woke me up. I heard a voice say, “I’m sorry to inform you that your father has passed away.”
My father’s death, unlike my mother’s, was unexpected and somewhat surprising. He was checked by the nursing home staff at regular intervals during the night and was found to be sleeping comfortably, until on one visit he was found dead. When my sister and I arrived at the nursing home in the early hours of the morning, we saw him lying in his bed. He appeared to have passed away peacefully.
I suspect that dad decided he had enough, and wanted to pass away in a manner that would not inconvenience family or friends.
In the weeks leading up to his death, my dad regularly spoke about having visits from my mother’s spirit. He said that she was encouraging him to move on and provided him with comfort. These kinds of experiences are very common, according to the nursing home workers and medical staff who tended to him. Many people I spoke to believed visits from departed spouses or loved ones to be quite literally true.
Dad was simply unable to imagine life in the absence of his wife. His health had also become quite fragile and recurring problems became more and more frequent. But I believe it was the change that took place in his mind that accelerated his death. His will to live had deteriorated. He felt lost and abandoned in a body that was beginning to experience significant health challenges.
I would have preferred to have been by his side in his final moments. That wasn’t his style.
It is my hope that he died peacefully in the comfort of mom’s spiritual presence.
Then, in the space of four short months, they were both gone
Death has provided me with some tough life lessons. But I have learned from it, as best I can.
I have learned that the greatest gift we can give to someone when they are dying is our complete presence. I struggled with this because my own emotions kept trying to carry me away and I was not always attentive. Deep down I knew this was a selfish reaction that pulled my attention away from my mom and dad. It’s not easy being fully present in the midst of death and dying.
It takes skilful means to remain fully present with the dying. When someone is dying, don’t pretend they are not dying. Conversations should not be based on avoidance and distraction. Of course, we do not want to ruminate about it either. We have to learn to sit with our pain.
I have learned that a person who is dying can exercise a great deal of control over their death if they wish. My family wanted to be near when death came for mom and dad. Doctors and nurses alike reassured me that both my mom and dad would decide when they died and who was there with them. We surrounded my mom at her moment of death; my dad died alone in the middle of the night as he slept.
If a dying person wishes to die alone and in private, then they probably will. A doctor described a situation to me in which a person who wished to die alone passed away immediately after a family member had the left room for just a moment. We can, to some extent, will ourselves to live on until the desired conditions for our death have arrived.
They lived a long life. I heard this phrase several times from other people. I think they were trying to make me feel better. Although they meant no disrespect, this kind of response is not helpful. We don’t have a grammar for death yet. We struggle to be authentic when we talk to the bereaved.
I learned what a loss of independence really is. Life will shrink around me in advanced age. I will have less reach. Eventually, I will need help from others.
Most importantly, death teaches us the value of the present moment. There is no substitute for enjoying what we have right in front of us. I moved and started a new career simply to remain close to my parents during their final years of life. That lasted for ten years. It is one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Then, in the space of four short months, they were both gone.
- The fourth article in this series is On the Loss of My Parents: 4 – A Funeral as Goodbye