In 2012 my mum got diagnosed with cancer. After an operation, she was cancer-free for some time when in March 2017 it was discovered that the cancer had returned and had spread everywhere, notably to her lungs.
She was adamant that she did not want further treatment, which would have been palliative at best anyway and would have had significant side effects. Nobody was able to make a prognosis regarding how much longer she had left. Being seventy, there was a chance that it would develop slowly.
Nothing much seemed to happen for a little while when suddenly from one day to the next, she couldn’t use her legs anymore, and a few weeks later in July 2017, she was able to move into a hospice, having her last wish fulfilled. After a further four weeks, she passed away.
Those four weeks were a rollercoaster. Her condition changed up and down. But mostly I could not get my head around how she could die. I simply couldn’t imagine how her body could go from functioning to shutting down.
I lived about 500km away and went up to see her for long weekends during that time. I experienced the hospice as a very peaceful place. Nevertheless, I often sat by her bed, holding her hand and feeling utterly overwhelmed and helpless and scared.
I was convinced that I should be doing something, saying something, but could not think of anything at all that might ease her final passage. The relationship with my mum had always been difficult, thus this also felt like the last chance to make my peace with her, with us.
Here are some of the lessons I learned, which arose from a very specific situation but which I feel are equally applicable to other challenging situations in life.
1. You are alone.
Dying is personal. Watching somebody die is personal. Your whole life is personal.
There is simply no manual or set of guidelines to refer to. Not to how we live, not to how we die, and not to how we grieve.
Sometimes we might confuse our personal life lessons with universal laws. A number of people were giving me advice (I didn’t ask for). Advice about having to be there for her final breath (in the end my mum decided to slip away with no one else in the room). Advice about the importance of the funeral or on the appropriate length and ways of grieving.
Some of the forcefulness behind the messages were overwhelming at the time and had me doubting my own feelings and decisions. While I fully appreciate they meant well, I had to remind myself that only I can decide for myself what to do and how to do it. There is no right or wrong. What feels right to someone, might feel very wrong to you.
Listen to your inner voice! Tune in, and your heart will tell you what to do. We all have an inner compass; it’s just a matter of learning to access and trust it. Equally, when the tables are turned, be conscious of how you talk to people. Offer support and share your experiences by all means but give room for the other person to go their own way.
2. You are not alone.
In other ways I was not alone. One of the most important lessons for me was to accept help. Yes, bloody ask for help! I tend to be a control-freak, proud of my independence, always having been able to deal with things by myself. Suddenly I felt frighteningly helpless. I felt like everyone else had it figured out and I was failing miserably.
Everyone in the hospice was amazing, whether it was talking to me, listening to me, letting me cry, offering me a cup of tea, providing me with food, or holding my hand. It meant the world and I stopped regarding accepting help as a weakness. There is no merit in going it alone, whatever it may be. You want to help those you love—allow them to be there for you, too.
3. The power of a good cry.
In line with my wish to be independent, I hate crying in front of people. I worried it would upset my mum. I worried I made other people uncomfortable. I worried the tears would never stop.
Then somebody told me that it’s physiologically impossible to cry continuously. I can’t remember the time, but it’s something like twenty minutes after which the crying will automatically cease. That thought comforted me: The worst that could happen would be to cry for twenty minutes. That seemed manageable. Besides, there didn’t seem to be much I could do to stop the tears from coming anyway.
Once I relaxed about crying, I discovered how transformative tears could be. They offered and still offer a release of tension that would otherwise keep building up inside. They have a message that is worth listening to. They are part of life. Don’t feel ashamed. Don’t worry on other people’s behalf, because it’s not for you to figure out how they deal with your tears.
4. Feel it all.
I used to strive for a life made up of only happy moments. People would tell me that without the crap, we wouldn’t appreciate the good. But I’ll be honest: I was not convinced.
When feeling ‘negative’ emotions, in addition to feeling them, I was annoyed that I felt them, adding another layer of frustration. I engaged in an internal fight against those emotions, and as you may guess this only made things worse.
Here I was dealing with feelings that were new to me, also in an intensity that was new to me and which felt uncomfortable as hell. I quickly worked out though that I couldn’t push them away. I couldn’t distract myself. Eventually I came to accept them as part of me and part of the experience. And the thing is that everything passes—the “good” as well as the “bad.”
Don’t judge your feelings. Allow them to flow through you. Fighting them will only make them linger longer. Feel them and seek to learn from them. Everything we feel can teach us a lesson.
5. Some things you cannot prepare for.
Since my mum’s initial diagnosis, I had been mentally preparing for her death. Or so I thought. Grief took on many different forms for me. I hadn’t expected any of them and had nevertheless been going through various scenarios beforehand. It turned out to have been a waste of time to even attempt preparing for any of it. And this applies to most things in life.
It will be whatever it will be. But most importantly you will be okay!
It sucks at times. It still comes over me at random times. The realization that she is no longer around hits me again and again, as if it’s news. I often dream of her. Things happen, and I want to tell her about it and then realize that I can’t talk to her ever again. I have no idea where else my grief will take me so I have given up spending time of trying to anticipate it but I have faith that I will manage.
6. Carpe diem.
We know we will die one day, yet we still generally live our lives as if we will be around forever.
Okay, I’m not saying that I’ve seized every minute of every day since my mum passed away. I forget. But I also remember. I remember that life is short. Death puts things into perspective in many ways. Is it worth getting upset or stressed over certain things? Do I really want to hold a grudge? Is this really worth my time? Is this who I want to spend my time with? How will I feel looking back on my life when my time comes?
I ask myself these questions more often nowadays, and it has changed my life for the better. I am overall more relaxed and I stress less. I am more precious over how I spend my time and who with. I am less willing to put up with things that don’t feel good to me (this is where your inner voice plays a crucial role, too). It is liberating to say the least.
7. Gratitude rocks.
Almost a decade ago, I started a daily gratitude diary. I found it tough in the beginning. After a crappy day, I just didn’t think anything good had happened. But practice changed my mindset with lasting effects.
It’s not about forcing yourself to be happy all the time; it’s about changing your perspective and focusing on the “good” without denying the “bad.” It helps me not to take things for granted in everyday life.
Even during my mum’s last weeks, I found many things on a daily basis that I felt grateful for: I was grateful that even on her deathbed we were able to share a laugh. I was grateful to witness through her friends and family how she had touched other people’s lives. I was grateful how it brought me back closer to some people. I was also grateful for little things like sitting on her balcony in the sun or listening to music together.
Above all I was and am grateful for having been given the opportunity to witness her dying. Especially given our difficult relationship, I am grateful I was able to say goodbye – I am aware not everyone gets the chance.