Death and Dying – Lessons I Learned From My Mother

Never having been present at a death before, I didn’t know what to expect; and, it wasn’t what I expected.  My brother, father and I held vigil, practically holding our collective breath, as my mother, Mary Patricia Ann Ritcey Jourdain, drew her last, peaceful breaths on Wednesday, February 8, 2012, falling quiet at 12:30 pm.

Then there was silence.  Her silence.  No more rattling breaths drawn with some effort through her lungs into her ravaged body; ravaged from dementia for many years and the refusal to eat for many months.

Our silence.  In reverence for my mother, her journey and the honour of witnessing the final stages of her transition from physical form into spirit.  I already believed much of her consciousness was active in the subtle realms even as her physical presence diminished.  With her last breaths I imagined her spirit gently tugging until the last wisps of it were finally released into a delightful little dance of joy and freedom.

My mother’s journey with dementia was a long one.  My journey through hers was an inspired one.  Her greatest teachings for me may have been in these last few years when she could no longer string coherent sentences together, during the contrast of those times when she seemed to have no awareness of my presence to when I knew she was aware I was there.

I had one of those moments of her awareness the night before she died.  We had moved her to a special room where I could stay with her overnight.  One of her medication times was missed.  I was aware of that but she didn’t seem to be in distress.  So, I sat on the arm of the couch, eye level with my mom.  I looked into her blue eyes and she held my gaze.

When I say she held my gaze, I really mean she held my gaze.  She was just as present as I was.  In fact, I was mesmerized.  I couldn’t take my gaze away.

So, I talked to her.  I told her about some things in my life.  I told her how beautiful she is – not was, is.  I told her how gifted she is and how loved.  I thanked her for being in my life, for being my mom.  Mostly, I held her gaze with love.  Until she began to exhibit signs of distress and I went for the nurse.  And then she was gone again until the moment of her final breath.

Four of us still in the room but now the shape of our lives fundamentally shifted.  As long as we stayed sitting in the room, it was like she was still there in her emaciated form.  But, of course, now she was free of form.  Eventually we had to move and leave her next steps in the capable hands of the Harbourview Haven staff who would transfer her into the equally capable hands of the Dana L. Sweeny Funeral Home.

The staff at Harbourview Haven taught me about human dignity and respect through how they related to my mother.  Even up to the last moment, they treated my mother as if she was fully present and aware.  They called her by her name.  In the middle of the night they would come into our room.  “Mary,” they’d say, “We’re going to turn you over now.”  “Mary, we are going to give you your meds now.  It might sting a little.”

On the morning of her death, a care worker came in to wash her face and freshen her up, providing a depth of love and care, dignity and respect to a woman in her last moments on this physical plane.  I can’t say enough for Harbourview Haven and the care they provided, not just in those last few hours but in the three years and eight months (plus a few days) that my mother lived there.  And not just care for her.  Care for my dad too.  For our family.  They understand about death and dying.  That it is a process and a transition.

My nine year old understands about death and dying.  Enough to ask to visit his grandmother with me when I told him I was going to see her.  He hadn’t been there much lately.  I told him what his grandmother looked like and how she was.  He still wanted to come, even when the call came to say it might be her last day.  And his older brother and his girlfriend came too.  We all sat vigil the day before she died, for hours.  Watching my mother with sidelong looks every time her breathing stopped – for the eternity that shows up in a moment.

I am now aware that dying and death requires the same kind of loving care and attention as birth does.  It is birth.  Birth back to spirit.

When my older boys were young children their grandfather on their father’s side died.  Their dad and I had already separated.  They went to the funeral and afterwards I asked them how it was.  We began to talk about death.  They said to me, “We think it’s kind of like this.  You know when you dream and when you are in the middle of a dream it seems real?  But then you wake up and you know it was just a dream.  We think life is like that.  It’s really just a dream but it seems real.  Then you die, but really it’s like waking up and realizing it was just a dream.”  Such wisdom out of the mouths of babes.  Closer to source.

I wonder how my mother might be reflecting on the 79 year dream that was her life as Mary Patricia Ann Ritcey Jourdain this time around?


17 thoughts on “Death and Dying – Lessons I Learned From My Mother

  1. Kathy, so glad you shared this and that I decided to read it. My mother’s parents were both up at Harbourview. I cannot remember much about grampys death other then going to visit nanny. They took good care of her. In her final days mom always went there alot. Nanny was going blind in the end, she didn’t know us. I hadn’t been there as much as mom but when I did I tried to talk to her but I think she didn’r know me.
    They were great to mom up till the end. You are right there is dignity and respect.
    I am glad for you and your strengh to take that journey. I am not sure if I could have done the same with out falling apart.
    I am scared for the day when mom leaves me. She fell in November and broke her hip. She was in hospital in Kentville for the surgery, then back to Bridgewater and now at FMH in the Patterson unit. She is doing better with plans of going home the end of the month.
    While in Bridgewater a nurse let her fall and was not so nice. My blood boils. It was reported as it should have been. Set mom back a bit.
    I pray often for her and leave her in God’s capable hands.
    They love us with so much and what else could I want for her. I love my mom as you love yours. The love for both my parents will never stop.
    Take care Kathy.

    • Susan, thank you for your reflections. It is quite a journey we take when we enter this world. Your mother is lucky to have such a caring daughter who prays so well for her. May she be better soon. Kathy

  2. Kathy, thank you so much for sharing your beautiful reflection about your mother. It comes as a gift and another opportunity for me to learn as well – in remembering both my experience of my mother’s last days and my brief time with you on Wednesday. Your example of loving presence is inspiring.

    My thoughts are with you and your family.


    • Rick, thank you. I am touched. As I share my own reflections I am aware it takes people to their own experiences and stories. I knew this happened at my mom’s funeral as I shared stories about her that brought other people’s stories to the forefront as well. It is the joy of storytelling.

  3. I am breath-taken. Thank you for sharing this. Moments of it remind me of my father’s death, also a great lesson. Many hugs and good wishes.

  4. Kathy, thanks for sharing your journey, filled with a resonance allowing me to feel into my recent experiences in a new light. Appreciating a gentle cry as I gaze out over the wind churned waves of the steely grey strait. Blessings to you and your family. -thomas

  5. As I read this on the day of my dad’s birthday, I am reminded of how it is to lose a parent. It was very different for us, as my dad was healthy and hard-working one moment and gone the next, so we didn’t see the dying process the way that you did. Thank you for sharing this, and for – in the middle of your grief – being able to process in a way that we all can learn from it.

    Blessings to you as you remember and rejoice in the life that was your mother’s.

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