Go. Be with your dying person.

A simple guide to visiting someone close to death.

Watching my mother alter from her strong, vibrant shape into a skeletal, weakened slip of herself was wrenchingly, stabbingly difficult. But seeing her strength despite great pain, watching her reach for hope and help, feeling connection even when she could no longer speak: these were among the gifts of her dying. Her dying changed me and blessed me beyond measure.

 

I was young and stupid.

The man who had hired and mentored and befriended me was lying in his house in a neighborhood down the street, dying.

He was only 55. I was 27, so I thought that was old.

His cancer had come back. This time, he wouldn’t beat it. This time, he would die.

I loved so many things about him. He had shown optimistic faith in hiring me straight out of grad school. He had been a mentor, role model, and surrogate father to me. He believed in my excellence, he often told me. He was kind, funny, and generous. His smile was legendary.

And now, he was dying. I needed to go see him. I wanted to sit by him and tell him what his life meant to me. What he meant to me.

But I was young and confused and scared.

I made excuses: “He’s not family.” “I’ll be intruding.” “He won’t want me to see him like this.”

I knew he was dying. I knew he had days to live. I knew I had things that I wanted to say. But my youth and inexperience and fear kept me away.

He died.

I wept alone in my room, curtains drawn to gray.

To this day, I wish I had found the courage to knock at his door. I wish I had spoken with his wife and daughter. I wish I had sat near him during his final days.

To this day, I regret that I didn’t.

I wish I could go back in time. I wish I had found the simple strength to go and be with my dying person. I wish I had said good-bye.

I wish, I wish, I wish. But retroactive wishes never come true.

Tough lessons learned the hard way.

Life has a way of teaching us lessons.

Sometimes, it seems we ride an unstopping merry-go-round of “You’re going to learn this, like it or not.” The great circle of life, one lesson after the other.

We fail and fail, then gather our wits to try again. We fall and rise. We stumble and walk on.

And then the next lesson looms.

I love you, Mom. Good-bye.

4 years went by.

One March weekend, I gathered my two young boys and infant daughter to drive to my mother’s home in Portland. We stopped by the garden store to load the minivan with spring annuals: violas, marigolds, smiling snapdragons. My mom said she didn’t feel up to planting her walkway and front flowerbeds, so we would do it for her.

My mother hadn’t felt well in months. Her stomach bothered her. She couldn’t eat much. When she did eat, she had problems keeping her food down. She lost weight.

Mom opened the front door. Smiling weakly, she nodded at the flats of flowers.

“It’s cold out,” she said, shivering. “I’ll take the children inside.”

Spade and shovel close by, I turned the cold, wet dirt. One after the other, I placed and planted and smoothed over the beds.

Inside, I could hear the clang of dishes, the singsong of voices. My mother’s bright laughter rang out.

Six months later, she was dead.

Learning through losing those we love.

It was a hard loss.

At the time, I was a mother with 3 young children. I had relied on my mother for comfort, support, advice, and humor, and now she was gone. I grieved deeply and for a long, long time.

Despite my pain, though, I felt blessed.

Why? Because I had the privilege, honor, and ultimate blessing of witnessing and living through her dying. I had rubbed my mother’s feet and legs with lotion, read her favorite Bible verses, helped lift and bathe her, and simply sat with her when words disappeared. It was anguishing and beautiful, all at the same time.

Death and life commingle. In our culture, we just don’t admit it. We turn away from death. And often, we turn away from the dying.

Just as I had turned away from my friend and mentor’s last and dying days 4 years prior.

Now, I understood what I should have done. Now, I had a sense of what I had missed. And I mourned for that loss anew.

Insights into visiting the dying.

In Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying, hospice nurses Maggie Callahan and Patricia Kelley offer their insights into the world of death and dying:

“A dying person offers enlightening information and comfort, and in return those close at hand can help bring that person peace and recognition of life’s meaning.”

With my mother’s passing, I experienced this paradox firsthand. Watching my mother alter from her strong, vibrant shape into a skeletal, weakened slip of herself was wrenchingly, stabbingly difficult. But seeing her strength despite great pain, watching her reach for hope and help, feeling connection even when she could no longer speak: these were among the gifts of her dying.

Her dying changed me and blessed me beyond measure.