Grief is a sacred journey

Dancing with My Mother’s Death

Elaine & Marion Woodman 2007

Elaine & Marion Woodman 2007

Three months after my husband’s stem cell transplant, he had wispy dark hair and terrific energy. I needed a break from cancer and care giving. He needed a few days alone. I signed up for a week-long Body/Soul Rhythms workshop in Canada with Jungian analyst and author Marion Woodman. Marion had been my teacher for 20 years. She was in her late 70s in 2007 and weakened by ovarian cancer, but she still gave great workshops with Ann Skinner and Mary Hamilton.

Incubate a dream about your intention for this workshop,” Marion suggested at our first session. That night, I had this dream:

…a hummingbird is in a cage with no bottom. It hasn’t figured out that it can drop down and escape. A young red-haired farmer tells me he’ll release the hummer in his garden where she’ll be safe. I know the bird will be OK.

DSC02820The next morning, after an opening ritual, I sat in the semi-circle of forty women and waited for the session to begin.

Photo of Vic and me on the workshop altar

Photo of Vic and me on the workshop altar

“Your husband is on the phone,” a woman whispered in my ear. My heart pounded with fear as I followed her to the office.

“I’m OK,” Vic reassured me in a strong clear voice. “Your mom’s nursing home just called to say she stopped swallowing water and food yesterday. They think she’s dying.”

My 91-year-old mother had spent the last four years semi-comatose in a fetal position with closed eyes. I visited often and fed her tiny spoons of her favorite chocolate ice cream or oatmeal. She opened her mouth like a little bird and swallowed.

Juvenile_Male_Ruby-throated_Hummingbird

wiki image

“Will you go to the nursing home to be with her, Vic?” I asked.

“I’m on my way.”

“If she dies before I get there, take the blankets I bought for her shroud.”

Then I called the head nurse.

“Your mom won’t eat or swallow fluids.”

images (1)“Don’t force her,” I pleaded. “I’m in Canada, nine hours away. Should I start driving?”

“Wait until this afternoon,” the nurse suggested. “If she dies quickly, you won’t have time to get here, or she may linger for weeks. Call this afternoon. I’ll know more.”

A few months before her death

A few months before my mother’s death

During the morning workshop, I danced my hummingbird dream, releasing the tiny bird to the heavens with my hands while I imagined my mother’s flight to freedom. After the morning session, my phone message light blinked.

“Your mom just died.” Vic’s voice on the machine was gentle and calm.

“Her breathing was so quiet it was hard to tell when life ended and death began,” Vic said. “I held the crown of her head and enveloped her in love. I sat next to her and meditated.”

“Thank you, Vic,” I whispered, weeping from relief as well as sorrow. Twelve years of Alzheimer’s was an endurance test. It was over. She left her body when I couldn’t be at her side. Instead, I was in one of the few places I know where I could dance her to the end.

“Are you leaving?” the workshop leaders asked when I returned to the circle.

A rare wakeful moment in 2003

A rare wakeful moment in 2003

“No, I’ll stay. My mother is gone. This feels like the right place for me this week. My husband will handle what needs to happen there.”

That evening, the women gathered in a circle, held hands, and offered prayers for my mother Iva May. I asked if we could sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” We sang it twice. When the song ended, all eyes looked expectantly at me.

I asked each woman to call her mother’s name into the circle, one at a time: “Iva May,” I began. Other voices called out: “June, Carol, Betty Lynn, Jeanette…” Living or dead, ill or well. No matter how good or difficult the relationship. We called our mother’s names. All forty of them.

Their names were our prayers.

***

Were you away for an important family death? What did you do when you couldn’t get there? For other stories about my mother’s last years, see My Mother’s Blessing.

I told a brief version of this story in my book Leaning into Love. Fourteen months later and eight days after Vic’s death, I had a second dream of a man with red curls, identified in the dream as the Green Man, a pre-Christian Northern European nature god.

Thank you, Jacob Eisman of Six Circle Farms,  for being in my dream eight years ago and graciously letting me take your photo for this blog. While I was at the farm, I stocked up on organic squash, onions, carrots, greens, and the world’s best garlic sauce, Scape-a-moli, a pesto made of garlic scapes. You can find Six Circle Farms at farmer’s markets in Ithaca and Trumansburg, NY or at the link above.

25 Comments
  1. I remember reading this in your book Elaine. Your dream seemed like a metaphor, ‘the bird dropped from the cage.’ Your courage through everything you’ve experience astounds me. I await your next book. <3

    • My mother weighed around 85 lbs by then. She had been like a tiny dying bird for years. Finally, she was released and could fly away. Her mind and her body had been a cage for too long. I’d like to see that next book myself, Debby. I’m working on it.

  2. Oh, Elaine. So beautiful. Wow, were your instincts honed to celebrate the sacred in all things, the necessity for ritual, and the need to care for yourself when you could no longer care for your loved ones. I so admire your wisdom when it comes to passages and transitions. Once again, Hecate is coming through loud and clear!!

    • Thank you, Jeanie. I was fortunate to be at a workshop with Marion and a circle of women–and to know Vic would be there for my mom. It’s the last time I saw Marion. Vic got sick again five months later and Marion stopped teaching soon after Vic died. She and I corresponded for about four more years, until she couldn’t. Ritual was a big part of all her workshops, as you know. Marion wanted us to find and follow our own images. Mine was clear that week. I also made a much cherished mask after my mother’s death called “Our Lady of Grief and Praise.” There’s a photo of it in a blog about creating a new persona after Vic’s death (https://elainemansfield.com/2015/persona-promoting-book-created-new-social-self/).

  3. How significant that Vic could be a surrogate of sorts during your mother’s passing while you were in a place that nourished your soul and body. (You looked so very tired in the photo by your mother’s bedside.)

    Your posts always conjure up lovely images and call me to dig deep. As I read, I thought of the image of Elisha being caught up into heaven in a chariot without dying. The picture in my mind is of a swirling gold and blue rendering. I clicked on the audio file too and heard the lyrical tones of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, first sung by a soprano and then by Johnny Cash, more appropriate to my Dad who played this same song with rough hands on his guitar.

    Yes, I was away when my mother’s death occurred last year. When I was alerted that she was very ill, I called the hospital and talked to Mother who sounded fine and upbeat. But I felt prompted to write down our conversations. We were told the doctor would do a procedure that could stem the tide of the roiling bacteria. We believed it would somehow do wonders, but she swiftly slid into unconsciousness, and my sister and I arrived two days later. (Another sister and my brother were by her bedside.) I have our conversations over a 2-day period on paper and I told her “I love you.”

    Fortunately, I have wonderful memories of churning butter with her just a month earlier, which turned into a blog post. It will have to be enough . . . .

    • Yes it was significant for Vic, Marian. And I was tired in that photo. Vic was in cancer treatment and my mom was in such a sad state–neither here or there.

      My dad (you likely remember he died when I was 14) sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” often. Was it daily? It feels like that in memory. It was a family favorite.

      I’m so glad you could have those lucid phone calls with your mom. Isn’t it wonderful when we have notes from essential conversations? There is so much power in the actual words said. I gave a link to a blog called “My Mother’s Blessing” at the end of this piece. I wrote down our last real conversation in 1999 (yes, she lived 8 more years with only a few scattered words). But that surprising day, she spoke slowly and meaningfully with long pauses so I had time to write down every word. The conversation was a blessing and so were my notes.

  4. Thank you Elaine, a beautiful post. The hummingbird dream is lovely .. as is Jacob.

    I remember the last time I saw my mother a few months before her death. It was extremely special – too detailed to go into here. But, on the day/time of her death, a plate crashed on the dresser in the diningroom; my elder son (only 12 at the time) had been hitting a tennis ball on the court and he couldn’t stop thinking about her … Both my brother and sister were with her when she died, my brother travelling a great distance to be with her and actually, only at my sister’s insistence.

    • Sounds like your family knew, Susan. I’m glad some of your siblings could be there. One of my sons made it to Vic’s bedside just 45 minutes before Vic’s death. The other was in Europe and couldn’t get home until the next day. Fortunately, the son who was away had visited four days before when Vic’s doctors assured us that Vic had more time and our son should go. Death is a surprise even when someone is very ill for a long time.

      When I left home the week of Mom’s death, I had no idea anything would change with her. If there had been clues, I wouldn’t have left, but her death was “sudden” after more than five years of a comatose holding pattern. I’m glad Vic was with her and could witness a peaceful death. When he came home from the nursing home that day, he saw a white hawk swoop down in a field near the house, grab a little rabbit, and soar away. Another unmistakable image of the cycle of life and death. Thank you, Susan. As you can tell, I’m experimenting with mythological themes.

  5. I wept throughout your beautiful, intimate post Elaine for there were many heart-breaking places for me to rest in before I gathered up the strength to read on. Thank you so much for writing and sharing your personal experiences with death. Sometimes words fail us miserably, for me this is one of those times. I ordered your book ‘Leaning into Love’ last weekend and am looking forward to the stork’s arrival with it later this week … in perfect time for Samhain, to help me light a fire against the winter’s dark. Love and blessings, Deborah.

    • Your feelings come through loud and clear, Deborah. No more words needed. Thank you for ordering my book. There is a less detailed telling of my mother’s death in Leaning into Love with more about what happened at the workshop and when I got home.

      Yes, Samhain is upon us. Time to store the last of the harvest, save the seeds for the next cycle, build a fire, and incubate dreams. Love and blessings back to you.

  6. Just beautiful post Elaine! And then your question “Were you away for an important family death?”. My dear 67 yr old brother is in the process of dying in San Antonio TX, i live in Puerto Rico. Last week i visited for a week. Terminal cancer. Can hardly hear him on the phone now. He had to hand in his wife to her brothers in Mexico to keep, she has advanced early onset Alzheimers. She’s confused and calls him daily. His two angel sons by a previous marriage are with him. He mentioned unnecessary suffering. He’s an old school doctor pneumologist and resists hospice, because it’s big business he says, but maybe… Hard but this too shall pass. Hope your brother is ok. Thank you ♥

    • Thank you, Nati. I’m sorry your brother is dying and you’re far away from him. The problem with modern families! I’m glad you could visit last week. It sounds like he has things in order. This must be very difficult and confusing for his wife. I wonder why he thinks of hospice as big business. Maybe it is potentially since we will all die. I think of hospice as the place that will help me avoid unnecessary suffering. I imagine how hard it will be to communicate with me as I grow older because I’m quite deaf and dependent on hearing aids.

      My brother is hanging in there. He’s visiting me this coming weekend, something that hasn’t happened for many years since I usually go to his place. He’s coming with my niece, so she can help with driving. He was recently in Rome for 10 days. So, he still has a nice life as he grows weaker.

  7. This meant a lot to me, Elaine. I needed to hear it. Too busy at work this week to explain now, but you’ll understand after the next post.

    • Thanks for letting me know, Paula. I’ve been concerned you were in the midst of a family crisis–and I’ll find out what you’ve been up to next week. I fear it hasn’t been a joyful vacation.

  8. So happy your brother is visiting, you must be busy awaiting and preparing. Enjoy!!!
    I too think of hospice as the place that will help me avoid unnecessary suffering.
    Thanks for being there and sharing ♥

    • Your brother is a super-informed patient. His choices are the ones that matter. I hope he can get all the care he needs so you don’t have to worry about that aspect of his illness. Sending you love.

  9. So beautiful. I love the mothers calling circle. What a great way to bring the forty others to where you were. So far, I have been fortunate to witness the deaths of my loved ones, my father and my daughter. I don’t imagine this will always be the case. I feel for those who rush to a bedside or find they will not be able to “be there” for a beloved’s last living moments. It makes me appreciate my time with the ones I love, time together that may be the last. Cheers!

    • Thank you, Robin. The calling out of names was wonderful. On my mother’s birthday a month later, I had women friends over for a mother ritual and we again called out our mother’s names. This calling of the names has been an important part of community ritual for me since that time.

  10. Crying as I read this again, Elaine. What a perfect place to be to ‘dance’ your mother into her next adventure. Done with Alzheimer’s! Free at last. Beautiful…

    Much love,

    Jenna

    • Thank you, Jenna. I wouldn’t have been more present with my mother sitting by her bedside than I was moving spontaneously, imagining a tiny bird in my hands, and repeatedly lifting my arms up to the sky, opening my fingers, and imagining the bird’s flight. Her mind and body were tight cages. It was good to leave the earth. Love back to you.

  11. I love the hummingbird, bottomless cage, and farmer symbolism. Your subconscious mind conjured them up for a reason. Perhaps our subconscious stands by, offering help in the healing process, if we can only be open enough to listen.

    Thanks for this wonderful post.

    • I love all the images and symbols you named, Ann Marie. Since I became a student of Jung in the late 1960s, I’ve experienced these synchronicities and meaningful correspondences between dreams and my outer life. Sometimes dreams clarify. Sometimes they tell me something I don’t know. Sometimes they guide, reassure, or soothe. It likely helps that I keep a dream notebook and pen next to me bed, waiting for the next magical night story. And I imagine it helps most that I’m a “believer” in the soul truth that arises in this way and assume there is meaning. Sometimes I never discover what it is, but sometimes it’s obvious. Thank you for your encouraging words.

  12. Agree, thank you!

  13. I’m really without words…. just sitting with tears rolling down my cheeks. Thank you, Elaine, for sharing such an important part of yourself and your life – not only with this piece, but with so many of your writings.

    With love,
    Ann

    • There it was, Ann. I couldn’t be at my mom’s side, but Vic was. I guess I had other work to do. It was one of those magical unexplainable synchronicities that make life feel meaningful and purposeful. Sending you love.

      By the way, I wear my #endalz 2015 t-shirt as a nightshirt and have it on right now.

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