Grief is a sacred journey

When Death Is A Gentle Gift

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“Her breath is changing,” a nurse said on the phone. “It’s hard to tell, but I’d come in if I were you.” When I saw my mother-in-law, still and ashen in her bed, I knew she was dying.

“It’s Elaine,” I told her, touching her shoulder. “Do you want to wake up?” She opened one eye and shook her head no. That night, no change and still no eating or drinking—and no medication other than a small dose of Ativan to ease anxiety.

That afternoon I called her priest who agreed to give her Last Rites the next morning. I knew she would want that, even though she hadn’t asked.

Still responsive to voice and touch

My son Anthony had just returned from a trip. “Let’s meet at the nursing home,” I said. “Your grandma is easing her way out.” I told my son in North Carolina not to try to come. David had visited with his wife Liz a few weeks ago. When David saw his grandma the last time, she swayed to music in her wheel chair while he held her hand. She had her last dance with her first grandson.

Anthony and I met in her room. Her breath was shallow and erratic. One eye opened when we spoke to her. She nodded when we said our names. Anthony held her hand and she squeezed. Tears rolled down his cheeks.

“Hi Grandma,” he said as he caressed her head. “It’s Anthony.” She nodded with that one open eye.

Hail Mary, Full of Grace

“Does anything hurt, Virginia?” I asked. She shook her head no. I said “Hail Mary” a few times with omissions and additions.

Hail Mary Full of Grace, The Lord is with Thee.
Blessed art thou among women. Blessed is the fruit of Thy womb.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for Virginia now at this hour of her death.

Virginia mouthed the words “Hail Mary” and watched me with one eye half open. I repeated the prayer a few times before the eye closed.

I sent a text to my son David in North Carolina. “Should I come?” he asked again. “I can get there in 12 hours.”

1971, with David her first grandson

“David. You saw her and said goodbye two weeks ago. It’s OK. I don’t think you’ll make it on time.”

“I want to say goodbye,” David said. “May I talk to her on speaker phone?” Ah, modern solutions, perfect since she was nearly blind and identified people by voice.

“I love you, Grandma,” David said, his voice loud, clear, and thick with tears. “You’re OK, Grandma. You’ll be OK. We love you. I love you.”

With David and Liz a few years ago

She nodded and then carefully mouthed the words, “I love you, too.” Twice. No sound, but her lips were clear. I told David about her response. I heard him blowing his nose. She was sometimes a mean-spirited mother-in-law, something it took years for me to work through, but she was always a devoted and fun grandma.

Anthony’s high school graduation, 1992

After we hung up, I held her hand a while but didn’t speak. Her sleep deepened. Her breath was shallow and fast and erratic. Rung out and burned out, I decided to go home. Even though she was 102+, I knew her history of survival. I knew this could go on for days.

After leaving her room, I talked to the nursing home staff again. “No medical intervention except for comfort, OK? We agree on that?” The head nurse and social worker understood.

I went back to Virginia’s room compelled to say one more thing. “I’m leaving, Virginia. I’ll return tomorrow, but if I don’t see you again, all is forgiven. I love you. Goodbye and please say hello to Vic when you see him.” She didn’t wake up again and died the next day.

Will she see my husband and her only child Vic on the other side of the veil? I don’t know, but I trust she will hold him in her memory and imagination. Her gentle death  was a parting gift to her, her grandsons, and me after so many years of caregiving and concern. Thank you, Virginia, for teaching me about my strengths and weaknesses for over fifty years.

With her beloved only child Vic, ~1946

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Virginia’s death was the most gentle and quiet I have ever witnessed. “I want to die in my sleep,” she always said. She got her wish. Have you experienced the grace of a gentle death? Has anyone in your family lived to be 102? Virginia was vital and still fighting for independence (and giving me a hard time) until she was 98. Her animosity and short-term memory weakened in the last few years. Perhaps she finally trusted I wouldn’t abandon her.

For other articles about my long years with Virginia, see “Learning to Forgive.” For an article about placing her in a nursing home when there were no more options, see “I’m Moving Your Mother to a Nursing Home.” Within weeks, she loved her nursing home and told me how nice everyone was there. Thanks to Oak Hill Manor Nursing Home and Hospicare and Palliative Care Services for helping us through the last months.

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22 Comments
  1. Dear Elaine, This is a beautiful and loving tribute to a wonderful yet (at times) mean-spirited lady. Though it was written about Virginia, the love and warmth expressed by you, her tired and exhausted daughter-in-law, could be an article writing about the death of many beloved mother-in-laws and grandmothers too … such is the warmth and compassion of your heart and pen.

    Recording the nods, shakes and words of love made me weep. “Easing her way out” what a beautiful expression and Virginia’s, the gentlest of deaths. That her final hours and days were spent surrounded by the love and care of the nursing home staff and her family is deeply comforting. Your photos speak volumes, most especially the one with Anthony touching her head. Beautiful!

    The way in which you have so willingly shared Vic’s and now Virginia’s death helps me (us all I believe) learn more about the deeper mysteries of life. You’re such a generous, kind-hearted soul, a big-hearted writer who gives her readers much. The word “kindness” keeps coming back to me … and I know you know this beautiful poem so well yet I feel certain to post it here today. Blessings always, Deborah. xx

    Kindness

    Before you know what kindness really is
    you must lose things,
    feel the future dissolve in a moment
    like salt in a weakened broth.
    What you held in your hand,
    what you counted and carefully saved,
    all this must go so you know
    how desolate the landscape can be
    between the regions of kindness.
    How you ride and ride
    thinking the bus will never stop,
    the passengers eating maize and chicken
    will stare out the window forever.

    Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
    you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
    lies dead by the side of the road.
    You must see how this could be you,
    how he too was someone
    who journeyed through the night with plans
    and the simple breath that kept him alive.

    Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
    you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
    You must wake up with sorrow.
    You must speak to it till your voice
    catches the thread of all sorrows
    and you see the size of the cloth.
    Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
    only kindness that ties your shoes
    and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
    only kindness that raises its head
    from the crowd of the world to say
    It is I you have been looking for,
    and then goes with you everywhere
    like a shadow or a friend.

    written by Naomi Shihab Nye

    • Thank you, Deborah. And how I love Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem. It was Vic’s and my heart guide during his last cancer years. I felt a huge release of energy at Virginia’s death–so now a balance of fatigue and that energy. This is a big life change for me.

      Virginia was well cared for until the end and even after her death. Hospice helped the nursing home understand what we wanted and helped them prevent her falls, so there were no more ER visits in the last three months of her life. I’ll likely write about our pre-cremation ritual a few days after her death since that was powerful, too. Yesterday, I went to the Catholic Church to order four masses. It was one of her few requests and not hard to give. I’m a little stunned with the fast change after her slow, seemingly endless weakening. Then one day, she stopped eating and drinking. We suspect a stroke, but I was amazed she was still conscious and knew what was happening and who was with her. Her body was quiet, other than that one eye and a little head nod or squeeze. She was ready. We were all ready. I asked my son if it was OK to take that photo. He said yes. (Both sons and my daughter-in-law support my writing–which in my blog means photos. I’m grateful for their tolerance.)

  2. My mother was breathing one minute and the next she stopped. It was peaceful, it made her death so much easier for me. I am so glad Anthony was there and David was, through technology, too.

    • Your mom also lived a long time with lots of difficulty, Pam. I’m glad for her and for all of you that her death was peaceful. Once in a while, we get off easy at the end–even if it’s hard getting to those last days. Sending love to you.

  3. So sorry for the family’s loss, Elaine. Thank you for sharing Virginia’s last hours.

    • Thanks, Lynne. It was a relief for all of us to have Virginia die without a prolonged illness or more suffering. Sometimes death is the only way out.

  4. Ah, Elaine, I find myself weeping as I read your generous and loving words and take in the beauty captured by your photos. How very fortunate Virginia was to be so well cared for until (and, as you wrote, even after) the end and to have her wish to die in her sleep.

    My 97-year-old mother-in-law seems to be very, very slowly easing her way out of this life (thank you for those words) and does say that she is ready to go. And, that being said, we don’t have a clue how this process will unfold and how long it will take. Thank you for sharing this story which helps light the way.

    • We never have a clue, do we? That makes death all the more mysterious. Virginia didn’t want to die until those last days, but then the body did what it did. She didn’t seem afraid, but I think that small dose of Ativan was helpful. We guess she had a stroke, but didn’t try to find out. It didn’t matter. We only wished for a merciful ending to a long and often hard life. I’m glad she had a few last moments of happiness in her last weeks. I hope things go so smoothly for your mom. We had everything in place with a New York State Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment Form (MOLST) signed asking for no procedures or treatments. I don’t know if they have that where you are, but it was good to go over that with Virginia a few years ago so she could be clear about what she wanted. It helped me make the right decisions.

  5. This post is overflowing with love and forgiveness, like the divine.

    When I think of Virginia and how you have recorded her life, especially the last few years, I think of exponents. She was always a formidable woman to the Nth power, as full of love for her grand boys as she was of vitriol for whoever she thought was disputing her passage.

    I know you don’t want a halo or sainthood, but you have behaved in such a godly fashion, Elaine. In the end, I believe there was true forgiveness; the dialogue here proves that.

    • Thank you, Mariann. Death gives us that possibility, doesn’t it? Last night I wrote about my small ritual preparing her body for cremation (to be shared later) and felt the relief of no unfinished business, no regrets, no anger. Just forgiveness for our human struggles. She was formidable when I was young, especially in protection of her son or her grandsons when they were small. That became stubborn distrust as she felt herself losing independence, beginning before Vic’s death. No halos, but I give myself a pat on the back and a “You did it right, Elaine.” To me, acting with kindness and compassion under hard conditions is a sacred act. With Virginia, I had to learn how to be a bigger person with a more accepting heart. She was a fierce teacher from day one. I must have needed it. Yes, there was deep forgiveness on both sides.

  6. I am proud to be your friend and to hear your heart sound and true in everything you write. So many of us deal with death as the adversary–in this case it was a blessed relief. Your forgiveness and love also ring true in this writing, and I am learning, as you did. Love, and blessings. I received a novena on FB just before your blog showed up–it asked that we all say a Hail Mary, which I had just done.

    • In my limited experience of death with the very old or sick, death no longer feels like adversary. (I know that isn’t true for many people.) About two weeks before Vic died, he and I had another of many long talks about his situation. I told him I thought Death was the only way out of suffering. He agreed–and it was hard because he was relatively young and had a vitality to match his mother’s. That vitality was no match for cancer. Forgiving Virginia didn’t come easily or lightly. I’m grateful for all the work I did with Carl Jung’s teachings about the Shadow because that made it clear my indignant anger and shielded heart in response to her was about me and I had to face my own repressed anger and pain.

      I edit the “Hail Mary,” as you can see, and change it to fit the circumstances. When saying it with Virginia in her last years, I always left out the “Pray for us sinners now” part and just said “Pray for us at the hour of our death.” Virginia never failed to correct me, but I don’t like think of myself as a sinner. Maybe just a soul in need of teaching and correction. In any case, I don’t think the Divine Mother is insulted if we make the words to her prayer our own.

  7. Bless you! Though it is hard for me to read. I read what I could then distracted myself for a while and came back. You are so blessed with wisdom and patience. This piece was one of the most beautiful ones you’ve written. When you mentioned Anthony shedding tears, I began to cry too. I’m grateful now that your life belongs to just you!

    • Thank you, Dennis. I’m sorry it’s hard for you to read. Since my hearing is shot (although new hearing technology I got earlier this week in Rochester helps quite a bit), I’m grateful I can read. I’m not blessed with patience. I had to learn it the hard way with demanding teachers. I can say I’m less impatient than I used to be, so that’s a good sign. Anthony was a wonderful support. So was David by informing all Virginia’s relatives so I didn’t have to do that. My sons are endlessly tolerant of their mom exposing their soft sides to the world. I always ask permission. So far, they always say yes. I’m glad to have an opening in my life although I’m still working on the end-of-life business (Medicaid, Medicare, last payments for this and that) that has to happen. I hope that won’t last too much longer. Patience needed.

  8. Elaine, I agree that this piece is one of your very best. I love all that your other readers have said above and won’t try to repeat what they have shone a light on.

    When the time is right (I know that is not now), consider writing a piece for the Modern Love column of the NYTimes. Your story has so many elements of love in it. Your love story with Vic. His difficult and tenacious mother. Your “inheritance” of care-taking for her over so many years. Your understanding of myth. The gift of the gentle death with the butterfly release as symbol. What was new to me here was how much passion there was between Virginia and your sons. So much layering of love and death, struggle and peace, in this story.

    The reason I suggest Modern Love is that I listen to the podcast, and I have never heard a story like this one. Yet I know that there are millions of daughters-in-law around the world who become caretakers of women they may love, or have struggled with, or both.

    Just a thought to tuck away. You will know if it is right for you if and when the time comes.

    In the meantime, just sending you love and prayers for this sacred time when the invisible is still visible.

    • Thanks for your idea, Shirley. I know the NY Times Modern Love column well and submitted once, but they said in their instructions they weren’t much interested in conventional stories of women who are widowed. But, you’re right. This has a twist–more than anyone living knows besides me. There’s a story about Virginia and Vic from the 1940s. Virginia told the story to just Vic and me about 20 years ago. It’s the main reason I stayed. I didn’t want to talk about it while she was still alive, although an article comes out in The Healing Muse in October and tells the story. This family secret makes me think an article for Modern Love could work. To be considered…

      I was deeply moved by my son’s response to their grandma’s death. In recent years, she often called them Vic. I knew my sons loved their grandma. I knew how much they loved being with her as kids and how she made they laugh as adults. They kept in communication with her until the end. In many ways, this has been a letting go for me (and that will be more true when Medicaid gets wrapped up and the final nursing home payments). The grief part of the experience was stronger for my sons than for me. As always, I encouraged them to be part of the death and cremation ritual. When we’re all together, we’ll have another burial ritual for Grandma Virginia’s ashes. My son who lives nearby already picked the spot. A month before her death on a coherent day, I asked her again if she wanted her ashes in the cemetery next to her husband who died in the late 1980s. “I want to be where Victor is,” she said without hesitation, so that’s what we’ll do.

      I don’t know other women who have become caregivers for such hostile mother-in-laws, but they must be out there. Many advised me to leave her to her own devices years ago. I couldn’t. I knew how crushed she was. Thank you for the prayers and holding in sacred space. I’m still a bit stunned and very grateful there wasn’t more suffering.

  9. Thanks for sharing Virginia’s death with us Elaine. How fortunate to have Anthony with you, as David had already visited a few weeks before. You’ve shared her life and yours intermingled with so much between the 2 of you – frustration, organising, love, care, always with gentleness and patience – maybe patience was the virtue to be learned!

    I guess there will be vacuum for a while now that this focus is no longer. I wish you well with this – but may her death be blessed.

    • Thank you, Susan. Anthony has lived just a few miles from me for a year and a half, although he travels a lot as a musician. He helped with grandma visits and has been a support to me. Both my sons are supportive and helped me with problem solving around Virginia’s needs. It was wonderful having Anthony with me during her last hours of consciousness and also a few days later for a pre-cremation ritual. I’ll write about that later. I don’t feel a vacuum, but a delicious spaciousness (even though I’m still sorting out her financial affairs and still a little stunned that she’s actually gone). There’s not much to do, but it takes a while because the government program Medicaid was involved in paying for her last months at the nursing home.

      My sons and I speak of her often and tell Virginia stories–usually with laughter. A few years ago when Virginia was being particularly stubborn and mean-spirited about something or other, I said to my sons, “Later we’ll find this funny.” And it’s true. The woman was a force of nature. It’s the peaceful exhalation when the hurricane moves on and leaves most things intact. We’ll have a family burial ritual for her ashes when we’re all together, probably in December. I have lots to digest and I imagine more to write about.

  10. Spaciousness – perfect word! Arms wide –

  11. Elaine, again I’m sorry for your loss. I know I left you a message here when I read this post. I don’t get your replies to my comments. I read all your posts and when you post a new one I always visit the last one to read your reply to my comment. I just came from the burial post and came to check here for your last post reply and I didn’t see my comment. I know a lot of blogs are having a lot glitches lately. Maybe I’m in your spam?
    You were a wonderful daughter-in-law Elaine just from what I know of reading your life events for the past few years. Time for you to enjoy your peace now. <3

    • I check my spam before erasing, Debby, but didn’t find your comment there. The internet is unreliable. I haven’t been getting replies to my comments on other sites either and sometimes my comments aren’t posted–and sometimes they are. So we limp along.

      I was a good daughter-in-law. I wasn’t always loving or willing when she went after me, but I didn’t desert her. She’d been deserted enough in her life and no one else could preside over her care except me. She fought for independence until she was over 100. I hope I don’t live that long, but I imagine I’ll fight for independence, too. I pick up her ashes today and I’m still dealing with last bills, so I’m still in the middle of this transition, but I feel a great relief that she died without suffering. The day before her death she could nod in response to our questions to let us know nothing hurt and she was OK. She slept her way out of this life.

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