Death. It's a word many people don’t like to discuss. However, death is inevitable for each and every one of us, and it's something that should be discussed openly with loved ones. Unfortunately, I've had to witness quite a few deaths over the past decade, which has taught me many life lessons. Here are some of them:
1. Life is not long enough to justify staying in situations that make you miserable.
After watching my dad die at the age of 61, it put my life into perspective. I was 29 at the time and a new mother. My dad had been the definition of health and somehow ended up with cancer that took his life within six months of diagnosis. Immediately after his death, I evaluated my own life and realized that my marriage wasn’t healthy for me. If he had not died, I probably would have stayed, miserable, for many more years.
2. Put family first.
My mom had breast cancer at age 54 and, after treatment, was considered cancer-free for five years. At the five-year mark, she found out that it had come back in her bones, lungs and other areas. The doctors told me that she was terminal and had maybe a few months to live. Being an only child and not having my father for help, I had to make huge decisions about what to do. I was fortunate to be able to afford to quit my job and devote myself to my mother fully and help her through the process of dying. She ended up living for 13 months and those are months that I cherish and am so thankful to have had with her.
3. You must give yourself time and space to grieve.
I learned this the hard way. When my dad died, I had a one-year-old and was going through a divorce. In addition, my mom had extreme depression, and I had her move into an apartment with me and my daughter, so I could keep an eye on her. I was still in the caregiving role and wasn’t able to begin to process the magnitude of losing my dad. He had always been the strong one in our family, and without him there to guide me through the toughest time in my life, my solution was to not deal with it.
Fast forward ten years. My body forced me to deal with it and wouldn’t allow me to go another day without resolution. What I've learned is that the best thing is to deal with grief as quickly as possible, but also remember that everyone grieves in a different way and in different time frames. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t just “get over it” in what you feel is the right timeframe. You really don’t ever forget, but it does get easier as time passes. In order to deal with grief, you have to find what works best for you. There are lots of avenues including counseling and support groups.
4. Lean on friends and family for support, even if you think they won't understand.
I am blessed to have a few amazing close friends that I could have turned to after my parent’s death. In hindsight, I should have reached out more to my friends for help through such a difficult time. However, I didn’t want to bother anyone with my sadness, and I really felt as if they wouldn’t understand. I now know that even though they had not experienced such loss, they could have helped me cope during the hard days. Your close friends are there for a reason: because they love you and care about you. Let them help you through times of grief and loss.
5. Tell your loved ones how you feel about them as much as possible.
I never thought in a million years that my dad would actually die. I knew he was sick with cancer, but I assumed he would beat it since he was so strong. So when the call came from my mom that he was being life-flighted to Houston and might not live, it was a huge shock to me. By the time I saw them wheel him into the ICU, I realized that he was not going to make it much longer. I held his hand and told him that I loved him. That was all I had to say because I had told him how much l loved and appreciated him my entire life. I didn’t need to tell him anything more, he already knew.
6. Even if your loved one isn’t responding, he is still there until the last breath.
My mom was at an in-patient hospice facility for 11 days. For eleven full days, I sat by her side and waited for her to die. I counted her breaths, I felt her feet, I watched for all the signs that she was in the final hours. But they never came. It was about Day 9 when the Hospice Chaplain came to me and told me that she was going to pass away on her own time. He said she wasn’t ready yet. He instructed me to go in and tell her that it was okay for her to let go. This was the hardest thing I have ever done. I held her hand, and touched her cheeks as I told her that she could go and that I was going to be all right. After I said what I needed to say, a tear ran down her cheeks. I know she heard me. Even though she hadn’t been able to speak for almost two weeks, she was still with me and knew that she had my permission to get go. She took her last breath the following day with me by her side.
7. The cliche is true: live each day like it were your last.
My dad was always saving money for retirement. He had huge plans for the golden years and saved accordingly. I remember he and my mom struggling financially and not taking the best trips because he was so busy saving for the future. Well, the future never came for them, and neither one of them got to enjoy retirement. I've learned to find a balance between saving for retirement, but still taking that vacation you've been putting off. We have all heard that saying about live each day like it were your last. You don’t have to go that extreme, but be aware that life is fragile and is a wonderful gift.
Choose to live life to the fullest!