A sliver of time. A hesitation. A glance. And in a heartbeat, life divides into "before" and "after."
For my mom, that moment came as a caregiver attempted to walk her through the doorway of the assisted living center where she and Dad had lived for nearly a year since Alzheimer's had ushered her into life's final stages.
Like many people who suffer with Alzheimer's, Mom balked when she approached narrow spaces like hallways and doors. At the sight of a doorway one afternoon, she threw her body back. Her head struck an oak-wrapped corner of the hallway behind her, and she sustained brain bleeding.
Mom had suffered for more than ten years with Alzheimer's. But her accident was also an answer to her prayers. In the final stages of her disease, Mom could say few things we could understand with absolute certainty. But one thing she repeated often was her desire to go to Heaven.
Mom was in her late eighties and suffering from a terminal illness. My family gathered later that day to talk with hospice workers about how we could make Mom comfortable. Her physical needs as she passed from this life were crucial to us. But we were also concerned about honoring my mother's heart before Alzheimer's had touched her.
As a representative for the family, I approached the caregiver who was walking my mother when she fell. The expression in her red-rimmed eyes told me she was devastated. I took her hand as I expressed our family's gratitude for the excellent care she'd given my mom. We weren't angry. We didn't blame her. We didn't want her to feel guilty. We knew what she was going through was hard, but we wanted to thank her for her consistent care for our mother over the past months on our behalf.
Over the next few days, our family gathered at the assisted living home and began our vigil: my brother, his wife, and their adult children. My husband and our adult children, who traveled from across the country to see their beloved grandmother one last time. We cycled in and out of the room over the course of the next seven days, saying our goodbyes in our own ways.
I hated leaving Mom's side for a minute. I wanted to soak up every last second with her. I stroked her face, held her hand, sang her favorite hymns, and talked to her. I drew great comfort from the fact that even though she was in a coma, she squeezed my hand whenever I stopped singing to her. Over the course of the seven days that Mom remained with us, I sang to her almost every second that I sat at her side. As long as I was touching Mom and doing something for her, I was all right.
My brother was a hoverer who drifted inside the door of Mom's room and silently watched. After a few moments, the pain would overwhelm him, and he would leave to pace in the hallway or slip outside. Something inside me — perhaps the little sister part of me — wanted to judge him and say he wasn't grieving his mother's passing the "right" way. That he should grieve more like me or his wife, who was like me in her forthright and practical approach. Thank God for a hospice nurse who helped me understand that grief wears many faces.
My dad flitted in and out of the room, overwhelmed by the sight of his beloved wife in her final hours. He had cared for her faithfully throughout her descent into Alzheimer's, refusing to leave her side. When the disease had progressed to the point that the family needed to place her in an assisted living home for those with Alzheimer's, Dad refused to be separated from her. They'd shared a room and a bed until the fall, when hospice moved Mom to a hospital bed and Dad to a twin bed beside her.
It was the second time in my life I saw my father cry. The first was the day he'd fallen into my arms as he'd confessed he didn't have the strength to care for my mother alone any longer.
Each day, the hospice announced that Mom couldn't hang on much longer. And each day gave way to the next. The grandchildren shared favorite memories, and Mom's room was filled with laughter, tears and joy. She had blessed us with rich gifts of laughter, love and joy.
A week had passed, and her breathing had grown more labored. It was time for her to go.
I turned to my father, who had drifted in and out, stroked his wife's face, and whispered to her briefly over the past days.
"She needs you, Dad. It's time for you to tell her to go."
My father, a child of the Depression and a stoic, knew it was time. We cleared the room, and he climbed into the hospital bed beside his wife. He lay by her side as he whispered to her. Then he tucked a blanket around her shoulder, kissed her one last time, and walked from the room as a hospice nurse entered.
Soon the nurse confirmed the fact that my mother had gone home — just moments after my father kissed her face.
Even though I'd grieved my mother's loss in the months preceding her death, I was not prepared to lose her. But I'm grateful for the valuable lessons she taught me, even in death:
- Allow your loved ones to grieve in their own ways. Family members will process grief differently, depending on their personalities and coping styles. Respect the differences.
- Ignore the need to be "strong." Tears are a gift, and they often demonstrate how precious our loved one was to us.
- Don't be afraid to laugh. Remember the good times and share them with one another.
- Forgive where forgiveness is needed. Don't allow the grave to rob you of the opportunity for precious reconciliation.
- As much as possible, make your loved one's passing a time of honor and remembrance that focuses on her life, legacy and dreams.
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