When Death Enters the Room Everything Changes

grim reaper

A quick dash to Holland

Musings on Death and big questions

I flew to Holland about 8 days ago. Family affairs… aging single mother… I needed to be there.

grim reaper I flew to Holland about 8 days ago. Family affairs… Ageing single mother… I needed to be there.

I hadn’t planned to go to Holland this time, I am actually booked to spend 5 weeks with family from Christmas but my mother who is 88 is going through a pretty tough time at the moment.

She is most likely in the last year of her life and possibly the last months. Growing old sucks… in case anyone was wondering, it’s not fun.

Death makes a change…

Personally I think I am reasonably calm about dying (at the very least it’s something new, and as they say, a change is as good as a holiday), but the process of becoming more and more decrepit, becoming dependent on the goodness of others and slowly losing all capacity for making your own decisions about your own life… that scares the bejeesus out of me.
I’ve thought that before, but it’s well and truly confirmed for me again being in Holland with my mother.

But it’s also a really interesting time for me. My mother and I have struggled with each other in some form for most of my life. We’re very close, but maybe we have always been too close. An older brother of mine, who died a couple of years ago used to say: “There’s a good reason you moved to the other side of the earth” … and it’s true, always when I go and see my mother or stay with her when I am in Holland, it’s great to see her… for about the first 2 hrs and then I start to climb the walls. I’m normally a relatively stable and fairly well adjusted human bean (remember Roald Dahl?)… But after more than 2 hrs with my mother, I turn into some weird kind of Jekyll and Hyde monster…

It’s different this time

This time is different though, surpisingly.
My mother is in such a difficult final stage of life that it seems that she is entirely focused on herself and hasn’t got the wherewithal to look at me and push some of my most exposed buttons. Well either that or I have recently reincarnated as the Dalai Lama and my buttons have all suddenly fallen off… It would be nice if they were, but I doubt it.

But It is fascinating this whole process of dying, I had a therapist some years ago who I saw regularly for a long time and I remember her saying: “Everything changes when Death is in the room”… and she’s right. Death is clearly in the room now… it might be a few months or it might be today, but my mother will die and there is nothing anyone can do about that, and everything has changed.

We all suddenly feel helpless, we lose a sense of control over our lives, my Jekyll and Hyde monster seems to keep it’s head down… It looks as if I’m ok with just being with her, people behave differently everywhere. Some people stand up and get involved, others hide, I’m interested to see how I will be changed by the process over the coming months. At this point I don’t feel sad so much, hard to know what I’m really feeling… I’m starting to stress about the funeral, and the fact that it will likely be expected of me that I do a Eulogy (I am clearly and sometimes frustratingly a son of my mother… all that worrying!)

The cliches of dying

The other thing I find fascinating and also frustrating is that we have no language to really express our feelings around the process of dying. We don’t seem to be able to get past the well-worn clichés and platitudes: “Well we all have to die one day”… “She’s had a good innings”… “All you can do is accept”… All the statements we make around dying are so meaningless. Saying them doesn’t make anyone happier or feel better. But what do you say to someone who’s definitely dying? Or to someone whose nearest and dearest are dying? Few people are even able to use the word dying. We talk about people passing on, as if there is something nice and gentle about dying.
Let me assure you… there isn’t… more often than not it causes intense pain, intense fear, intense discomfort and intense sadness. Nothing nice and gentle about it. I love the line from Dylan Thomas (and I’m hopeless about quoting poetry): ‘Rage, Rage against the dying of the light.’

Years of preparation

My mother has worked at preparing herself death for a long time, many years, and she had thought (naively) that she was as well prepared for it as anyone could be. Years of studying eastern and western philosophies and religions, and she had even created her own way of talking about the process, she referred to it as “removing that last coat”. Now that Death is pulling at the sleeves, she struggles against it, she panics, she is extremely scared and anxious. She’s also feeling quite disappointed that all those years of preparation seems to count for so little right now, but more than anything she hates that she’s not in control anymore.

I am really happy I made the snap decision to come over now and not let it wait until Christmas.
I had a realisation 2 weeks ago while on a Skype call to my younger brother… I was actually trying to give him some advice about this whole situation… He was struggling to decide how much support he could afford and wanted to give my mother at this at this time, and how to balance his own, his family’s and his business needs against those of being a dutiful and loving son.

A once in a lifetime experience

I said: ”Well you know I think that the only thing that matters is that how you yourself will feel, looking back on this time a few years later. We only get given one opportunity in our lives to be part of the death of our mother… it’s a once in a lifetime experience… All that matters is that you do what you need to do so that you give yourself the best chance to look back on this time in a few years and feel comfortable, proud, calm, ‘right’ about how you balanced those different needs.”
And as I was saying this to my brother, I suddenly thought…”wow, actually that means I ought to jump on a plane myself next week”.

And so, right now, I feel good about myself. I’ve been able to give her some attention and a sense that I care about her, I’ve been able to lighten a bit of the load on the people round her for a few days at least, I’ve been able to make a few arrangements that will hopefully make things a little easier. I am forever grateful that my brother suggested I rent my own apartment while I was here instead of staying with her… The Jekyll and Hyde monster might not have been so quite otherwise.

Business class

Tomorrow I’m flying back to Australia again. I’ve just played celebrity son for a week and then the weight will be back on the shoulders of my younger brother and my mother’s bossom friend.
I do think I’ve deserved a business class upgrade on my flights home, don’t you?…
Anyone at Singapore Airlines listening?… Yoohoo!

Image credit Monty Python, The Meaning of Life

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