We don’t much talk about death. We skirt the issue. Express our condolences. Use stock phrases. This unfamiliarity and avoidance becomes self perpetuating. It doesn’t serve us well and it doesn’t support those who are living through death. But I have had a more uplifting experience of approaching death and the final exit over the last few weeks and I would like to share it. To share the love. To invite a positive way through this most challenging of life experiences: death.
Just over eight weeks ago my mother, who lived in Kelowna in British Colombia, Canada, had a car accident. Whilst travelling through an intersection, on a green light, she was ‘T-boned’ – hit side on – by a driver who can only have been distracted and didn’t see the red light. His car was one of those large trucks they love in that fuel friendly continent, so it made a mess of Mum’s hatchback. More to the point it made a mess of Mum.
She sustained many injuries, some which were apparent at the time, some which were discovered over the first few days and some which had existed before, but were not common knowledge. Mum broke most of her ribs, shattered her pelvis, tore her liver and broke bones in both legs. Later we discovered that her diaphragm was irreparably damaged, meaning that she was unable to successfully expel all the carbon dioxide each time she breathed out. This led to two comas and the need to wear a mask at night to expel the CO2.
Early on in her time in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) it became apparent that Mum had cancer in one of her breasts, and this cancer had been there for 5 years. Fortunately, it was ‘non-aggressive’ and slow moving, but it had still made a mess of her breast. Mum had chosen to not believe that it was cancer and to carry on without taking medication. Ultimately, this made little difference. However, it did lead to a later discovery that she had another type of cancer in her other breast. This one wasn’t so kind. It was the aggressive type and in a normal scenario would have led to masectomy and chemotherapy etc. This though was not an option.
The damage to her diaphragm meant that an operation was not possible. Nor was any other treatment when coupled with a potentially long and unsuccessful rehabilitation likely to rescue the situation. The prognosis was bleak. Life may have been possible for up to year (it was suggested) but the quality of that life would have been debilitating and very challenging.
During all of this my sister Kim, has been at the centre of the care, communication and daily visits. Prior to the accident she and Mum had a good, but sometimes challenging relationship. Now, in an instant everything was turned upside down.
Kim visited daily, often for most of the day and into the evening. She moved into Mum’s flat in Kelowna and she was given fantastic support from Laura (her youngest daughter) who also moved into the flat. Between them they visited Mum every day, sat through the long days, entertaining each other and Mum, rushed in the middle of night when coma called and kept me in the loop every step of the way.
Of course, this is exhausting. Kim was in the middle of a storm of emotion, of fear, confusion and love. Often we spoke, via Skype or on the phone, and I offered what support I could from this distance. She was also supported by her husband Mike and older daughter Morgan, but it was Kim and Laura who daily faced up to potential death and the many feelings that accompany it.
Being an ocean away I felt distant, confused and tired. I was busy with work, but the unfamiliarity of the situation and feeling of helplessness was insidious and debilitating. I didn’t really realise most of the time how much it was exhausting me. The background hum of what ifs and what nexts are relentless. Fortunately, I had fantastic support from Dinah and other friends, so when Dinah spotted an opportunity in our diaries to visit, we booked straight away.
Before we went over I joked to Kim that we would be the half-time entertainment, that the first half was over now and after we left the second half would be quite different – ‘many a true word’…… The visit was a catalyst and support for us all. At the time Mum was deep in confusion. She did not know if she wanted to live or die. The full nature of her situation was known to us all, but knowing, fully understanding and accepting the implications of that are not the same thing.
She did not know what she wanted. To live and work through endless rehabilitation, whilst the spectre of aggressive cancer ate away. Or just to die. One afternoon she became convinced that she was going to die that night. We each spoke to her at length and said our goodbyes. That night we went back to the flat, drank lots of lovely wine and took a vote on the likelihood of her death that night. Gallows humour, I think they call it. Anyway, we all voted that she would survive and she did.
Death can also be tremendously healing. Kim and Mum spent so much time together, talking about nothing and everything. They healed all rifts and left nothing unsaid. Open, honest and authentic conversations are needed at this time. And with that comes love. Love fills in the spaces in our heart, spills over into the people we talk to and holds us up, to face what we did not know we could face. From and with love we develop resilience, heal wounds and become one family supporting each other.
The Second Half
Dinah and I left Canada on a Wednesday. We know now that on the Friday Mum had made contact with the people who could arrange her death. Canada has had Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) in place since 2015, over 7000 people following the procedure in the first three years. We didn’t know that Canada even had this option. Obviously, Mum did.
I think we knew that it was going to be happening on the Friday, we also knew from research that there was a ten day cooling off period. However, we expected the wheels of administration to move quite slowly. It was a shock to find out from Kim, over the weekend, that it was happening just over a week later. Mum must have signed all the papers and got the necessary permissions in place on the Friday after we left. Truly a catalyst of a visit.
On Tuesday 7th May at 7.30am local time, the procedure was booked to happen. Kim, Mike and Laura were present. The doctor may have been a little late, the space for Mum’s prayers may have slowed things down a little, but eventually she drifted off to sleep and then the heavy drugs did their work. She passed peacfully just before 8.00am and is now on her next journey. During the assigned time Dinah and I sat peacefully at the beauty that is Clyne Gardens. We chose a spot close to moving water and the sun came out to warm us.
Kim and I and the extended family all support her decision. The quality of her life would not have been worth living. Why live on suffering and deteriorating? Surely it is kinder to move on? We believe so. Mum looked so at peace and well in her final few days. This came from knowing her decision was right for her, that it was known and accepted by those closest to her and that she was loved. She lived a very full life, had two marvellous(!) children and four fantastic grandchildren. She lived a life of curiosity and enquiry, explored different ways of understanding this thing we call life and emigrated to Canada aged 70. A courageous and much loved woman. We will all miss her and carry her in our hearts.
“If we are able to give ourselves to the loss, to move toward it – rather than recoil in an effort to escape, deny distract, or obscure – our wounded hearts become full, and out of that fullness we will do things differently, and we will do different things. Our loss, our wound, is precious to us because it can wake us up to love, and to loving action.” Norman Fischer