Many years ago, I wrote an article about dying. The ideas in this article have been used by our family and many other people we know, as they have faced losing parents, grandparents or partners. I have reproduced Margaret’s story here exactly as it appeared in my article.
Permission to die
I met a woman who had just been at her mother’s bedside as she died. Margaret had come from London at the request of a Nursing Sister who specialized in deathbed nursing to finish her mother’s business so that she could die peacefully and with dignity.
Her mother had only been dead a few hours and I was moved by Margaret’s quiet tranquillity as if something had been accomplished in her life that was very special – a treasure. And so it had. Margaret and her mother had many things in their pasts which they had never discussed, which had hurt them both, and which had finally driven them apart. Over the last few days they had taken time to be together, to talk honestly and openly knowing that being together for the short time they had was precious in every way.
The Nursing Sister especially skilled in the process of death had encouraged them to finish their business. She knew that those who had completed undone things, who prepared for death, having left their lives in order, and more importantly said all they wanted to, usually died in a serene manner, releasing their grip on the physical so that the final process was made easy.
Margaret’s case was interesting. Years before, she had married a man of whom her mother rigidly disapproved. Many hurtful things had been said. An ugly war had been waged. And with the situation so totally unacceptable to the family, Margaret had lived in exile in London with her husband for over thirty years. Contrary to the opinion of the family, and especially her mother, he had made the most wonderful husband and they had been deeply happy. But the hurt was still in the hearts of them both. Such things are important, and so, gently they were talked through. Tears flowed; apologies were made. Explanations were given. Loose ends were tied up. An internal housekeeping was completed by them both.
This process was not done in any artificial manner such as “Now we are going to talk about all the times you treated me badly.” or “In the next half hour we are going to finish our business.” But rather, as a remembering process, a wander along the paths of their lives, investigating the good places and the stony places as well; seemingly idle conversation over a cup of tea or a back rub, a little more on each visit. When a lot of talking had been done – but not all – Margaret gave her mother permission to die.
This is an important step in finishing the business. It was done with love so that they knew that their last experience together was approved of by them both and would be sanctioned by each other – the one for leaving and the other for staying with no guilt for having to play either part. It is simply phrased but not easily said. “Mom, I’m here with you now because I love you. I will always love you. I want to thank you for being my mother. Even when you die I will love you and I will not hold it against you or be angry with you for doing so because I will understand that this is something we all have to do. So I am telling you that everything is all right by me and thank you for having always done your best for us.
Miraculous releases from the most terrible physical entrapment can occur by children giving their parents permission to die. People even in a state of coma, thus given permission, simply go because they now can. Nothing is holding them back. Old people, who are incontinent, paralysed, tired, weak and frail, who want to go but don’t seem to be able to, might simply be waiting to know it’s all right. It’s okay. It okay for them because it’s okay for their children and they will do anything not to hurt us. Isn’t that just like a parent? Hanging about because they don’t want to distress their children by dying!
Death is a subject we fear to talk about with our loved ones who are soon to experience it. We hold back through our fear of hurting them and they hold back through their fear of hurting us. Yet we fear the same things “What will happen to us?” “What is it I do not know?” “How is it going to feel?’ “Will it be terrible?” “Will I/she feel pain?” “What other alarming symptom could I/she possibly get?” “Does it get worse?” “Will I/she be able to do it without humiliation?” “Where am I going to get the strength from to handle it?” “Why am I so scared?” And so on. These fears are always better shared.
Those who have hidden from their loved ones the fact that “there is no hope”, live through an uncomfortable and awkward time with each side terribly stressed, caught in their own lies. Most terminal cases are quite aware of the severity of their condition and “know” anyway, but their situation is made worse because they are unable to be open or honest. They are forced into the most unnecessary loneliness.
Well, I want to tell you about Margaret’s mother. On the last day she seemed comatose so Margaret simply sat next to the bed. Suddenly her mother opened her eyes. She fumbled for Margaret’s hand. “Oh, Margie, there are people all around us – I know them. They are my friends and family. I feel so light and beautiful and I have no pain. I am comfortable for the first time for many months. I feel so well. They are asking me to come with them.” She sighed deeply and was gone.
Margaret sat quietly for a moment stunned at how quiet it had grown in the room and how easy it had been. She was still holding the wasted hand and as she moved to lay it on her mother’s chest, she became distracted by an ethereal golden web of light that seemed to be rising from the now still body in the bed. It moved slowly up towards the ceiling, seeming to thin out as it lifted upwards. Long after it was gone, Margaret watched and waited. Then she got up from the chair next to the bed and left the room.
All their business had been completed and each of them was ready to get on with what was to happen next. Death had become a meaningful and shared adventure into the unknown.
(Margaret’s opinion of my article is that I’ve romanticised and exaggerated – and it wasn’t as good as it sounds – and she’s probably right! But I hope the ideas here will go on helping people as they already have.)