From The Under 35 Project: “A Good Death”

New from The Under 35 Project: A practitioner’s thoughts on grief, death, and the loss of a parent. By Christa Joy.

Christa Joy
28 June 2013
Photo by Jake Thacker

In her last days of life, we tended to Mom as though she were able to feel us, hear us, and experience the sensory world with us. Hospice had told us to continue on as though she could hear what we were saying. We sat with her, cleaned her, spoke to her, but she was in her own internal world. We’d already had our last meal together, our last shared conversation, our last laugh. Time had shifted from things we did together to things we were forced to do apart. And that separation widened.

Just two weeks earlier, the hospice nurse reminisced with Mom about their earliest meetings in our living room. “Remember Jen, when I asked you if you had any goals for your end of life? And you said, ‘Do I have to?’” They both laughed. Knowing Mom for only a short while, the nurse knew that she was speaking with someone who was done with her life’s work. Mom wasn’t worried about goals. There were things she would have liked to have done, but she wasn’t going to get stuck on those unknowns and incompletes.  She wasn’t worried about dying.

During her last lucid moments, my brother, sister, and I sat around her on her bed.  Mom had called her bed “her friend” during her last few months living with advanced cancer. There was nothing more comforting to her pain than the softness of her purple fleece sheets and her thick foam mattress. We played her favorite hymns or the sound of ocean waves at her bedside. That morning when she was awake, I told her, “We love you Mom. You’ve been the best Mom in the world for us. We love you so much.” And my sister repeated these words. And my brother repeated these words. And she opened her eyes, closed her eyes, opened her eyes.  She smiled. We rubbed her arms, kissed her cheeks, held her to us, and held each other.

Mom died on May 26, 2013, as the first bit of sunshine cascaded across the front lawn after days of rain. It was Sunday and she’d normally have been going to church. We bathed her body, dressed her in the clothes she would have worn. Her favorite shoes and socks that didn’t quite match but that she loved. We called the crematory in Southern Vermont that would come to Western Massachusetts and take her body away.

In the moments that followed her death, I was struck by so many sensory experiences. The felt distance between her and I—we couldn’t be farther apart—and that this separation was final, absolute, unchangeable.

People use the phrase “cheated by death.” I had a moment of seeing a picture of her on my computer and finding my hand touching the screen, reaching for her. Finding it impossible to comprehend she couldn’t answer me if I called down the stairs. She couldn’t answer her phone. She couldn’t be seen or heard or loved by me in a physical form, ever again.

We know we’re going to die. We know we’ll experience loss of others before our own death. We expect to lose our own parents before the loss of our children or those younger than ourselves. But none of that comforts us in our loss of a parent.

In meditation we follow the breath. We notice our mind’s activity and return to the present moment through practice.

In grief, we do the same. We follow the breath. We notice the mind’s activity and return to the present moment through practice.

We are training for the most difficult task of shifting our mind’s patterns in the same way my mind shifts “My Mom is,” to “my Mom was.” People will try to comfort with “Your Mom will always be.” But she won’t. She isn’t. She is gone.

In society, we are expected to go back to work, to re-enter our lives, to maintain relationships of all sorts in the face of grief. The only comfort I have for us all, is that practice is practice. It relates to all expressions of our mind, even the mind of deep pain and insufferable loss.

The hospice nurse wrote to me in her sympathy card, “Your Mom taught me about a good death.”  I think a good death means a death free from obscuration. Free of any pretenses that we shouldn’t actually be dying.  And I think Mom’s death reflected the way she lived her life, which to me, was a good life.

We are all, always on a threshold of having, losing, taking-in, and letting-go. There’s nothing—not one thing—we can hold onto and keep.  It’s all passing, fleeting, and already gone.  I think in this way, my grief is an expression of preciousness. And the enormous love I feel for my Mom is an expression of gratitude for this human life—in which I’ve shared thirty-one years with the best Mom in the world.

Christa Joy

Christa Joy is a singer-songwriter and elementary school teacher. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her partner, Jeremy, and mutt dog, Jack.