Posts Tagged ‘death and dying’

My mother and I two weeks before she died


“ One of my experiences in those first weeks – and I kept experiencing it to a diminishing degree through the ensuing months – was a feeling of being a smaller, lesser, more inconsequential person than I had been when she was alive.  Her loss made me feel less substantial, or more naked.  I had never recognized until then how she had amplified me, reflected me back and made me more believable to myself.  That had developed so gradually through our years together  that I had never noticed it, but when she was no longer there I suddenly felt – it’s hard to put into words – flimsy.”  William Bridges, The Way of Transition”  (Bridges is writing about the death of his wife, Mondi.)


My mother died at 4:20 on a Sunday morning in November.   I was stroking her face and singing her a love song when she gently slipped away.   It was as though I had sung her to sleep, and for that comfort, I will be eternally grateful.

My heart is too full of grief and love and regret and gratitude to make room for my brain to fully process this experience yet or to find the words to share with you what is running through my mind and body right now.   What strikes me the most today is that while I have experienced the heavy-heartedness of loss and grief before, never has my heart been this heavy, so leaden that I am absolutely exhausted carrying it around.

In Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places, James Hollis observes, “The word ‘grief’ derives from the Latin gravis, ‘to bear,’ and from which we get our word ‘gravity.’  To experience grief is not only to bear the heaviness of the condition but, again, to testify to depth as well.”  The gravity of my grief leads me down into the depths of both my longing and my love.  One moment I am strong;  I am the comforter; the matriarch, and the next, I am weeping without warning — a motherless child, a woman underwater struggling for air.

Hollis also wrote, “When we lose a loved one, we need to grieve that loss and yet consciously value what we have internalized from that person.  The parent who suffers the empty nest syndrome, for example, suffers less the loss of the child than the implicit identity which went with being that child’s parent.  The energy invested in that role is now available for a different direction.  So, we honor best those we have lost by making their contribution to our lives conscious, living with that value deliberately, and incorporating that value in the ongoing life enterprise.  This is the proper conversion of inescapable loss into this evanescent life.  Such conversion is not denial but transformation.  Nothing which is internalized is ever lost.  Even in loss, then, something soulful remains.”

I am Brenda Byram’s daughter and it suddenly occurs to me that perhaps part of the heaviness I am experiencing now is the weight of my inheritance, the riches that I carry forward in this life.   My mother taught me so much about what it is to love, about how to listen deeply, to be generous, to recognize the beauty that exists within friends and strangers alike, to hear what was left unspoken, and how to make of myself a safe harbor that gently welcomes and provides shelter and sustenance.

While her childhood had been painful enough to break both of our hearts, and the canvas of her life contained a mad mix of both light and darkness, it was art at its finest – complex, authentic and beautiful.   And I am still working through the vast array of lessons contained within the multitude of stories that made up my mother’s life and death.

Following her mother’s death Deborah Sumner wrote, “My fear is that I lost more than my mom; I lost an ally, a protector, a counselor, and a confidante. Even though she’s not physically here, she’s still a huge part of who I am. I have all her years of wisdom and advice to look back on and tap into when I need it, and that gives me strength to face my fear.”

Once I was asked to answer quickly and without thinking what I was good at, and I was startled by the immediacy and intensity of my response.  I answered, “I am good at love.”  It’s what my mother taught me how to do best – how to love.  Thank you, Mom.   I love you now and always….


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Today was a perfect autumn day, the kind that calls me out of my head and into my senses. The kind that finds me with my car windows rolled down and the music loud. The kind that makes me feel giddy and free. The kind that’s drenched in vibrant color and sunshine during the day, and graced with the scent of baking apples and cinnamon at dinner time. The kind that says to me, “hey, just maybe you can spend each and every day living in ‘radical amazement’ – each and every day – even the hard ones.”

There’s such sweet celebration and melancholy in autumn – temperatures drifting down, mists rising, the ancient choreography of birds embarking on their long migration, the harvest moon – an enchanting paradise so soon to be lost as nature once again begins her inevitable journey into the frigid arms of winter.

While the autumn advances and the leaves deepen and dazzle before relinquishing their hold on the bodies that have sustained them, my mother’s own grasp weakens as her cancer progresses and her spirit quickens. My love of nature has never been more acute than in autumn and I have never loved my mother more fiercely than right now.

I walk along the shore of Wolfe’s Neck woods, hear crows cawing in the distance, tilt my face up towards a gentler sun that caresses now instead of scorches. I’m both awed and saddened at the same time. I wonder how much of life is at its most beautiful just before dying. Is this the truest bitter gift of death, that life becomes oh so much sweeter?

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Ammidst the loss, the longing, the life, and the love, I am amazed……

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  I just finished Linda Campanella’s book, “When all that’s Left if Me is Love: A Daughter’s Story of Letting Go” about a daughter’s experiences supporting a mother who is LIVING with small cell lung cancer. I stress LIVING because that is exactly what her mother did. She LIVED right up until she died and Campanella remained determined and committed to helping her mother do exactly that throughout the entire process – to LIVE as fully as possible.

One example of how they made the most of each and every day was that around 4:00 in the afternoon Linda, her mother, her father, and anyone else who happened to be in the house at the time settled in to celebrate ‘happy hour’. There was much laughter during this time, and the sharing of news, stories, small gifts, and great love. No one in the room was in denial of death or free from grief, however each was acutely aware in the moment of how precious life is when savored, how beautiful and even luminous in can be in the face of its impending loss.

While Campanella’s book contained heart break and grief, it also offered me, a daughter whose own mother was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer in August of 2010, much needed comfort and perspective. While I have so often felt powerless when confronting my mother’s cancer, Campenella has reminded me of my families’ strength and essential proficiencies. We are masters of loving, and as we weave our love throughout each and every moment that we’re together, we can create a sacred container which honors life and offers healing even in the absence of cure.

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