Letting my Mum go – by Jane

Jane’s mum, Josh’s Grandmother, Pat died on Monday last (30th June) peacefully and in her sleep.   She had been admitted to hospital a few weeks ago with pneumonia and what looked like the beginnings of multiple organ failure but then released as her health and prospects had clearly improved.      Late last week though, everything seemed to shut down again and she was readmitted.   Jane joined her brother Richard by her bedside.   Rosa also travelled up to be with her Granny (having first left Glastonbury!).     Pat was 84.    Jane reflects on the experience of  witnessing her mother’s  death.

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After my Dad Gerry died last year, my mum seemed to be in fairly good health, until suddenly a few weeks ago she took very ill and was admitted to Ayr General Hospital near our home town of Troon in Scotland. At that time she was given a 50-50 chance of survival. It was a bit of a wake up call for us as a family but the coin landed the right way up – or so we thought. Two weeks later she was back in hospital and we were informed that this time Mum will not recover, in fact she probably only had days to live.

So when I caught the earliest train I could from our home in Gloucestershire it was with the sincere hope that I would get to the hospital in Ayr in time – a seven hour journey that felt like much more. Our last meeting a couple of months previously had been very difficult. My Dad Gerry had died a year ago last January and Mum had finally decided that she’d like to have his ashes at home with her so she asked me to pick them up and bring them round. But when we arrived (Gerry’s remains were in one of those tall cylinder cartons especially designed for scattering) it seemed it was all too much for her to deal with and I felt I was the messenger getting the blame for daring to suggest the idea. On leaving that time there was clearly a tension between us but never for a moment did I consider this would be my last visit before she was admitted to hospital with just days left to live.

Now as I stared at the familiar countryside of the Scottish Borders gliding past, I realized that what I really wanted, was to be able to tell her that I held no blame or bad feeling for this or any of the other differences we’ve had.  She is my mum after all and maybe a little thing like what to do with Dad’s ashes shouldn’t get in the way of my being fully present with her in her last few days on earth.  Dad’s ashes are now at my house, where they still wait while we decide how we honour them and him …   but for the moment I’m pushing these thoughts away along with the idea that I’ll soon have another set of ashes to take responsibility for. I was going to be 59 in just over a week and there is something very strange about the possibility of a birthday without parents. For the first time in my life I’m getting a sense of being properly grown up. You might have thought that Josh’s death would have propelled me into full maturity … but then his death didn’t leave me being a member of the oldest generation in our family.

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On Mum’s knee aged 3

My brother Richard was by Mum’s bedside in her own room when I arrived at the hospital. Mum was awake but clearly quite scared and panicky.   He told me she had multiple organ failure, that she was too weak for an operation to clear the fluid in her lungs and the end might be quite near.   Over the four years my Dad had been in hospital we’d had many conversations about his impending death and it had become quite apparent to the whole family that Mum was not at all comfortable with the thought of her own.    Now as I watched my mother gasping for breathe and clearly in real distress, it became obvious that we had to do something about the  manner of her dying, if only to help ease the frightened state she seemed to be in.    I was also  unsure whether hospital was in fact now giving Mum palliative care.    She was getting some pain relief but this was only being topped up as and when she became so short of breathe  she was actually fighting for air.   Was this going to be the way my mother would die?    Crying out in anguish as her body fought for life?   Together with the hospital we had agreed there would be no further medical intervention or any attempt to keep her alive, but why should she have to end her life in fear and alarm.

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This was still the situation when late in the evening, we decided I would stay with mum for the night and Richard exhausted by 48 hours of solid vigil, would go home to Mum’s house to sleep – a hard decision because it meant I was now on my own with Mum and her distress was mine alone to witness.   I would admit to a sense of deja vu, as I anticipated another fight with the hospital system in order to realise for Mum a better death than she was currently likely to have.   I’d spent years battling the NHS for better care for my Dad, and frankly I was tired, tired of constantly being a ‘difficult’ relative who only wants the best for their parent.   As it happened half way through the night a doctor finally did appear and  hooked up a syringe driver that would give Mum a continual dose of morphine and other drugs.  I found myself staring at this machine, watching the numbers on the gauge as the plunger made its steady and predictable journey towards zero.  I had never been more aware of death as a process rather then as an event, the drugs were sparing mum the agony of any panic she might be experiencing, but they were also presumably creating a thick fog in her consciousness which I imagined was what she would have wanted as she passed away.

I have never watched someone die before, not my Dad, not Josh (oh, how could that be possible) and I found I was strangely calm, almost hypnotized by the rhythm of my mother’s breathing which seemed to come from lower and lower down her body.   The distant voices from the nurses station provided a kind of reality check  to what felt like a strange dream.    Then for awhile a cleaner came and sat down beside me.   “Just keep talking to her hen” she said  “You ken she can probably hear you…”

At first light the next morning I took a break and a short stroll around the hospital grounds. I was grateful for the attention the staff had shown me throughout the night, reminding me that to be there for my Mum I also need to look after myself. I thought I knew Ayr hospital quite well (too many visits over the past few years) so was surprised to find a stone sculpture of a young girl letting go of a dove just outside the staff canteen.   Maybe it was the cool of the early morning air but the stillness and the serenity of this small sculpture seem to speak volumes – I was helping to let Mum go.

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I had been in two minds whether I should let Rosa know that her grandmother was dying.   I was aware that her granddad had died the year before and that as family we were still very much in shock following Josh’s death. We were all still desperately trying to adapt to life without him and I wanted to spare her the experience of yet another loss. She was also at Glastonbury and presumably having a great time. But at the same time I could hear Rosa’s voice saying ‘no secrets’ and ‘ how come I’m always the last to know’.   So I’d asked Jimmy to ring her.   She was tearful and terribly upset at first.   Then without a moment’s thought  she declared she would leave the festival and come and see her gran one last time.

It wouldn’t be until the following day that Rosa would get here and in the meantime I was concerned that Pat’s breathing was becoming even more laboured and more erratic. Again I found myself hoping against hope that Mum could hang on for her granddaughter.   A selfish thought maybe but I knew it could be a truly cathartic experience for Rosa, to witness death as an ordinary event, as a gentle passing of an older family member, not the extreme trauma of her brother’s death.

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Rosa arrived late on Sunday afternoon still in her muddy Glastonbury wellies, a fact to which the nurses turned a blind eye.   Once she had gotten over the first sight of her Grandma looking so poorly, so frail, so helpless with her oxygen mask on, she immediately relaxed, dried her eyes, and settled down to hold Pat’s hand.   And I realized immediately why Rosa had come.   She needed to be here, to connect.   But in a way, Rosa and her youth were also the connection bridging the gap between my motherhood and my ‘daughterhood’.  Then again Rosa’s capacity to deal very straightforwardly with what was in the room, her lightness of touch and the ease with which she could accept the reality of a soon to be death, brought another level of relief to both myself and to Richard.   We spent the rest of the evening, chatting away, reminiscing, not sure if Mum could hear us, or was even aware of our voices, our laughter, but it all felt very right.   Here we were three generations waiting for death to arrive, doing what people have always done. In this moment we were sitting by a whole history of deathbeds, attending to a whole history of ordinary deaths, whiling away the hours before every death that is in the right order of things. This was death without surprises and without false hope, a natural and as good as can be death, a death without trauma which might even bring some kind of equilibrium back into our lives.

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Pat Harris died at 7.30 the following morning.   It had been Richard’s turn to stay overnight and he called to say she was now at peace.   Rosa and I returned to the hospital and were led into my mum’s room, now cleared of all monitors, drip feeds, oxygen bottles and all the stuff that keeps people alive.

With the blinds drawn down, a soft orange light infused the room and in the stillness I tentively stroked my mother’s hand, still faintly warm. I thought fleetingly that now I am an orphan. And so is Richard.   A year and half ago, my Dad died in this very same hospital. We had now together twice experienced that intimacy that being with death brings.   Knowing death as a mother is beyond my capacity to describe (I will, I’m sure you know, never ‘get over’ Josh’s death) but knowing death in this the natural order of things is strangely life affirming and as a family I think we are stronger for it.

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I’d like to thank all the staff on Station 9 at Ayr Hospital for their compassion and thoughtfulness during the six days Mum was in their care.

And thank you for reading

Jane (July 2014)

and here’s a few photos from the family album

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Mum on her wedding day
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My Mum with her Mum – early fifties
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Honeymoon in New York 1950
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Pat and Gerry – 2010
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One of the last photos of Mum and me – I’m holding Dad’s ashes

30 Responses

  1. Hello Jane

    I read this before we had our lovely walk together last week, but now realise I didn’t acknowledge your birthday! It must have been poignant so close to your Mum’s death. I really enjoy your writings – and all those on the website – you were there for your Mum which must have meant so much, especially as you describe her fearfulness. Despite all the differences we have with our parents, you did what you and she needed, when it really mattered. I love the photo of you both, holding your Dad’s ashes. And your Mum’s stylish pics – the flair for looking good passed on!
    You have a way with the soul searching that reaches out to others – rather than turns inward – and this must be why it is so helpful for so many people to read your writings and to talk to you in person. Hope to see you soon,
    With much love, Gerry xxx

    1. No problem re my birthday. Wasn’t really in celebrating mood tbh. Glad you find our writings helpful and thanks for your your ongoing interest support and lovely conversations. X

  2. Describing your journey of your mums death and how you, your brother and Rosa were there for her, all the way, is extremely moving. It is such a tribute to her, your beautiful honest heartfelt writing.

    For a family member or friend to have a timely and peaceful death is the best one can hope for. My dad used to say “3 score years and 10….if you can get to that”……he was an orphan at 9 years old and went to a children’s home,knew grief too early and had a tough life. Although he was he was very ill for his last 5 years he just managed to live for 70 years and 12 days. That was determination. I was with him on his last birthday and although he was blind and hardly ‘there’ I was so grateful I could tell him I loved him and thank him for his absolute unstinting love as a parent. He heard and answered me with love too.Then I thought 70 is too young. Never knowing what was going to happen to my child. Bruno was only 3 years old at his funeral but he hugged me and hugged me and it helped me stop crying.

    Thank you for remembering Bruno, Conrad and Max. 3 years

    Beyond Goodbye is a beautiful place you have made for your dear Josh, and now your parents. You have included our sons/brothers too and others, and for us bereaved families, and those non bereaved, who visit, it is a thoughtful peaceful loving place

    What a beautiful stylish woman your mother was Jane…..really stunning.In the Honeymoon photo…. I can definitely see a Rosa smile.

    Much much love to you all

    xxxx

    1. Dearest Gillian, thanks so much for your heartfelt response. We are so glad that you feel Beyond Goodbye is a place that provides a loving place for you to reflect on your beautiful son Bruno forever missed and always loved. He was so talented and as you say the untimely nature of his death is hard to accept. We are honoured to have been able to include his work and the exhibition you organised in his memory on our website as well as his friends Max and Conrad.
      Jane x

  3. This message received from Claire Schimmer

    I’m so glad Rosa got there in time – I’m also glad they sorted out the drugs so your mum wasn’t scared – that sounded dreadful! It’s good to know that a ‘normal’ death at the end of a long life isn’t something to be frightened of observing, and that you are part of that continuum of mothers and daughters keeping vigil down the centuries.

    Lovely piece – glad it was cathartic to write. Love the photos too – what a stunning bride she was!

    Claire
    Xx

  4. This message received from Pam Shepherd

    You have put into words exactly what I experienced when sitting by my mother’s hospital bed keeping vigil for her. I was there with my brother and cousin laughing and reminiscing hoping she could hear us telling her how much we loved her. I sat with my cousin by 2 other beds keeping vigil for her parents who had looked after me so well when my parents lived abroad. I still haven’t got over the strange feeling of being the eldest in the family with no one older than me after 2 1/2 years nor of the feeling of being an orphan. My father had died 30 years ago relatively peacefully at home 16 months after his cancer diagnosis.
    Happy birthday Jane, you are and always will be a daughter to Pat and Gerry and a mother to Josh. Xxx
    Pam

  5. This message received from Hugh McAnich

    Thank you for sharing your experience in being with your Mum in those final hours. It was incredibly touching. I was reading the story of a bereaved mum who said when she lost her parents it was like losing her past but the loss of her child was so much losing her future. I am so sorry about the loss of your mum, Jane, but please have a peaceful birthday today. x

    1. Hugh. I think every bereaved parent would agree with the thought that the death of a parent is about losing the past but the death of your child is about losing their future. Lovely to hear from you!

  6. Hi Jane,

    What a lovely sharing. It’s so familiar. I had the real privilege of spending the last night of his life with my dad. Just the two of us – so unusual in a family of 6 siblings. And like you, it was in a south west Scotland community hospital with lovely rich local accents such an evocation of place and people of his life. My mum had died there a couple years earlier. I had that strange experience too – like you – of recognising myself as an orphan (regardless of being over 50). I found the whole thing electrifying and serene at the same time. Life and death were really in such harmony and delicate balance you could almost touch them passing each other by. And it all made so much sense. The only thing like it was giving birth. The loneliness of our journeys and the strength of our human connections so palpable in these moments.

    Love to you and yours Jane,
    B xx

    PS I’d love to post a couple of those pics on Final Fling with your permission. They’re right up our street.

  7. I found this a strangely moving and beautiful post jane. Thank you for your courage in sharing and the hope that this post brings. I’ve not had to watch someone die before and you give strength to the experience. I particularly like the thought you shared that “This was death without surprises and without false hope, a natural and as good as can be death, a death without trauma which might even bring some kind of equilibrium back into our lives.” With all that you’ve gone through in the last few years, you deserve some good to come out of this and I hope it does give you strength. Your mum was beautiful! Lucy x

    1. Thanks Lucy. You are right. It does take courage but only because its so rarely publicly discussed. Indeed why shouldn’t end of life and palliative care become something we are more knowledgable and open about. By not to facing up to death ( unlike birth which we mega prepare for) we can then feel so helpless when it happens to our loved ones so yes my involvement in mums relatively ‘ordinary’ death has taught me a lot. Undoubtably timely loss is easier to bare but it made me think hard about the many parents who have no choice but to address this with terminally ill and sick children and my heart and thoughts goes out to them.

  8. Thank you for sharing your story and the intimate photos of your mothers final days. It really conveyed a sense of love and peace in what was I’m sure a difficult time. I wish you and your family well. Regards Matt x

  9. Jane, what a lovely article.
    I wasn’t there when Mum passed. However, I was blessed to have spent 8 days with Pat last month. Mum was in hospital when I got there and back home by the time I left. The day she got out of hospital, she requested we go out to her favorite restaurant – I told her she was my hero for coming out of the hospital and going straight to the pub – she had a laugh at that! When I left, Mum told me “I’m not going anywhere” and that I’d see her next time I was home – giving me one of her very unique hugs / shakes. What I loved about Mum was always being able to ask her advice and always getting the right answer – I’ll miss that.

  10. Yes it’s been very special to share this journey with my brothers Tim in USA and Richard now in Scotland. So lovely to have done our best to support each other thru the last 6 difficult years of dads 4 years in hospital then Josh’s tragic untimely death. And now mums death. The 3 of us have gone from having 2 parents to no parents in the space of just over a year and this makes me glad we have each other. X

  11. A great big ThankYou to,Tim&Ruth,Esther&Mikey,Naomi&Louis,Mike&Suzie,Jimmy&Joe,for all your love and support at this sad time.Even though circumstances&geographical location prevented you all from being with Pat as she left this world,She and we felt the Love and gratitude from you all for being in Pats Life and she in yours.May our Love for and fond memories of ‘granny Pat” surround her and speed her on her wayXx.

  12. The death of a parent is a journey most of us take at some point in our lives, and it’s helpful to read this and reflect on our own journeys, past or anticipated. Then we can think about how the process of dying can best be managed for the person who is dying, and those close to them. Thanks Jane x

    1. So true Hilary. Those close to the family member are as important as the family member themselves when it comes to end of life care. And a good death can help improve our own grieving journeys though it’s undoubtably complex. Thanks for reading and comment!

  13. What a lovely testament to your Mother and family Jane, and so expressively written. I, and my 2 brothers, were there at the end of my Mother’s life too. She too was in hospital in the HDU and at one point took her oxygen mask off and said ”I can’t do it any more”……..We left on the Saturday night to go home and get some rest but I kept hesitating and going back. I said to the night nurse “I don’t want to leave her on her own” and this wee Australian nurse said to me “Don’t worry, I’m here she won’t be on her own”. Exactly the right thing to say at that time.iI am still grateful she said that. We were called back early the next morning and Mum passed away peacefully with the aid of the morphine drip. It was Xmas Eve 2006.
    But after losing my 20 year old son 4 years before that, (he went to bed and never woke up) I too could see that this was the natural order of things, a death when you are surrounded by your family and not to be ‘taken too soon’. In a strange way it helped me as I could see that all that was left of my Mother was her shell, her essence, her soul, call it what you will. She was gone, and so was my son. A few months after that my Father, who had been in a care home, died peacefully in his bed. It was odd to be ‘orphaned’ at 54 and to be the matriarch of the extended family.
    My condolences to your family, but I do know that the happy memories of your parents will make you smile. Unlike, well……..sigh.

  14. Thank you Jane for this moving and beautifully written account, what you bring through your willingness to share in your loss in such a gift to me. I am reminded of something I read in the Guardian yesterday, a review of a book by Marion Coutts about accompanying her husband Tom through terminal illness, the article also speaks of the book Tom wrote while dying ‘Until further notice, I am alive’ – his call is for a new literature of dying, repeating Bertolt Brecht’s plea that dying ought to be taught. Yours and Jimmy’s posts to me, bring dying in to life.. thank you

    1. Nikki. thanks for your encouraging comments. What we share in our films and writings is always personal and often uncomfortable however every one of us will have to face these issues around our mortality at some point so lets get it out in the open and learn to talk about death more freely. Why on earth not? It’s inevitable after all!

  15. A light has gone out, a friend has gone but my memories and thoughts are there to comfort. I managed and privileged to be allowed to say good bye to a friend that I have known almost 16 years. I seemed to be on the same wavelength as Pat and she always at ease with me. Not sure why, maybe she got break when I came around to play with Gerry.

    It has been a privilege to have met and befriended Pat and my thoughts with all her family both near and far.

    David

    1. David. You were such a support to mum and dad and I know how much you will miss them. Thanks for being there for them both and for taking the time to say goodbye to mum. I know how hard that was for you but as we have ourselves discovered the discomfort is outweighed by the sense of connection and realisation that timely death is not as scarey as we might imagine. Thankyou from me and my brothers. X

  16. Thanks Susan. Yes writing about such personal issues is hard. It’s really important to me to share my experience of timely and untimely death. One is in the right order of things and the other is not. Which means one is coos blue with and the other is not. And we could all remain silent but what’s there to learn from that. I feel all the stronger in many ways for articulating my thoughts and hope in some small way it may help get this subject out in the open a bit more. Thanks for your encouragement Susan. X

  17. Beautiful post Jane.

    Yes, I think you are right – still rage and fear of death, but some how they are conquerable in a person who has lived a long life. Part of you knows that this is the inevitable natural outcome of life. You notice that parents can never “accept” that a child is dying – even when there is no hope – even when they live with a terminal diagnosis for many years. It is just impossible and wrong, and you see them appear into bereaved circles, not released from their ordeal, but beginning it – missing the cancer or whatever it was – because when they had the cancer, at least there was hope.

    Huge hug to you – an incredibly brave and profound post xx

  18. A beautifully written and moving piece, Jane. Thank you. Gerhard and I are terribly sorry for your loss xx

    1. Thinking of you both and taking strength from the many courageous ways bereaved parents parents remember their loved ones. That which isn’t spoken becomes like a mill stone round our necks and then we learn nothing. Sorry to be so earnest and thanks for your encouragement! Jane x

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