“The life lessons I learnt from watching my Mother die!”
By Kola Adesina / August 12, 2022
‘Pain changes your life forever. But so, does healing from it.’
Spoilt rotten from birth and ever so dependent on my matriarch, I saw it coming but failed to process it, then boom! Everything changed and reality slapped me in the face.
Thus, April 15, 2022, my life changed tumultuously. I had lost my closest friend, my ally, go-to-person when the chips are down and mother, after a brief illness.
For twelve weeks my mother was a human roller coaster. Her condition changed up and down. But mostly, I could not get my head around how she could die. I simply couldn’t imagine how her body could go from functioning to shutting down.
I experienced the lengthy hospital stays as a very peaceful and lonesome place. Nevertheless, I often sat by her bed, holding her hand and feeling utterly overwhelmed and helpless and scared.
I was convinced that I should be doing something, saying something, but could not think of anything at all that might ease her final passage. The relationship with my mum was often difficult, thus, this also felt like the last chance to make my peace with her, with us.
Seeing her in pain was horrific. She quickly advanced to a stage where she was no longer able to ring for the nurses. Wrinkling her forehead became the indicator for her pain. It was terrible to know that this was probably happening when nobody else was in the room and who knows how long it could take for anyone to notice.
Once the nurse came to administer more painkillers, it took another ten to fifteen minutes until you could see them work and my mum’s face slowly relaxing. The ten longest minutes.
In the last week, swallowing became an issue. Even just taking a sip of water became a massive struggle and ended in coughing fits. The doctors said there was nothing they could do to make it easier. With all the medical advances, it seemed crazy that she had to endure any pain at all.
Her last four weeks were the toughest in my life, so far, and the first time I experienced the death of somebody close, and from such close quarters. At the same time, it also turned out to be the most rewarding time.
The one thought that could never skip my mind as I saw my mother ebbing away was; yes! she was wealthy, influential, powerful and instrumental but I realized that all worldly powers are temporary. and cannot save you on the day of reckoning. Our creator’s powers are permanent.
One of the things that struck me was that almost everyone has or will experience the death of a loved one. It had such a monumental impact on me, and I can only assume that it does for a lot of people, too, and so I would like to share my story.
Here are some of the lessons I learned, which arose from a very specific situation but which I feel are equally applicable to other challenging situations in life.
- You are alone.
Dying is personal. Watching somebody die is personal. Your whole life is personal.
There is simply no manual or set of guidelines to refer to. Not to how we live, not to how we die, and not to how we grieve.
Sometimes we might confuse our personal life lessons with universal laws. A number of people were giving me advice (I didn’t ask for). Cousin became brother, uncle became funeral director and general overseer.
Instructions on how to even bury my own mother. Advice about having to be there for her, and this-and-that, but in the end my mum decided to slip away from this world with no one else with her besides her caregiver and myself in the room. Nobody else. Advice about the importance of the funeral or on the appropriate length and ways of grieving for my own mother.
Some of the forcefulness behind the messages were overwhelming at the time and had me doubting my own feelings and decisions. While I fully appreciated that they meant well, I had to remind myself that only I can decide for myself what to do and how to do it. There is no right or wrong. What feels right to someone, might feel very wrong to you.
Listen to your inner voice! Tune in, and your heart will tell you what to do. We all have an inner compass; it’s just a matter of learning to access and trust it. Equally, when the tables are turned, be conscious of how you talk to people. Offer support and share your experiences by all means but give room for the other person to go their own way.
- You are not alone.
In other ways, I was not alone. One of the most important lessons for me was to accept help. Yes, bloody ask for help! I tend to be a control-freak, proud of my independence, always having been able to deal with things by myself. Suddenly, I felt frighteningly helpless. I felt like everyone else had it figured out and I was failing miserably.
Many people were amazing, many were good intrusive and overbearing, whether it was talking to me, listening to me, letting me cry, offering me a cup of tea, providing me with food, or holding my hand. It meant the world and I stopped regarding accepting help as a weakness. There is no merit in going it alone, whatever it may be. You want to help those you love—allow them to be there for you, too.
- The power of a good cry.
In line with my wish to be independent, I hate crying in front of people. I worried it would upset my mum. I worried I made other people uncomfortable. I worried the tears would never stop.
Then, somebody told me that it’s physiologically impossible to cry continuously. I can’t remember the time, but it’s something like twenty minutes after which the crying will automatically cease. That thought comforted me. The worst that could happen would be to cry for twenty minutes. That seemed manageable. Besides, there didn’t seem to be much I could do to stop the tears from coming anyway.
Once I relaxed about crying, I discovered how transformative tears could be. They offered and still offer a release of tension that would otherwise keep building up inside. They have a message that is worth listening to. They are part of life. Don’t feel ashamed. Don’t worry on other people’s behalf, because it’s not for you to figure out how they deal with your tears.
- Feel it all.
I used to strive for a life made up of only happy moments. People would tell me that without the crap, we wouldn’t appreciate the good. But I’ll be honest; I was not convinced.
When feeling ‘negative’ emotions, in addition to feeling them, I was annoyed that I felt them, adding another layer of frustration. I engaged in an internal fight against those emotions, and as you may guess this only made things worse.
Here, I was dealing with feelings that were new to me, also in an intensity that was new to me and which felt uncomfortable as hell. I quickly worked out, though, that I couldn’t push them away, I couldn’t distract myself. Eventually I came to accept them as part of me and part of the experience. And the thing is that everything passes—the “good” as well as the “bad.”
Don’t judge your feelings. Allow them to flow through you. Fighting them will only make them linger longer. Feel them and seek to learn from them. Everything we feel can teach us a lesson.
- Some things you cannot prepare for.
Since my mum’s initial diagnosis, I had been mentally preparing for her death. Or so, I thought. Grief took on many different forms for me. I hadn’t expected any of them and had nevertheless, been going through various scenarios before-hand. It turned out to have been a waste of time to even attempt preparing for any of it. And this applies to most things in life.
It will be whatever it will be. But most importantly you will be okay!
It sucks at times. It still comes over me at random times. The realization that she is no longer around hits me again and again, as if it’s news. I often dream of her. Things happen, and I want to tell her about it and then realize that I can’t talk to her ever again. I have no idea where else my grief will take me so I have given up spending time of trying to anticipate it but I have faith that I will manage.
- Carpe diem (“Pluck the day”)
We know we will die one day, yet we still generally live our lives as if we will be around forever.
Okay, I’m not saying that I’ve seized every minute of every day since my mum passed away. I forget. But I also remember. I remember that life is short. Death puts things into perspective in many ways. Is it worth getting upset or stressed over certain things? Do I really want to hold a grudge? Is this really worth my time? Is this who I want to spend my time with? How will I feel looking back on my life when my time comes?
I ask myself these questions more often nowadays, and it has changed my life for the better. I am overall more relaxed and I stress less. I am more precious over how I spend my time and who with. I am less willing to put up with things that don’t feel good to me (this is where your inner voice plays a crucial role, too). It is liberating to say the least.
- Gratitude rocks.
I have started a daily gratitude diary. I found it tough in the beginning. After a crappy day, I just didn’t think anything good had happened. But practice changed my mindset with lasting effects.
It’s not about forcing yourself to be happy all the time; it’s about changing your perspective and focusing on the “good” without denying the “bad.” It helps me not to take things for granted in everyday life.
Even during my mum’s last weeks, I found many things on a daily basis that I felt grateful for. I was grateful that, even on her deathbed, we were able to share some laughter moments. I was grateful to witness through her friends and family how she had touched other people’s lives. I was grateful how it brought me back closer to some people. I was also grateful for little things, like sitting on her balcony in the sun or listening to music together.
Above all I was and I’m grateful for having been given the opportunity to witness her dying. Especially given our difficult relationship, I am grateful I was able to say goodbye – I am aware not everyone gets this chance.
- Resilience is a superpower.
If I got through this, I will get through other stuff, too. Death is outside your control. You have no choice but to deal with it when it comes your way. You do have a choice how to deal with it though.
You can find the lesson in whatever life serves you. You can combine all of the above touch-points and be safe in the knowledge that you will be okay. I feel more resilient and I am confident that it will help me master other situations in the future. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be pain. But you are able to handle it and bounce back.
In a way, I sense that my list of lessons learned will continue to grow but one of the keys I believe is needful to be able to carry on, is to be open-minded, drop the pre-judgment and expectations. I never would have imagined that all or any of this would come from my mum’s death.
Whether it’s grief you are dealing with or other challenging circumstances, I hope you will find the cathartic power in your experience that can lead to incredible personal growth and discovery. Whatever this may look like for you!
Kola is a consultant in building and construction supplies, procurement, home improvement and property facilities management.