What happens at the end of life?
My mother has never been willing to talk about dying before. In the past, if I mentioned death, she’d turn her head and stare into space.
Yesterday, while I was sitting beside her holding her hand, she said, “I’m scared.”
“What are you scared about?” I asked.
“I’m dying,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “Do you want to talk about it – about what scares you?”
She wouldn’t look at me. But she squeezed my hand.
“Are you scared because you don’t know what will happen to you when you die?”
“Do you want me to tell you what happened when Matthew’s dad died?”
So, I told her that one day, Stanley, who’d been declining for a while, stopped eating and the next day he stopped speaking and the next day, he closed his eyes and after a little while, he died.
“Oh,” she said. “That was easy.”
“It doesn’t have to be hard,” I said.
And she looked at me, and we smiled.
It doesn’t have to be hard
At the end of life, so much is happening to us. Our bodies slow and often, hurt. Simple things we could once do without even thinking about it become obsessions: the dreaded shower, going to the toilet, eating enough, handfuls of pills.
Right now, Mom is sleeping a lot. And in between naps, as she rouses, she calls out, “Momma. Momma,” until someone comes. One of her aides, her friend Esther. Me.
When I come she calls out, “Momma. Oh, Amy!” I know that she means to communicate all kinds of other things but she’s having trouble finding words sometimes. I take her hand. We sit together.
“Tell me more about dying,” she says.
I tell her there seems to be a room, a way station between worlds, where people from the world of the living can visit with people from the other side. I tell her that once, after Dad died, he met me there.
We were in a park. I came from my side and Dad came from his. He was wearing a white suit. There were benches. Ours was in a secluded spot, in the shade. Dad and I sat together – just hanging out, like we always did – and he told me, ‘I’m okay. It’s good here. It’s very nice.’ And, also he could walk again.
“Oh, that’s right,” Mom says. “Ray couldn’t walk in the end…” See, she forgets things like this. Things about her life before this time of waiting, of suffering, of being led by the arm from bed to chair, chair to bed.
I tell her that dying is like slipping into a dream. I tell her I know this because people have come back, saved by doctors from the brink.
“From the brink,” she repeats. “I was there – at the brink.”
She’s remembering her own near-death experience, when she walked with a ‘very tall man’ down a hallway toward the light.
“But I had to come back,” she reminds me. “I had something to do.”
The ‘something’ that Mom had to do was to love. Standing ‘at the brink’, Mom told me, she’d bargained for a little more time. ‘Why do you need more time?’ God asked her, and she said, ‘I want to go back and just once, really experience love. I just want to fully love. I know how to do that now.’”
Yesterday, Mom told me, “I’m seeing white.”
“You’re seeing white?”
“White,” she said, staring at something only she could see.
In my 10 years of reading angel stories (I was the editor of Doreen Virtue’s “My Guardian Angel” column in Woman’s World) I learned that the angels often choose the color white to communicate their presence: white feathers, white birds and butterflies, white flowers – and people dressed all in white. Oh, and light – white light.
Whether this ‘white’ is the approach of Grace or, as medical research might argue, ‘a cascade of brain activity’ – for my mother, who is an artist and a poet, this ‘white’ is more than a symptom – it’s a conversation she’s been having all of her life.
I didn’t understand this until, a few months ago, when she was given medical marijuana for pain. She began to talk about a ‘blue wall’ that was blocking her vision. She told me it was ‘in the way. I can’t see anything around it.”
“She’s hallucinating,” her doctor said. That may be, I thought, but there is something else going on here, as well.
I asked Mom if she’d like me to help her move the blue wall.
“No!” she said. “The blue is keeping the green away.”
“It’s protecting you?”
“Yes,” she said. “The blue keeps the green and the red at bay.”
When I asked her to tell me more about the ‘colors’ she described not hue or tonal quality. Rather, Mom told me each color’s personality.
The Green was “cruel and trying to get around the blue”. The Red was ‘even worse but it wasn’t actively trying to hurt anyone. It just sits there being Red”.
This wasn’t just a painter, describing her palette. It was a victim of childhood trauma speaking in a language she’d developed over time to out-picture the emotions she’s always had difficulty expressing.
She was quite agitated by her concerns about the Cruel Green and I sensed it might help her relax if we depersonalized the colors. So, I asked her to describe each color’s sizes and shape, their textures and temperatures. I asked her to visualize them moving farther away – out to the far horizon – where they might not feel as threatening to her. It helped and Mom fell asleep.
I tell you this in my essay about what happens when we die because dying is a process, not an event. Unless life ends suddenly, as in a car crash or violent end, dying moves gradually toward us, making itself known in stages.
“Am I dying right now?”
“You mean, this minute? Like, are you actively dying – tonight?”
“No, I don’t think so. We’re just talking about it. Getting used to it.”
“Okay,” she says. Then, “How will I know when I am?”
“I don’t know. But maybe we don’t have to know that right now.”
“No,” she says. “We don’t.”
I tell you this because the soul is always guiding us. even as we die. We are still called by the same core self, and working with the same questions and gifts with which we arrived.
Just as my mother is still the artist she’s always been, my father was every bit the Social Worker and psychotherapist, as he approached his death. Even in the nursing home, confined to bed, Dad was infinitely curious about the welfare and personal lives of the aides and nurses who dressed and cleaned him. And sometimes, he was equally curious about the “invisible people coming in and out of the door – or standing around me – but I can’t see them.”
The dying are having a conversation with this world AND the next world.
Once I arrived as Dad was listening to ‘The Balance,” a group of unseen (to me) teachers who, Dad said, were explaining (finally) how the world works, how people work: which was the essence of Dad’s lifelong calling, his ‘artistry’ and the colors that painted his inner landscape.
Sharing these experiences with my parents has helped me to understand my own life – my own colors. I am more able to put my childhood into the context of a wider narrative. To understand why Mom painted all afternoon instead of shopping and going to lunch like the other moms. Why she muttered at the sink and had trouble socially. Why Dad snapped at people – especially her. Why he was always trying to understand things – and lived mostly in his head.
For years, I didn’t understand that Mom’s artwork was her outlet – a way of expressing feeling and pain. Any feeling that rose, any memory – went onto those canvases. Mom’s voice was in those bright squares of color, framed and hanging on the walls of our home.
When my mother entered therapy, she started diving into her own story. During that time she began to make mono prints – and there are hundreds of them in the drawers of her apartment. Many feature children, houses, nature. They are luminous. Haunting. Beautiful.
Only recently, I realized, my mother doesn’t cry. “I don’t know how to cry,” she told me. “Esther has tried to help me but I just can’t.”
Her friends – Esther and Susie – are putting together a book, featuring these with plates of Mom’s beautiful drawings. Seeing my mother’s work being treated with such respect transforms it. Writing this, tears fill my eyes. What an extraordinary thing – to discover that your strange mother really was a gifted artist. That her work will live on when she is gone.
It’s important to the dying to put their lives into context. To leave a legacy. The only way we can support that is by listening to who they are now.
At this stage, it seems cruel to keep reminding Mom who she once was. Asking her to paint or draw is, to me, a kind of torture, reminding her of all she’s lost. Yet, by listening to her as she makes art of THIS moment, I can still find her – and still support her journey.
Which brings me back to Mom’s ‘colors’. For, even though she hasn’t painted for several years, these old friends – the blue, the green, the red and, “sometimes yellow but not today” – are still here. She is still painting, for it seems that, for my mother, emotion IS color. These colors are like friends, like the familiar cats and other muses, which always hang around creative people.
Mom and I talked about another time when “White” visited her. After her friend Edith died, Mom fell asleep, terribly sad, missing her friend. She dreamed that a beautiful white owl flew down to sit with her. The white owl soothed her sadness and she woke filled with inspiration to paint the luminous creature.
I painted the owl? She asked me.
Where is that painting now?
In your apartment.
Oh, it’s hidden away.
No, it’s there, on an easel – there’s nothing to hide.
There’s nothing to hide.
Mom is not really allowed to talk about angels and death and dying with her care takers. It upsets them to think of losing her. So, even in this loving setting, she is hiding her feelings to take care of them. As the only person who seems willing to discuss this with her, I feel torn. I want to help her through this. And I want to encourage them to have this conversation with her. Yet, I wonder how long all of this will take.
Ah, but then, even as I write that last thought, I realize how deeply ‘all of this’ has opened my heart.
Last night, I suggested to my mother that the white owl was Edith’s way of meeting my mother in the in-between realm – the bridge space where the living can meet the dead. Like the bench where I met Dad, where we can see one another again.
It’s reassuring for the dying to know that they will not be forgotten. That we are willing to continue to be in relationship with them. It’s important, also, for them to know that we will be okay – and that they have our blessing when they’re ready to go.
In the middle of our conversation, my mother asked me, “Is it okay with you if I die soon.”
Yes, I told her. It is okay with me. You have my permission to die. I spoke these words very clearly so there could be no doubt. I gave my mother permission to die.
I told her she could meet me in the middle space – on the bench where I met Dad – when her time comes. “You can visit me in a dream,” I said, and she brightened. “I can!” she said.
It’s important, also, that we give the dying the sense that there is something to look forward to.
When my Dad was dying, we made a bet. He didn’t believe in the afterlife and I did. So our bet was simple: If there is an afterlife, I win – and you have to send me a sign.
“What do I get if I win?” Dad asked.
“Well, nothing,” I laughed. “If there’s no afterlife… ”
A moment’s pause and Dad cracked up, laughing. This was one of our very best jokes.
(And I would like to add here that I won that bet, hands down. After his death, Dad sent me so many signs that I still chuckle when I find one. I imagine him looking down. laughing with me. Sharing our bet even now.)
I told my mother that in the dream of dying she could walk with the tall man again – and perhaps, see her friends again.
“Natalie!” Mom spoke her friend’s name with bright eyes and a sigh. Her beloved college roommate, the best friend who’d died far too young.
“Yes – and Edith and Elmer!”
“Oh, Elmer,” she said, and she giggled as if she were a child, and playing again, with her little brother.
Though I have felt great resistance to the work of sitting with my dying parents, I’ve come to treasure our time together. We are doing this work together. Each of us brings our own tools, the tools of our vocation – color and light, imagery and story, psychology and the balance – to the work. As we hold one another in blessing.
We know how to do this now – how to work together toward healing.
We know because at the end of his life, Dad did his work. And he clued me into what The Balance taught him: that all of us make mistakes and it is never too late to restore things to blessing.
Now, Mom is doing hers. For even though she has never been so frail, my mother is fiercely, bravely insisting on fully feeling – and expressing love.
Sitting beside my mother inside of this vital conversation, as I help her braid her color-world with the ‘next world’ I, too, am guided by The Balance and the White, both of which have taught me that none of us ever walk through this world – or out of it – alone.
Like my mother, I was once afraid to talk about difficult things like dying. I am not afraid any more.
I’m not afraid because I know that as each of us moves from this world into the next, we’ll be supported through our own pre-death conversation with The Balance and The White. Guided back to blessing – and back to love.
I’m not afraid because I know that when her time comes, my mother will be led back to Natalie and Edith and Elmer. To her own mother and father – and to Dad in his fine white suit.
I also know that after she’s gone and her suffering has ended, the White will show us the way to find one another on the bench between worlds.
“I’m afraid to look at you,” Mom said to me last night.
Mom didn’t respond.
“Are you afraid that if you look at me, you’ll feel big feelings?”
She nodded in a trembly sort of way.
“It’s okay, Mom,” I told her. “Big feelings always come when you’re looking at someone you love.”
So my mother very bravely looked at me. And I, bravely looked back.
We met there, in the space between one heart and another, and we both felt big feelings for a while.