Observations Along the Journey
The Death of a Counselor's Mother
"After a prolonged absence, I am glad to be able to say once again: Welcome Back to In Due Course. During my absence, some people have written comments that I will respond to in the upcoming weeks. For today, though, my emphasis will be on what has transpired over the past three months. Since my last posting, a number of things have happened to make it difficult for me to sit down at the computer and continue my writings: technical difficulties resulting in a move from a PC environment to a Mac environment, holidays, travel, and illness. However, the most important events have involved three deaths, all within the same six-week period – a family friend, a close aunt, and my mother. Of course, the most significant was the death of my mother, Dortha Kilcrease.
"The typical prognosis for Parkinson's disease is 10-12 years. In my mother's case, she struggled with the disease for 10 years before succumbing to its unrelenting and ever-increasing assault on her mind and body. Parkinson's is commonly associated with tremors and physical deterioration. Over those ten years, my sister and I witnessed our mother's slow loss of physical strength and coordination until virtually every muscle in her body was affected. By the time she died, she often choked on her own saliva when she tried to swallow.
"Less commonly known about Parkinson's is that dementia, depression, and other emotional/psychological disorders accompany the physical symptoms. True to form for someone with the disease, early on my mother started experiencing short term memory lapses. Eventually, the lapses became so short term that she would forget in mid-sentence what she was talking about. Her memory continued to decline as she began to get the meanings of verbs mixed up; that progressed to her losing the connection between an object and its name. For example, she might forget that a chair is called “chair.” A conversation with her became an exercise in trying to interpret and understand what she was trying so desperately to convey. As her mental faculties diminished, she grew more frustrated and angry. She realized what was happening to her and that there was nothing anyone could do to change it. In the last couple of years, her deterioration accelerated. She would try to use the TV remote control to make a phone call and complain when no one answered. She would repeatedly forget she could not walk and would fall to the floor when she stood. At the same time her medications promoted hallucinations and dreams so vivid and lucid that she did not know the difference between them and what was actually happening around her. With no warning she would slip back and forth between a reality in common with others to her own internal reality made of horrible, gory events, my sister existing at two different places at two different ages at the same time, or my father (dead since 1999) being in the room and talking to her or calling her name.
"Heaping more agony upon her was her severe osteoporosis. Four years ago she fell and broke a couple of vertebra in her lower back. She was in excruciating pain (10 on a increasing pain scale of 1-10) until the two vertebrae were rebuilt with synthetic bone material. From that point on, heavy-duty pain killers (which intensified the hallucinations) were only able to lessen, but not eradicate, the residual, constant pain she suffered.
"In spite of the physical pain, lack of physical control, and psychological confusion, up to the very end, she still knew who my sister and I were and was always able to say “I love you!”
"And then, in the middle of a quiet Tuesday afternoon in late November with all of her remaining family near, my mother took her last breath. She died knowing she was loved and that we knew she loved us. A small, frail wisp of a body that had been racked with suffering for so many years was finally able to rest, free from pain and misery.
"For years I knew my mother's condition was terminal and wondered what affect her death would have on me, a bereavement counselor. Would the lessons I learned from my prior losses, my volunteer patients, and the experiences of my clients help me on MY new journey? I have not been disappointed. No matter how much we may think we are prepared for the death of a loved one, when it actually occurs there is still shock, pain, sadness, and all of the other manifestation of grief. I found one part of me counseling another part of me as I began to question if I was mourning correctly. Shouldn't I feel a particular way? Why am I grieving differently than when my Dad died, etc.? My counselor side would then remind my grieving side the same thing that I tell my clients: we all grieve different losses differently; there is no strict formula for proper mourning; the range of normal grief reactions is broad, each loss has its own timetable for mourning, etc.
"So, here I am – a member of the eldest generation in my family. There is no buffer between me and my mortality any more. It is now my generation's turn to die. But after stopping and thinking for a moment, I also know that what I'm feeling about my mortality is the same that my parents must have felt when their parents died. There is some comfort in knowing that I'm not the first nor will I be the last in this position. Our ability to realize our own pending death is part of what it is to be human.
"One of my cousins died 12 years ago from a blood infection. His name was Daniel. Until the day she died, that loss greatly defined who my aunt was and how she looked at life. We talked more than once about the significance of Dan's death on her (and on me). At her funeral three weeks ago as she was lying in her casket, her 6-month old great-grandson, Daniel, was lying in his mother's arms, asleep. I could not help but reflect on how the dichotomy of youth and aged, of life and death at that momentous event epitomized the meaning of the wheel of life and how it continues turning – on, and on, and on."