Friday, January 11, 2013

Insights I Have Gained From Experiencing the Death of My Mother

This is a picture of my mother's headstone.  My father hand-picked it at my uncle's stone yard and had it custom made.  It is a rough, natural piece of red sandstone - chipped and weathered.  Very appropriate for my mother who so loved Southern Utah - the place of her birth.  Sandstone is a soft stone and over time will not hold up to the elements as well as granite.  Over the years it will wear and will eventually look just like many of the old headstones of the Dixie pioneer settlers - the ones belonging to our ancestors that Mom would have us find in the St. George cemeteries.  The Thoreau quote is one of her favorites and epitomizes her passion for nature.  I think all is as it should be - just as my mom would have it.

There are years that are stuck in my memory.  My birth year, the year I graduated from high school, the year I was married, the year each of my kids was born, the year we moved back to Utah, etc.  2012 will be one of those years.  It will be remembered as the year that my mother died.

It is a strange feeling...starting this new year without my mother.  Without my mother living with cancer.  It was something that occupied so much of our family's time, emotional and physical energy - for 8 years.  My mother's condition was an underlying worry at all times.  Mostly we worried about her cancer and whether or not it was responding to treatment.  But we also worried about other health problems that accompanied Multiple Myeloma - urinary tract infections, pneumonia, weakness, fatigue, weight loss, neuropathy, fractures, lesions...and the list goes on.  As a registered nurse married to a physician - I was heavily involved in the medical aspects of my mom's life.  Going to her doctor's visits, asking questions and looking for answers definitely helped me cope and gave me purpose.  But that is all gone now.  And it is still very hard to believe.

The world has changed.  My world has changed.  And I have changed.  I am a different person now.  I look at my life and people differently.  And I wanted to record some of these insights.

With the death of my mother I had the very interesting experience of my perspective of life being shattered into a million pieces and then coming back together with astonishing clarity.  I felt like with such an intensely difficult trial to endure, with someone that I loved so dearly all too soon gone from my life - that I finally understood what really matters.  And I realized that so much of what I worried about and focused on didn't really matter.  It's not that I was involved in "bad" things...and it isn't that I have really changed much about my life from what it was before.  It's just that now I try to approach my life and the things in it with a perspective of what matters and what doesn't matter.  And what really matters?  People and relationships.  Relationships with my immediate family, my extended family and my friends and neighbors.  My mom was really, really good at this.  My immediate and extended family can attest to this.  She made it a priority in her life to make people feel connected and important - just because they belonged to our family.  She did this through creating traditions, sharing stories and giving personal attention.  Forget Facebook, texting and emailing - my mom was about phone calls, home visits and of course, throwing parties.  And it wasn't just her family that would receive this personal attention - it was friends and neighbors too.  My mom added her personal touch to everything she did.  She made ordinary experiences meaningful and she made people her priority.

People that were loved by my mother knew they meant the world to her.  They knew it by the fact that she would go the extra mile to make them feel special.  Her graceful and lovely personal touch was something that as a family we grew used to - and frankly took for granted.  We were accustomed to regular family meals beautifully laid out on serving platters with garnishes.  Never was a bag of chips placed on the table - the chips were always served in a bowl.  And family parties weren't just relaxing get-togethers where we would sit around eating and visiting.  Those activities would usually be accompanied by a group game or a program where someone would be assigned to sing or perform or share stories from their childhood.  Meaningful.  This is how my mother showed her love - by making experiences meaningful and special.  But it wasn't just her family that benefited.  I remember when my mother was the president of the Young Women and in charge of the Laurels.  My mother would regularly bring this group of young ladies to our home to serve them a lovely brunch - again beautifully prepared with her nicest china - and often with a bouquet of fresh flowers from the garden.  She went to all of this effort because she wanted the girls to know they were worthy of it.  These girls knew that my mother loved them and many of them were deeply affected by these experiences.  When my mother passed away, we received several cards from girls that were in this group sharing their gratitude.  One woman wrote, "How blessed I was to have been touched by her wonderful example.  I am a better person because of her influence during my years as a Young Woman in the...ward."

People.  People matter.  And it matters even more that the people in our lives know that we love them - by what we say and more importantly, what we do.    

Experiencing the death of a parent - a mother - prematurely - is probably one of the toughest  trials to endure.  But I can't say enough how grateful I am that it has given me a new understanding and sensitivity towards others who have also suffered loss - and will suffer loss.  An understanding that I did not have before - of course how could I?  (I have already apologized to friends and family who have lost loved ones:  "I now know that I was not the friend you needed at that time and I am deeply sorry for that.")  But now - and this may sound strange - but it is like I am part of the "I have experienced the death of a parent or loved one" club.  And I have been welcomed with overwhelmingly open and loving arms.  Family, old friends, new friends, neighbors, ward members, even PTA acquaintances extended such words of understanding and comfort, saying to me "yes, I is difficult...I know...I've been's not easy..."  Texts were sent the night before the funeral saying, "Just checking in...I know tomorrow will be hard."  And then again the day of the funeral and on occasion after, "Just thinking of you...hoping you are ok."  My goodness!  Who does that?!  All I knew was that I wanted to be that kind of person - I am determined to be that kind of person!  I want to be the kind of person that texts friends that are struggling "just to check in"...or to send a kind note...or a sweet thoughtful token...or a phone call...or a prayer...or a meal...or whatever (I was blessed to be the recipient of all of these things throughout this ordeal).  I was surrounded by loving arms - and now I want those arms to be mine. 

My broken heart is filled with compassion towards those that are suffering - many of them silently.  I now know from personal experience that behind strong smiling faces, there can be pain and suffering that we are not aware of.  I remember at one particularly difficult doctor's visit towards the end of my mother's life, I stepped out to the snack bar to get my mom a banana chocolate milkshake - her favorite.  I remember looking into the faces of the people around me thinking, "they have no idea that I am here at the hospital with my mother.  And she has cancer.  And she is dying."  I was in such emotional pain - I felt like everyone around me should see right through my thick skin and feel sorry for me.  But something occurred to me at that moment.  As I gazed around at the nurses and the doctors and the patients and the visitors, I thought to myself, "I have no idea of their personal pain.  For all I know, their mother could be dying too."  And that is the point.  That we never truly know.  And for that reason I want to try harder to show more compassion and understanding.  By not jumping to conclusions, by giving people the benefit of the doubt, by not judging.  It is not easy and already I can say that I am not very good at it but I am determined to try to be better.

I have been thinking a lot about a quote I heard recently.  "There is nothing so difficult that something good can't come from it" - or something like that.  I feel that this is true of this experience.  I personally feel like I am learning very important and valuable lessons about life and people.  I wish my mother didn't have to die in order for me to learn these lessons, but life truly is a refiner's fire.  There are other good things...more subtle and too personal to share. But they are manifesting themselves in unexpected ways and at unexpected times.  These moments are somewhat surprising and accompanied with a pang of sadness - but they are examples of how we (my family) are adapting to this new way of life (navigating through Thanksgiving and Christmas for example).   Because after all - this is a learning experience.  We are learning how to live without my mother.  We are clumsy at times, fumbling through situations where Mom would have guided and directed and pretty much just told us what to do.  However at other times I am filled with a sort of pride as we figure things out, taking initiative, making executive "Mom" decisions on our own.  And even experimenting with doing things a little differently than the way Mom would have done them...with hope and faith that she would approve!  I know she does approve and is proud of her little family, carrying on without her.

It is difficult for me to put in words some of what I feel now...almost 3 months after my mom's death.   I am more contemplative...more thoughtful about my life.  I am trying not to take simple things for granted - how Sarah's small hand feels in my hand, the beauty of the silent snow falling lightly outside my window, the evenings we have enjoyed as a family sitting by the crackling fire at my father's home (that has taken some getting used to..."my father's home").  It is in these simple things that true joy can be found.  In some ways life has slowed, become more focused, more in line with what really matters.  It is bittersweet but I hope this way of life lasts for a very, very long time.


Rachel said...

Thanks for sharing this Emily. So many beautiful truths. I love the headstone! It is gorgeous and the quote seems just perfect.

Dianne Halloran said...

Your mom would be proud Emily. Beautiful insights into an incredible mother/daughter relationship whose passion for others and life lives in many of our hearts. Thank you for continuing to share the beauty you saw in her and I see in both of you. The tombstone is beautiful of coarse I would love that.

Dianne Halloran

Grace @ Sense and Simplicity said...

What wonderful insights. I am not part of the club yet, but my father has lung and liver cancer metastasized from his colon cancer so I will be there soon. Thankfully so far he is symptom free, but it will come.

Julie said...

So beautifully written! I hardly know what to say. Just...thank-you.

squeezeme said...

You and your mother make me want to be a better person.

Her headstone is beautiful.

Matt and I used to take Sunday walks through the cemetaries when we lived in Syracuse and ever since then I've told him that I want a headstone that looks weathered and worn, not perfectly polished and chiseled. Your dad chose perfectly.

Cameron VSJ said...


I have a quick question about your blog, would you mind emailing me when you get a chance?