[OPINION] On death and dying

One November, after a bout of coughing and flu-like symptoms, we were told that our mom had stage 4 cancer and ‘would not make it to Christmas’, a month away. The shock was immeasurable as she had survived breast cancer years before.

We chose not to tell her this news. As her children, it turned our lives upside down. The medical team were not offering her any further treatment as it was too late. Did my sister who lives abroad come home for a month? Did our mum move in with my family as I was the most available to care for her? Did we employ a night nurse as she had started falling during the night on her bathroom breaks? Did we get an attorney to sort out her last will and testament?

As we grappled with all these questions and found our own answers, we kept her out of that picture. We ensured she had the best care we could offer. We assured her with hope that people with cancer can live for a very long time if they take their medicine and the doctor’s advice. The hospice was key in guiding us on how to proceed with our life strategy for her. It was a risky and correct decision for us.

Eight years later in the early hours, they called me for the sixth time in a month to say it was important that we make our way to the care facility. I had notified my sisters the last five times, which meant they packed their young children in their cars and we sat with our mom in the middle of the night. On this occasion, I chose to go by myself and texted my family at a reasonable time when they were about to start their day. They could make their way to the high care before going to work.

I spent that night sitting with her, talking to her. She was conscious, talking but not saying anything that made sense. We communicated with hand holding, she knew I was there. At some point, I involuntarily apologised for not being able to do anything more and assured her that my sisters and I would be okay and that she could move on. Until that point she had been restless, frustrated and then calm and quiet, talking to and mumbling about people we had known, but most of whom were deceased. I listened intently and kept reassuring her that they were all waiting for her. I have no way of knowing if that is so, but it felt right. After telling her we would be fine, she became calm and peaceful. She slowly opened her eyes for the first time in days, a tear rolled down her cheek, she turned her head towards me and breathed out a slow and quiet breath, her last one. All the breaths before that had been laboured and heavy.

My reaction as she gently passed was not shock or hysteria. I was filled with pure love, relief, compassion and admiration for her. She had always feared dying in pain and without being able to breathe. None of this came to fruition, which was the relief I felt, we assured her she would not suffer, but we really didn’t know.

Cancer gave us a chance to be with our mum, to be present to each other as a family, to deal with the guarantee of death and to extend to one another unconditional love. We were a safe place for us to weep, to vent, to reconnect and to celebrate anything and everything that we were giving as people in life. We concluded our lives with our mum with years and hours and precious moments of togetherness. We had many opportunities to clarify outstanding issues (all families have those unspoken issues), family stories, myths, urban legends, closeness and the ‘family secrets’. It was a sacred time with hindsight and one we would not have used qualitatively had we not had notice that she had a month to live, eight years before she actually passed from this life.

What I know for sure, is that we don’t know how and when we will die. It is imperative to treat each other as though we know it could happen anywhere and at any time. A cancer diagnosis can be a death or a life sentence. We chose to see the opportunity to create new relationships with our mum and each other that were sustainable after life. My sisters missed our mom’s passing but we were all present to her life and the life she gave to raising us as a stay-at-home mom. We had a chance to thank her and assure her we would meet all her expectations as sisters looking after each other, our families, her family and our children.

Every time someone dies I wonder if their family used the privilege while their loved ones were alive and healthy to thank them, hold them and love them. We have a chance every day to be connected to the people we love, like and barely know. We should use it. Death and loss are all part of life, nobody gets out alive. We must be conscious to death as we are to life. Too many people live like there will be time. Nobody really knows. The doctors can predict one month and it is good that they do. The reality is, nothing is sure.

My wish is that we receive the gift of life as it is and as it isn’t. We accept the people in our lives as they are and as they aren’t. I know too many families wracked by disagreements, misunderstanding and stubbornness. Being rigid and cutting people who are part of you out of your life is a sure way to leave much incomplete if they or you pass on. When people die, we should be able to grieve and be sad, without any suffering. We should be able to move on sad, missing them and without any regrets or unspoken words. While people are alive we can be present to their life, its meaning to ourselves and the fact that them or us could be snatched from our living anytime.

It is in the living years we get to measure whether the grudges, judgements and opinions we hold will matter when they die. Is it us or is it them: if it is them, we have the power to accept how they are, and if it is us, we have the responsibility to recreate how we show up for them. It really makes the loss a time of reflection, gratitude and sadness. No suffering. No regrets, no ‘I should haves’ or ‘I could haves’.

There are many theories about what happens to us, our souls, our spirits and our bodies when we die. Who really knows? Nobody. Everything we learn is someone’s opinion. The only reality we have is that we will all have to exit this life. Let us leave a legacy of being people-centred and not self-centred. We leave behind worldly goods, let us leave behind an opportunity for people to be more like us through our connection with them, rather than the great car, house and job we acquired. In the end, what is measurable is how we made people feel.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn