My mother’s death was one of the most painful moments of my life. Watching someone you love die a slow and painful death is heart wrenching and traumatic. Discovering in those moments all the ways the body shuts down in preparation for death was an experience I was absolutely not prepared for.
But as difficult and traumatic as this experience was, being with my mother during the final moments of her life, holding space with her as she transitioned from life into death held its own kind of beauty. Not the kind of beauty you want to celebrate and certainly not the kind you want to recreate. More like the beauty of a battle scar forever etched on your heart. Marking a moment in my life that required an unexpected grace and compassion I didn’t know I possessed.
When my Mom found out she was terminally ill she decided she didn’t want to die in a hospital. So we made as many preparations as we could for her to die at home. But let me tell you, nothing can truly prepare you for death’s arrival.
Caring for her during end stage cancer and preparing for her death just weren’t things I thought I’d ever have the strength nor the capacity to do at any point in my life let alone then as a teenager. But the strength came from somewhere.
Like any crisis just when you feel like you can’t support any more weight, a little more is added on your shoulders and somehow you keep going. This is how things evolved on my Mom’s final days. An epic blizzard landed just as she went into end stage. Roads, hospitals and the hospital’s pharmacy were all closed and the hospice worker could not reach us. All of these circumstances together became a huge obstacle when we ran out of morphine and it became impossible to adequately manage my Mom’s pain on her last days of life.
The only thing I could do for her was stroke her head, continue to read and talk to her (all one sided once she slipped into a coma), maintain her hygiene as her body shut down, and lay next to her in bed as I held her hand. Despite all the preparations we made for this day I ultimately had nothing to offer her but my presence during her transition. (Since then I have come to realize that sometimes this is the most important thing we can offer someone in a moment of crisis. We don’t always need to know the right words to say, we only need to be present with our loved one as they face tragedy. Because life and death seem a little less scary when we are not alone.)
Days before, the hospice worker had alerted us that when the body shuts down as it prepares for death the spaces between breaths often become longer and more sporadic. I remember as the time neared, holding my Mom’s hand and meticulously counting the seconds between each breath wondering every time if it would be her last.
I don’t remember how many seconds I counted near the end but I remember how the room shifted when death arrived. I didn’t have to count or wait for her next breath because I felt death immediately. It is a palpable feeling when life departs. An instant feeling of nothingness happens. Life energy has a very particular feeling, which I think is only made distinguishable by its absence.
In that moment when life left, it physically felt empty and hollow around me. But internally sheer panic was exerting itself as I realized my Mom was gone. Forever. The only thought my brain could produce was WTF am I gonna do now that she’s gone?! And “gone” took on an entirely new and more powerful meaning for me.
Although I had known for 13 months her cancer was terminal I simply was not prepared in that moment when she actually died. I truly don’t believe anything can prepare you. I also didn’t know what to expect afterwards. I didn’t really know what grief was (other than a few things I had read about the “stages of grief”) let alone how I was supposed to actually do it. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know!
It is only after walking the journey of grief myself that I have come to understand it more.
Now I understand losing a loved one is not something you ever get over. It becomes a part of you that stays with you always. That’s not to say you don’t heal, because you do. Over time I learned to adapt and make space for the gaping hole it created in my world and my heart. The intensity of grief changed and for me it evolved as I moved through various stages of life and womanhood.
Today as I write this I’ve actually been living without my Mom for as many years as I lived with her. Sometimes that totally freaks me out. So much has happened in my life since the day she died that it feels like I have lived an entire lifetime without her. She died when I was a teenager. Before I had things figured out. Before I knew what I wanted in life. Before I chose my career. Before I chose the city I wanted to live in. Before I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be. Before I really knew who I was.
But that vice grip grief once held on my heart is no longer there. It does however, sometimes manifest in unexpected ways. There are days for (what on the surface seems like) no apparent reason I feel a subtle yet inexplicable yearning for something I can’t quite pinpoint, and the compulsion to reach for something I can’t quite touch. I have come to refer to these moments as my flailing umbilical cord. Moments where life has propelled my subconscious to reach out for a mother the way I would if she were still here. The way daughters connect with their mothers through various stages of womanhood.
Consciously of course I know she isn’t there, but still, these moments leave me feeling strangely lost and disoriented. Its like grief hasn’t completely gone away, it just doesn’t hold center stage in my life the way it once did. Now it lingers more in the corners of my life as a silent backdrop to my every day. And time has allowed me to make space for it in my world.
It is in this way that I see the journey of grief and forgiveness as being very similar. We all experience various traumas in our lives both big and small and grief and forgiveness are paths we travel to regain our equilibrium. They are journeys that offer us lessons in letting go.
As human beings we are resilient and our hearts heal. But grief and forgiveness change us. The journey transforms us. Neither are places we arrive at, they are journeys we embark on. And as we travel through them we adapt, we accept what was, and what will never be.
When life calls on us to practice forgiveness it is often due to some form of loss. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one in death, loss of a relationship, loss of security and safety, loss and betrayal of our trust, loss of our health, or the loss of our self-esteem and identity. We endure so many losses as life is perpetually calling on us to let go of something.
But just as grief does not require us to forget someone or to let go of the memories we have of them, forgiveness does not require that we forget or excuse bad behavior and betrayals. Forgiveness is a journey in letting go of the hope that the past could have been any different, and accepting it for what it was. The journey of forgiveness therefore requires that we have an ability to navigate the grief process.
People sometimes ask me how I coped with my mother’s death and if I have any advice to help them navigate the grief process. I wish I had some magical words of wisdom or a foolproof formula. I wish there was a GPS for this journey because I can remember the frustration I felt when my Mom died and no one could provide any clear direction for how to cope with such a significant loss.
The only insight I can offer is the journey of grief and forgiveness seems to reflect the hero’s journey depicted in countless storylines and epic tales. We all know these stories; the hero embarks on what seems to be an impossible journey (usually one that has been thrust upon them). They must leave all that they know behind and enter the unknown. The only tool they have to guide them is some infuriatingly obscure riddle (when a map and clear instructions would be much more useful) leaving the hero to figure everything out as they go. All while their limits are being challenged and tested through a number of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
But by the end of the story, whatever appeared so daunting in the beginning becomes their triumph. Their journey through hardship defines who they are and it transforms them. Making them wiser and more resilient.
Whenever we share our stories it gives our experience meaning, gives voice to our emotions, and helps us make sense of our world. Although we don’t have a GPS to navigate grief and forgiveness, the art of storytelling may be one of the most powerful tools we have to heal ourselves.
The sharing of our stories reminds us we are not alone in our experience with loss and our struggle with letting go. It puts everyday faces on the hero’s journey and reminds us that even though the journey of grief and forgiveness is often thrust upon us, with zero navigational devices; even though it may seem insurmountable in the beginning, as it requires us to shoulder more weight than we thought we could possibly ever bear; even though it demands we enter unknown emotional places in our heart; and even though we will likely have to figure everything out on our own, ultimately, all of it becomes a part of who we are. It becomes a part of our story. We adapt and we grow. And like the hero’s of epic tales we triumph. Wiser and more resilient. As every day hero’s of our own lives and hearts.
Katrina Lopes. Katrina was born and raised in Nova Scotia and now resides in Toronto as an entrepreneur in the music and film industry.