Can We Learn to Accept Death

Halloween pumpkin

A story of death and dying and maybe... resolution.

What if we could make peace with death and the choices surrounding it? What if we were willing to have a conversation about death? In the last four years, I’ve learned some things about death and dying. They aren’t all easy. And, it’s left me with questions I’m still pondering.

The Initiation

My dance with death started in the spring of 2015. Our dog, Lydia, was in pain with another back issue. She was twelve years old and had suffered intermittent back pain since she was four or five.

Lydia was a miniature dachshund, a breed prone to back issues. We’d long ago discussed surgery with our doctor. He said it would work for a while, but then she’d likely have another area of her back cause issues. The operation would most likely be a temporary solution.

We took our usual course of action; we placed her in her kennel within a small gated area to limit activity. She refused food. When I tried to give her medicine that would reduce her pain, she bit through my fingernail.

There was something different in her eyes, and I knew she was tired of the pain. After several days of struggling with her, I looked at my husband and suggested we put her down. “She’s your dog. The decision is up to you.” The next day when he left for work, I called the vet.

My son Jason come over a few days later for Mother’s Day. He brought me a photo of her in a beautiful frame. I cried while he held me. That was new for us. I was the one usually comforting him.

A Final Letting Go

That winter, my brother died of complications from hepatitis. He was a former drug addict and had suffered a drug-induced aneurysm many years before. He had isolated himself from family and lived in a halfway house. In December, he finally succumbed to death.

The Shock of Suicide

In the summer of 2016, my son Jason died by suicide. His choices were catastrophic in our close-knit family.

There is a helplessness that comes for a family dealing with mental illness. We watched him struggle with mental illness for years. We’d been through four suicide attempts and a self-hospitalization the year before. This was the end. Jason was 33 at the time of his death.

The journey after his death was long and arduous.

That fall, I had a heated discussion with my sister-in-law about the right to die. She had been reading everything she could trying to make sense of Jason’s death. Like the rest of us, she couldn’t believe he’d taken steps to make sure this time. I argued against the idea that he had the right to choose suicide. I could never support him in choosing death by suicide.

Mom’s Final Dance

My mom’s doctor diagnosed her with chronic kidney disease in the Spring of 2014. Her numbers had been the same for over ten years. But her doctor and insurance company felt it was essential to flag her file for ongoing care. For the next two years, there wasn’t a lot of change.

By the fall of 2016, her numbers started to move in the wrong direction. That year, she lost two best friends, as well as coping with the deaths of my brother and son. We don’t know if her health changes were due to the progression of kidney disease or the losses she suffered or a combination.

By the time the doctor mentioned dialysis in the winter of 2017, Mom had had plenty of time to consider her options. At 80 years old, it seemed dialysis would take more than it gave. In her research, she found people in her age group didn’t gain in quality of life with dialysis. It would extend her life but not improve it. I remember her sitting in her chair saying, “Why would I want to live longer like this?”

Intellectually, I understood her decision. No dialysis. No heroics. Simply slip off into slumber. It was right for her. It was excruciating for me.

Her decision allowed her the time to think about what she wanted for herself in her last months. She wanted to see her brothers again, so we took a road trip. The family gathered together, brothers and sisters-in-law, cousins from near and far. We spent an afternoon in the park reminiscing and loving on Mom.

She came to visit my husband and me and wanted to make one last visit to our favorite nursery. Like many mothers and daughters, we had a complicated relationship. The one thing we could always count on was our love of gardening. We loved to go each spring to the nursery and buy plants. Sometimes we’d split a plant, but often we’d each find those plants that called to us. Those nursery visits and our time in each other’s gardens were a big part of our connection.

So, we took one last trip to the nursery and wandered. As always, Mom chose the flowers she loved, and I gathered herbs to fill holes in my new herb garden. When we got back home, she gave me the plants she’d chosen. They now live in my garden, memories of our last shopping trip together.

Months of long trips to help care for mom became too much. We decided to move her into our home. It was a big decision. Mom and I had always said we wouldn’t do that. When the time came, I was to put her into a care facility. We knew we’d drive each other crazy. But she needed more care than a weekend together could provide or that the others in her life could give her.

And so, Mom moved in with us in September of last year. We set up space for her and spent the fall watching the colors change, And we talked about death and dying. She was frustrated by the lack of support from her doctor about her decision to forego further medical treatment. He left her feeling guilty for her choices. She felt people should be given ALL their options, fully informed, and then honored once they made their decision.

Death is not easy or fast or orderly. She mentioned one day that if she’d chosen dialysis and then gone off of it, she’d be dead in two weeks. Short and sweet. But then she wouldn’t have had the enjoyment of the fall and time together with family.

In the end, she did it her way. She got to die with dignity. She got to make the choices, rely on the medicines that minimized her symptoms, and surrender to the disease process. The last day, I sat with her all day. I finally took a break, and while I was away, she drew her last breath.

The family gathered a few months after Mom passed for a Memorial. That evening I was talking with a cousin’s wife. She expressed frustration about her mother-in-law, not doing enough about her health. I gently said, “Sometimes we have to allow for our loved ones to make their own decisions about life and death.”

She raised her voice in frustration, “She has to live for her children and grandchildren.” It’s a commonly held idea, one that is more about the family and fear of loss than about the family member facing a life that is more and more restrictive.

Can We Make Peace With Death

There have been moments since Mom’s death when I realize I am angry. With all the miracles of modern medicine, we couldn’t save her. But then, did she want to be saved? Something clicked inside of her the year she lost so many. It’s like reaching upwards and finding the pinnacle at the top, knowing it’s the top and sliding off the other side. There was nothing I could have done; no amount of love, no herbs strong enough, no drugs or potions or anything else that would have stopped that slide.

Jason reached the same place. He knew it was his time. His mental illness had caused him to make some bad choices he could no longer tolerate. Can I accept the giving in, the release, the letting go for both of them and not have it be anything to do with me or my failure in loving or giving?

Where are the edges? Where are the boundaries of what is acceptable? For some, my mom’s choice to not fight the disease to the very end is not acceptable. For others, not giving my dog a surgery that might help her back was a wrong decision. And, can we allow my son, amid deep depression, the dignity of ending a life that was too painful and filled with regrets and possible harm to another? Where are the limits on life and death? And, can we choose for another?

“Here’s to the dead.” My cousin toasted. It would be our celebratory toast all evening after Mom’s memorial service. At this point, we are rapidly becoming the older generation. I know for myself, I want choices. I want to hear what is possible with medicine and what happens if I choose to move to my end peacefully and quietly. And, I want those around me to be at peace with my decisions as I face my dance with death.

“When I’m not here, remember sitting here loving and being loved. Know that my love is always with you. Please remember to have fun. I can remember as a child being shushed because some one had died. So the rest of the world was to be quiet. Forget that. Remember laughter is ok. All my love, Grandma.”

By Victoria Polmatier on August 16, 2019.

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Exported from Medium on January 2, 2022.

Photo by Jason Williard (1983–2016); Used by permission

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