A friend’s mother-in-law was dying. She knew that death was imminent and she had made her wishes clear: no heroic measures. She was ready to go and she didn’t want her life unnaturally prolonged.
And yet, she didn’t die. Day after day passed and she remained in the ICU, comatose, in critical condition. Her doctor was baffled. Other patients in far better condition had passed on in spite of all his efforts to save them. In her case, he was doing nothing extraordinary and still she clung to life. He couldn’t explain it.
My friend had a hunch. She knew her mother-in-law was worried about her daughter. She had just gone through a difficult divorce and was now coping with life as a single mother. There were financial worries as well as emotional ones and my friend sensed that her mother-in-law’s anxieties were perhaps deeper than she had expressed.
One evening, she decided to speak openly to her. She told her sister-in-law her intentions and with her blessings, she sat by her mother-in-law’s bed and told her to relax. This elderly woman was in a coma and completely unresponsive but my friend poured out her heart, promising that both she and her husband would be there for her daughter, that she had nothing to worry about – they would take care of her.
Shortly after, she left her bedside to go home – telling her husband and her sister-in-law that she would be back a few hours later.
She had not even reached the lobby of the hospital when she got a call from her husband asking her to come back. His mother had slipped away.
That was six months ago. Last night, another friend’s mother died, after a similar month-long vigil. She had suffered horrific burns in a freak accident and had been in enormous pain. She had begged her children to kill her, pleaded with them to let her die and the doctors assured them that it wouldn’t be long, that there was nothing they could do given the extent of her injuries.
And yet, she, too, did not die.
Two days ago my husband, remembering the story of my friend’s mother-in-law, took our friend aside and asked him if, perhaps, his mother was worried about something, if she had some secret anxiety, some hidden fear.
And though the two women could not have been more different (one highly educated, independent, wealthy; the other from a remote village in the Himalayas, poor, unable to make a decision on her own), it turned out their concerns were exactly the same: what happens to my child when I am gone?
Our friend’s mother was worrying about her youngest son: her favorite. And her least mature. Would her other sons do him out of his inheritance? Would he be able to make a living in their village, their ancestral home?
Once he understood the problem, our friend was able to address it. He assured his mother that her fears were groundless. He promised her that he and his elder brother would look after the younger one, that everything would be shared, that the family ties would not break with her passing.
Two hours later, she died.
Lesson One: If someone you love is dying but not letting go: help them. Ask them what they are worrying about. Reassure them that you will be there to help solve the problem. Don’t assume the problem is a medical one. Emotions are powerful forces that can change the course of an illness and stop a freight train in its tracks. People sometimes need to give themselves permission to pass away. Help them cross over.
Lesson Two: Deal with your own anxieties right now. Every day, starting this moment. Don’t carry them with you to your death bed. Speak your mind. Voice your fears. Share with your children, your spouse, your dear friends. We hold too much inside, assuming that no one will understand, fearing that there is no one who can help us through to the other side. It’s not true. We are all in this together and whether we live in a big city or a tiny village, we are, essentially, the same.
Reach out to the ones you love. Tell them what you need. Remind them what you can give. We are all here to learn how to die. Let’s help each other to do it.