The Final Accompaniment: Learning to Support a Loved One Through the End of their Earthly Life

It is 6am on another sunny August morning in northern California (USA). I am standing beside my mother looking out through the kitchen window at a hummingbird feeding on the sun-warmed nectar in the throats of the crimson trumpet-shaped hibiscus blossoms on the bush outside. Mom has always loved hummingbirds. Perhaps it is the miracle of these tiny, brightly coloured and graceful beings, who, despite having a heart the size of a fingernail, can fly hundreds of kilometres without pausing to rest that mesmerizes her. Hummingbirds can feed on more than a thousand flowers in a single day. Perhaps because of the intensity with which they live, hummingbirds’ lives are incredibly brief. Like the hummingbird, my mother has always given everything of herself that she could possibly give to life. She has always been strong and resilient. She is a rock for my entire family. However in this delicate moment of reflection, my giant-hearted mother is dying. Unbeknownst to us, in this moment, she has less than a month to live, and so much more that she wants to do in this world that it breaks my heart.

The Baha’i Writings speak a lot about accompaniment. In its 2010 Ridvan Message, the Universal House of Justice said that we need to stand shoulder to shoulder with each other, supporting each other through our struggles and partaking in each other’s joys.1 We dedicate a great deal of energy learning how to accompany each other during our earthly lives. But as my mother approached the day when her soul would end its association with her physical body, I realized that I knew very little about how to best accompany her as she moved towards the end of her life. 

A yoga teacher once told me that the attention with which we end each chapter of our lives is important because how we go about ending the current chapter is simultaneously setting the tone for the new chapter that is just getting started. When a person is dying it is hard to let go of our personal feelings long enough to figure out what our loved one wants and needs. And yet learning to listen and prioritizing their process over our own grief is an essential part of walking beside someone who is dying. Not to say that there shouldn’t be space for our grief. Sharing our feelings often gives them permission to share theirs too. But there will be plenty of time to express our grief once they have moved on to the next phase of their journey.

There were many lessons I learned during the last few weeks of my mother’s life. Each of us lives through the death of a loved one in our own way and according to our own culture. However there do seem to be certain universal experiences shared by those accompanying someone nearing the end of their life. Below are some nuggets of wisdom that I took away from my own experience. I share them here in the hope that they might prove helpful to others accompanying their loved ones through their end of life journey.

  • Give your loved one space. People told me that I should be talking to my mother and trying to help her process everything. There were moments when this felt appropriate, for sure. But as she got closer to passing she needed more and more rest, and she appeared to be having lots of important conversations with people who I could not see. I could tell these interactions were essential to her internal processing and letting go. I couldn’t always understand her process, but I tried to honour it by giving her the privacy and space she needed.
  • It is their life, and their death. Try not to impose your ideas of what it should look like or how friends or medical professionals tell you it should go. My mother wanted to die at home, and I had hoped for this too. But the last week of her life the pain became unbearable. The hospice team, who were a wonderful support overall, kept trying to convince me to keep her at home to die. But my mom was clear–she wanted to go into the hospital where she hoped they could better manage her pain, and she wanted to die there. So I advocated for this, and anything else she wanted.
  • Ask your loved one if they want visitors, how many, and be ready to ask the visitors to leave when it is clear that your loved one needs rest. I was not the only one whose life was being affected by mom’s passing. Others needed to say goodbye to her, and mom needed to say goodbye to them too. But she made it clear that she did not want anyone to stay for long, because the visits, important as they were, exhausted her. I had to establish boundaries even with those that loved my mother, and to ask them to leave when she needed rest, because she did not feel comfortable doing this. It wasn’t easy, but I reminded myself that this was about mom, not about the comfort or discomfort of friends or family.
  • Don’t take anything personally. During my mother’s final weeks she sometimes wanted me nearby and at other times she couldn’t bear to be touched. Sometimes she was loving, and others she was snappy and irritated. Riding the waves of her changing moods and physical sensations was challenging, but this was part of the process. I learned to be patient, give her space when she didn’t want me around, and do something kind for myself during these times so that I would be able to continue caring for her when she needed my support.
  • Remember that your loved one’s body is the temple for their soul. Treat it with dignity and respect. In the last few weeks of my mother’s life I helped her bathe and dress, and massaged her swollen feet. Personal cleanliness and privacy were important to her. Even when she was no longer aware how she looked, I drew a curtain around her when she changed in the hospital, and I washed her face and applied lotion and lip gloss every day. She loved her lip gloss. Even after she stopped speaking, I could tell that the sensation of having me apply moisture to her dry lips brought her immense pleasure in her final days. When a person is in terrible discomfort, even the smallest gestures can bring them comfort and relief.
  • Honour your loved one’s burial requests. My mother wanted to be buried according to Baha’i law. Baha’is wash the body of the deceased with rose water and then wrap it in white cotton or silk. It would perhaps have been easier to ask someone else to perform this task. But washing her with rosewater myself gave me the opportunity to thank her hardworking body for bringing me into this world, caring for my entire family, and serving her community with such energy and commitment. It was an honour to wash her, wrap her in the soft cream silk that she had purchased herself in the Mediterranean when I was a child, and place her into her wooden casket. She looked regal cocooned within those soft swaths of silk. Looking back, it is a task that I am grateful I did not shy away from.
  • Create a celebration of the life of your loved one that honours the spirit with which they lived their life. I had a graveside funeral in the morning sunshine, because my mother loved light and nature. She was all about community, so I made sure that her friends and family were all invited. I knew she wouldn’t have wanted people to be sad, so I asked everyone to wear bright colours instead of black. I chose readings and songs that were uplifting and joyful because I wanted people to leave feeling the way my mother had made them feel when she was alive.
  • Continue to pray for the progress of their soul after their passing. This one is especially important. Their journey continues, and they need our continued prayers just as much as we need to maintain our connection with them.

These are a few of the many insights that accompanying my mother through the end of her earthly life, and the beginning of her soul’s journey into the next realm, brought me. There are many possible ways of accompanying our loved ones, and there truly is no right or wrong way of doing it. The most important thing is to remember that this is their death. Listen to how they want to do it, and follow their lead, patiently, lovingly and with as much compassion as you can—both for them and for yourself as the caregiver.


 

  1. The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan message 2010, paragraph 5 []

About the Author

Ariana Salvo was born in the United States, and spent sixteen years of her childhood on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. She moved to Prince Edward Island to do her master’s degree in Island Studies, fell in love with the tightly knit community, and has never left. When not writing, she can be found exploring art at galleries around the world, flower farming, traveling to remote islands, hiking and taking photos of the wild natural landscapes of Canada’s eastern shore, teaching English to international students and reading historical fiction with a good cup of tea.

Discussion 21 Comments

  1. Dear Ariana,
    Thank you for this very beautiful and insightful message on how to accompany our loved ones to their final threshold.
    I have been touched by your other Baha’i Blog postings, and pray that you will continue to share your experiences, thoughts and perceptions in many ways.
    With love,
    Meredith

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this piece Meredith. I am so happy to hear that it resonated/was useful for you, and that other pieces I have written have been too. Writing becomes interesting to me when it generates dialogue and a deepening of conversation and reflection, and builds new connections, so receiving feedback is how I know my writing is of service to others.

    2. Dear Ariana, Thank you so much for sharing your loving thoughts and suggestions at the passing of your dear sweet Mom, Anita. You had a very special relationship with your Mom and your concern for her last days on this earth are full of caring. It is beautiful, so thoughtful and clear, and can be a guide for others. Thank you ❤️ Gilberta

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I find very useful and beautiful the way you describe the wash and preparation of the body as in my society every thing is prepared for the family in the hospital and very few think about how important it can be this last connection with your loved one.

    1. What a beautiful piece about the final days of your mom’s life. You were a loving caregiver and daughter. Your story is powerful and insightful.

      1. Thank you for reading Susan. So happy to hear that you found this piece insightful, seeing as you know so much about caregiving yourself.

    2. So happy to hear that you found this piece useful, Mayte. And yes — that was a very important part of the journey for me. I am so grateful that my mother insisted that she and I prepare my father’s body in this same way together. Doing so prepared me to do this for my mother also — and I am not sure I would have been able to do so had she not shown me how. She was incredibly wise in this.

  3. Thanks for your wonderful article and my sincere condolences on the passing of your dear mother. I find your sharing also relevant for people with elderly parents. It is often a challenge to find the balance between being there for them physically and when to leave them to themselves and let them decide their own actions. I come from a culture where children are expected to be physically present with their parents at all times and especially when they get older. Suddenly the community becomes an expert on how my parents should live and how the children should care for them or what kind of treatment they need for their medical conditions etc.. So it is also important for the community and society to respect the way a family decides to accompany each other and not to interfere or to judge their decisions. I also see the value of being patient which can be very challenging and I am sure your mother appreciated every thing that you did for her while she was still on this earthly plane. May her soul soar in the Abha Kingdom.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your reflections on this subject! I truly appreciate reading your thoughts. And yes– I think one of the lessons for the caregiver is to learn (very quickly) how to set firm boundaries on what is and what is not acceptable in terms of outside input on ones family’s process and how the family chooses to do things. It is a learning for everyone–patient, caregiver and the rest of the community. And yes — learning how to be present for an ailing family member so that they feel loved and supported but still feel like they have free will and like their individual life and choices and process are being respected is also a very humbling process. There were many times when I gave mom too much space and had to adjust. Or too little space, and had to step back and let her do her thing and respect how she wanted to do things even if it wasn’t how I would have chosen to handle things. A humble posture of learning and a lot of self compassion seems to be the only way to get through the process with grace.

  4. Yes, it’s true… I’m also the one who took care of my grandfather & grandmother when they are sick until they die….

    1. Bless you for your tender care for both of your grandparents Su San. It is an honour and a gift — for you and them. But it can also be very overwhelming both physically and emotionally. I am sure that they both are so appreciative that you accompanied them in this way, and that having done so deepened your spiritual relationship with their souls as they continue on their journeys.

  5. Dear Ariana, I thank you from all my heart for this testimony of love and all the precious advice.

    Roxana (from France)

    1. Thank you for reading Roxana. I am so happy to know that this piece was helpful to you on your journey with family and loved ones!

  6. A beautiful telling of the journey of accompaniment between your mother and you. I love how respectful you were to her needs as well as yours. I learn so much from you.

    Thanks
    Ahava

    1. Thanks so much for reading love! And ditto. I learn from you…you learn from me. Ever so grateful to have you accompanying me on this journey, and the support you provided me as a caregiver and immediately after mom passed was invaluable to me. Having you step up and be there for me when I felt so alone is something I will never forget. xox

  7. Thank you for sharing. I appreciate this post so much, and will save it to revist in the months and years to come. Grateful to be connected Ariana.

  8. Dear Ariana, it is all so true what you describe. I totally recognize it. I myself work in the last phase of people’s lives. I get to do that in their own home. This can be with children or with young people, or with the elderly. And it really doesn’t matter what age someone is, because the process is the same. Everything you describe above applies to everyone. I am so full of joy how you have described this. You encourage me to keep going in this beautiful way. Thank you so much.

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