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