Doing death when you’ve never done death

Trigger Warningthe following is a frank and descriptive story about death and active dying. If you are grieving someone or feeling a little raw, please reconsider reading it when you feel ready or have someone to lean on for support.

My mother fled Chile roughly 9 months after the 1973 military coup that brought Pinochet to power. After a couple of years’ stay in Argentina, Canada took both her and I (3 years old) in as refugees. Mami (as I always referred to her) was the political black sheep of the family who was forced to flee, while the rest of my family remained in Chile. Growing up distant from biological family, I seemed to have missed out on key societal rituals that many of my peers experienced growing up: I attended my very first funeral after attending my first wedding, well into my late 20s. I recall feeling incredibly out of place at my firsts in these rituals, scanning for the protocol or rule to be followed through ceremony. Living so far from blood relatives with whom one would normally share these moments left me clueless to any social protocol or formality. My mother, to boot, a loud and proud queer communist feminist, also, by choice, didn’t ascribe to many of these traditions and rituals.mother

Fast-forward many years later: Mami was diagnosed with cancer around the same time my first daughter was born. A cancer journey can have so many twists and turns, near misses, wins, falls, but eventually, when it lasts just long enough, you almost feel as if death will never come. In this regard, though we had been staring death in the face the moment of Mami’s Stage 4 cancer diagnosis, I was left feeling not prepared enough. How could I possibly conceptualize never seeing Mami again?

My mother was incredibly strong and even in her last month of life could lift more than I ever could. She took 7 days to pass… I waffle between saying die and pass, because truth be told, sometimes to use the word dying just hurts too much. The fifth day of her last sleep fell on the May long weekend of 2011. My mother, always thoughtful, never wanting to inconvenience (even in her dying) chose a practical date where we could all gather as a family with little disruption. My closest friend, whom I’ve known since grade school, was living across Canada at the time. I called to let her know the news and she asked me if I wanted her there. Just as I was ready to say ‘no, it’s ok,’ I paused. ‘Yes, I would really love it if you came.’ Meanwhile, I packed up the children and my husband and I went to my mother’s home to keep vigil until she passed.

The last conversation I recall having with Mami was while she was actively hallucinating due to symptoms of her cancer. I was called to her home because she was convinced that I was still a baby and that she had lost me. She was looking for me. The plan was that I would see her, she would understand her place in time and space, and would settle. Instead, as I knelt before her, trying to reassure her, she simply stared at me saying “I know you’re here and I wish I could believe you.” I had no idea it would be the last (semi-lucid) conversation I would have with her. I regressed and as she asked me to take her to a hospital, I broke down. I was a child. I told her I could not, would not, take her to hospital – because she was safe here at home, but mostly, because I could not let her go. Soon after, she was under palliative sedation.

StrengthThose handful of days were spent simply being together as family; taking turns sitting with mom; moistening her lips and making sure she was as comfortable as possible. The night she passed, we were all sitting in her bedroom, sharing memories, hearing her breathing change. Someone suggested maybe I shouldn’t stay in the room; that it may be too much to bear. I only recall feeling angry at the suggestion, knowing wild horses could not keep me away from her. Mami inevitably took her last breath, and the marathon ended abruptly. The palliative nurse made a motion that she would take care of things from here… it was odd. I just remember sort of scrambling trying to understand a protocol or social dance I had never been taught, much like my first wedding, much like my first funeral. All that came to mind is recalling how many cultures ritually wash their dead – and I knew that this is what I would do. She was still warm as I washed her. She still felt alive to me. With some support and encouragement from a close Chilean friend of hers, I plucked courage. It wasn’t courage to touch Mami’s body, but rather rested on courage that I could trust my instinct and navigate this experience how I saw fit. We put a cloth down beneath her as she lay in bed. We had a bowl, with warm water and cloth. Her friend was so generous with the water that I stopped worrying about wetting the mattress and was able to simply focus on tending to Mami’s body.

What should she wear on this last leg of her journey? It felt even more odd given that she had chosen cremation. I decided on her fanciest pyjamas. We were assured there was no rush to call the funeral home. That we could simply digest the moment for now – so we did. I recall napping with mom. We took family pictures around her bed. Finally, understanding that there would eventually be an end to the end, we called the funeral home. In my mind, the last image of that day was carrying my toddler on my hip while watching the hearse pull out of the driveway.

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I often reflect on this day, trying to understand the very odd and quirky dance that my family participated in. I’m touched and proud of my family for simply letting everyone be – allowing us to do death our way. Though what I’m most grateful for is that I had an opportunity to perform my ritual sans script – allowing myself to be with Mami, my way, for the last time. I miss her to this day and wish you would have had the chance to know her.