My 91 year-old mother died this month in an assisted living/memory care facility in Maine. I wasn’t allowed to be with her.
As a resident of NYC for the past year, I would have had to quarantine for two weeks making a visit impossible, and I didn’t want to jeopardize the other residents and the staff who so lovingly cared for her and, remarkably, managed to keep her home Covid free.
Since she had been ill for the past ten years with a couple of close calls, my family had hoped she would make it a few more months when restrictions would be lifted, but the cold winter and dark days provided the perfect atmosphere for death to court and finally win her. As the saying goes, Death waits for no man—and if he does, he doesn’t wait for very long.
Like many families who have lost someone this year, my grief and guilt was compounded by the pandemic visitor restrictions which kept me from comforting her and holding her hand. It was especially difficult because I knew my mother, who at the tender age of three, was sent to boarding school. I could never imagine the feelings of abandonment and trauma she must have suffered, and in the last few years of her life, having slipped in and out of the fog of dementia, often came to believe she was back at school and repeatedly asked when her parents were coming to pick her up. In the past, leaving her after such a visit was agonizing. She’d walk me to the door holding my hand, and as we kissed and said goodbye, I promised to come back soon. As the door slowly closed, the lingering image of her child-like face and wide, beseeching eyes haunted me.
I couldn’t help but wonder if my not being at her deathbed caused her to suffer. Had she been waiting for me?
To come to grips with these feelings and memories at the news of her death, I tried to recall stories I’d read and second hand accounts I’d heard of the dying who saw beautiful lights or reached out and called to mothers, fathers, and children. My hope was that death was a redemptive, loving reunion with departed family who helped us cross over. Oddly enough, three days later, I was forwarded an article about this very thing that had originally posted online on the exact day that my mother died.
Trained as a medical doctor and scientist to defy death and save lives, Christopher Kerr, early in his career began paying attention and listening to his dying patients who often described having dreams and visions of deceased relatives who came to visit them.
Kerr eventually became a hospice doctor, and over the course of ten years, he and his research team recorded the testimonies of 1,400 dying patients and families. His findings revealed that over 80 % of his patients, regardless of age, and from all walks of life had dreams and visitations from loved ones. These end-of-life experiences increased in frequency as they got closer to death and were overwhelmingly positive and a source of comfort. Many reported difficult relationships forgiven, and old wounds healed.
In one instance, Mary, in the presence of her four children, cradled her arms and began rocking a baby and calling out Danny. It wasn’t until the next day that they discovered from Mary’s visiting sister that her first child had been born stillborn.
In a Tedx Talk Kerr gave, Jeannie, another patient described seeing people walking very slowly by her her bed. On right side they were people she didn’t know but were friendly and touched her gently on the hand or arm in comfort. On the left side, their faces vivid, were her mother, father, uncle and other deceased relatives who did the same thing. Kerr also reported that many children were visited by former pets.
In conversations with my own family, I discovered my mother’s brother, who passed away two months earlier, had talked to his son about seeing a little boy who wanted my uncle to follow him. A grandson had died many years ago of SIDS.
My family was fortunate that two of our six siblings were able to be with my mother in the end, although they had to visit separately. The day before she died, one sister described how my mother, who was no longer able to feed herself or communicate verbally, suddenly moved her line of vision to a corner of the room, and with a look of peace, slowly raised her arms like a child wanting to be picked up. Slowly she lowered them and then looked from the corner of the room to the side of her bed, and again, with only one arm this time, gracefully like a ballerina, raised and lowered her arm.
On the morning she died, my other sister had a similar experience. Gently holding her hand, my mother opened her eyes, raised that arm, and expired.
I’ve always wanted to believe that we don’t die alone but are met with loving beings who help us make the transition. Dr. Kerr’s work helped confirm this.
The death of my mother has been painful, especially not gathering with family and friends for closure that a wake or funeral would bring. But what has been a great source of solace was knowing that, at the end, my mother was lovingly welcomed into the arms of her deceased family and finally taken home.