The Way To Go: Reflections On A Good Death

My mother died about a month ago, just shy of her 88th birthday. Her death was caused by metastatic lung cancer (for those who reflexively ask the question – no, she was not a smoker).  Her death was not the result of  COVID-19 but the pandemic’s emotional and medical toll has helped me put her death in perspective. And if I am honest with myself, I am engaging in some very public grieving here. This if the only time I ever shed tears while writing this blog.

Although my family and I are deeply saddened by the loss of our mother, her death has helped me understand the terms under which I want to prepare for and face my own – hopefully distant – death. My mother had several wishes about her death, all of which she managed to fulfill. Most importantly, she wanted to die before her children died. She often said that you know you’ve lived too long if you have outlived your children. Second, she wanted to remain independent. Which she did, in her cherished Brooklyn apartment overlooking the salt marshes of the Marine Park Nature Preserve until the last 2-3 weeks of her life, doing her own cooking, cleaning, shopping, and socializing. Third, she remained cognitively intact; a few days before her admission to the hospital, she was working a NY Times crossword puzzle. Miraculously, the metastases that punctuated her brain did not seriously impair her stubbornly strong cognition. Fourth, she did not have a long disease course; it was only a few weeks from diagnosis to death. Despite the advanced stage of her cancer, her breathing and overall functioning had not recently been deteriorating any more than one might expect in an 87 year old. This bomb more or less dropped out of the blue. Finally, she faced death with a dignity and acceptance I hope I will be able to emulate one day. She thoughtfully weighed her treatment options and firmly but politely declined any interventions. When she went into hospice care, she told the social worker that she had come there to die as peacefully as possible.

From a practical standpoint, my mother was very frank and organized about anticipating her death. Her savings and possessions did not amount to much but years ago she made sure that all four of her children were aware that every important bit of paper was neatly labeled and filed in one place. She even prepared a list of wishes – her Casket List, if you will – for her funeral and burial, including her choice of funeral home, cemetery (with my father), Catholic church for her funeral mass, and list of songs to be played at the service. Let me pass along one bit of advice – do the same, and do it now during your in-place sheltering. One day your grieving family will love you even more deeply for having done this.

Fortunately, my mother’s death occurred barely a week before the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City. This allowed me to spend two weeks in Brooklyn with my mother, visiting her in the hospital and in hospice, holding hands and comforting one another, and I was able to return for her funeral. Two of my sisters were with her through the agonal breathing up to the moment of her death; my mother died surrounded by love. My heart goes out to anyone who has been robbed by this cursed pandemic of the ability to be together as a family in the face of death and dying.

I was grateful too that my parents, a pair of  life-long office clerks, somehow managed to raise a medically sophisticated family. Two of my sisters are physicians, which, along with my own experience in the oncology world, made it much easier for us to grasp the medical issues at hand and allowed us focus on our grief and support for one another. We didn’t have to worry about trying to comprehend arcane medical terms, weigh the ins and out of  complex treatment options, or worry if my mother was getting good medical care (at Brooklyn Methodist Hospital – NY Presbyterian, ironically the very hospital she was born in, she received superb and compassionate care from bed pan cleaners to nurses to medical specialists).

My mother’s journey to death even had a darkly humorous moment that happened while I was staying in her apartment. After undergoing a diagnostic lung biopsy, my mother experienced the not uncommon fentanyl side of effect of severe hallucinations. Early one morning, while I was still sitting around in my pajamas and sipping a cup of tea, the doorbell rang. I opened the door to find a pair of police officers and a pair of EMTs. Apparently my mother called 911 from her hospital bed, claiming that she had been tied up by a bunch of doctors who were forcing her to stay in a locked closet in her apartment. I was met with a skeptical stare from the police officers when I said “Oh don’t worry. My mother is on fentanyl and she is just hallucinating again.” At that point, I figured I had to let them in and have a look around just so they could be sure about things.

My other expression of public grieving took place during her funeral service when I delivered her eulogy. Like my mother, it was short, sweet, and to the point. I have reproduced it here and hope that I have adequately captured the essence of her life in a few words:

My mother is in Heaven right now. Surely someone with so much love in her heart and in her life is guaranteed admission, no questions asked. St. Peter had those gates opened and he was waiting for her with an eternal welcome.

I suspect that the afterlife has not changed my mother much. So, even though it’s only been a few days, by now I am pretty sure that she knows the life stories of most of the saints, has prepared several meals and desserts for the angels, and right about now she is sitting down with God, and, over a cup of tea, giving him her thoughts on how things should be run around here. And when she listens to the Mets’ games in Heaven on her transistor radio – surely an omnipotent God can arrange this for her – she might even ask God to give the Mets a bit of a divine helping hand every now and then. They could sure use it.

The love that earned my mother her heavenly reward is the same love that formed the emotional center of our family’s universe and held us together in the face of our many wanderings around the country and the world. That love though did not die with my mother. She taught my sisters and I life’s most important lesson – how to love. In that way, my mother lives on in the love that my sisters and I share for one another. And she lives on in the next generations as our children and grandchildren form new families and new, widening circles of love. One could ask for no greater gift.

Goodbye Mom. We love you.

20 Comments

Filed under Robert Resta

20 responses to “The Way To Go: Reflections On A Good Death

  1. June Peters

    Oh Bob, Your story fills me with love for you and your sisters and also vivid memories of sitting and sleeping with my mom in hospice during her final week of life a decade ago. How lucky your mom was to have you as her son. How lucky are we genetic counselors with our years of experience melding knowledge of how bodies, minds and spirits can cooperate to bring us to the essence of what’s truly important. You have hit the mark.
    Well done old friend, june

  2. Diane

    Thank you so much for sharing this lovely tribute. For those of us whose mothers have passed, it brings back a mix of difficult yet wonderful memories

  3. Kathryn Soitzer Kim

    Consider yourself hugged, Kathryn

  4. Deb Doyle

    I am sorry for your loss Bob but so appreciative of you sharing your mom’s story with us. Such cherished memories of a strong woman. Please be well!

  5. Kristin Frazer

    Thanks for sharing your mom with us and for sharing your grief. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m so glad you were able to be together as a family until the end. My heart breaks for the patients and families experiencing loss alone during this pandemic.

  6. Katie Stoll

    “The love that earned my mother her heavenly reward is the same love that formed the emotional center of our family’s universe …” This is so beautiful, Bob. I am so sorry for your loss. Sending you love.

  7. Ann Stembridge Kung

    Sorry Bob for your mother’s passing. Stay safe!

  8. Cindy Soliday

    Bob, Thank you for sharing this deeply personal and touching essay. I hope to face my aging parents’ death with the same grace and perspective.

  9. Jessica Zoladz

    Thank you so much for sharing your mother with us and your experience. My father died just under 6 months ago and I can relate so much to this.

  10. Andrea Ascencio

    Thank you for sharing. I lost my father several years ago, and I, too, find some comfort in writing and sharing. I also wrote and delivered his eulogy and found it very therapeutic. I hope sharing this has helped you, and my condolences go out to you and your family.

  11. Maureen Graham

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece in remembrance of her

  12. Beth Buehler

    This was a wonderful tribute to a mother well loved. I am sorry for your loss but reminded that we feel pain when we have experienced great love. She was a true and faithful servant who was called home.

  13. Cristina

    Rob, I always appreciate your insight and perspective. Thank you for allowing us in to this personal and beautiful experience of life. Much love to you and your family.

  14. Sarah Cox

    This was a lovely tribute to your Mom. Thanks you for sharing this very personal experience.

  15. Janice Berliner

    So sorry for your loss, Bob. Being able to share it and receive comfort can be so healing. Your tribute to her is just beautiful, and I’m sure helps you and your sisters to find some peace. Take good care of yourself.

  16. Wendy DINonno

    Bob- Thank you for so eloquently putting into words your very personal experience. I’m so sorry for the loss of your Mom. I also just lost my Mom 6 months ago to a much longer illness and you words bring me comfort. I hope that you and your sisters find peace and comfort in the memories of your Mom.

  17. Bob, this was a beautifully written tribute and I am so sorry for your loss, and so very glad that you were all able to be there to support each other. It sounds like heaven is enjoying her company.

  18. Charlene Schulz

    You make your mother proud, Bob!
    My heartfelt condolences, Char

  19. Lisa Amacker North

    So happy that your mom had lessons to teach all the way to the end. I too and managing my mom with dementia in hospice, but unable to visit except thru Zoom. We have planned her service, but I need to take the time right now to make my own plans.

  20. Nancy Zellers

    I just saw this DNA exchange Bob, and want to express my condolences to you on the loss of your Mom. Thank you for this most beautiful essay and tribute. It sounds like she was a wonderful person and I am so happy for her that she was able to spend all but the last few weeks of her life in her own home enjoying her life to the fullest. So sorry for your loss. Nancy Zellers

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