Column: A Loving Lesson from Mom

By The Rev. Shannon White

A few years ago, I wrote a book entitled The Invisible Conversations with Your Aging Parents. The book was borne out of having witnessed relationships between boomer children and their aging parents for over 31 years of ordained ministry. I wrote it to address the communication breakdowns which can be common in these relationships, especially at a time when connection is so important.

Like other clergy colleagues, I have had the privilege and honor of accompanying people on their journey toward and through the end of this life and then onto the next. To walk with people through some of the most tender times in their lives, is one of the incredible gifts of ministry. It is holy ground. I have witnessed as people have died peacefully, as well as those who have had more of a struggle facing death. Those who have seemed to have taken the peaceful route appear to have had some things in common: Clearing up any loose ends in one’s life including being clear about end-of-life care and medical decisions; completing “unfinished business” with loved ones; and accepting what is, as well as what is coming.

Maybe because we are so close to Easter/Passover/Ramadan, as well as to Mother’s Day, I can’t help think of my own mother’s recent and sudden death. Please excuse the indulgence, but her story is worth sharing.

My mother died unexpectedly on November 15, 2021 at the age of 84. Just two weeks before, she had been playing bridge and living on her own in her apartment in Florida.

She had dealt with some health issues, but nothing which my 3 sisters and I had worried would lead to her untimely death. In early November, however, she fell and broke her elbow and her collar bone. That then lead to a series of other events which prompted doctors to call all of us and her 2 granddaughters to Florida to say our final good-byes.

We were all in shock. When I received that call, I was packing to leave for a workshop in San Francisco the following day, but quickly scrambled to change flights. My daughter and I got on a plane that evening and were by her bedside by 1am the next morning.

Mom had decided to go on a ventilator so that she would survive until all of us could get there. She had developed a lung condition which required it. She was heavily sedated but could faintly shake her head yes and no.

Two of my other sisters and my niece arrived from Virginia a few hours later, joining us and our sister who lives in Florida. We were all there. No small miracle. You see, my older sister and her husband had been estranged from the family (by her choice) for the previous 3 ½ years. The rest of us had been devastated by her decision, especially since she was in a caregiving role with my mother. Even more devastated, had been my mother. She had always taken pride in her four girls, and, no doubt had spent many hours anguishing in prayer over the disconnection.

While we first gathered in the ICU waiting room, my older sister took this time to apologize and to say she wanted the estrangement to end. I burst out crying. We all shared hugs. It was a beginning. Mom’s wishes were being lived out as we gathered, even in her absence. It was a holy and healing time.
Over the next two days, we each had our loving moments with Mom around her bedside. We sang to her, told her how much we loved her and how grateful we had been for all that she had done for each of us. Although she was heavily sedated, we all took turns telling her what we needed to say. I whispered in her ear, “Mom, we’re back together. We’re all here and we’re talking.” Having spent some time in hospital rooms over the years, I assumed she could hear us on some level, and I was sure this news would be comforting to her. Each in her own way, we told her it was ok to let go, if she needed to.

Mom was still not done. Miraculously, a few hours later, the doctors gave us the news that she had stabilized, and they would wait a while to see what happened. That allowed the 4 sisters to begin to talk and sort out the pain of the last few years.

The next morning, my two younger sisters and niece were planning to leave to return to Virginia. We thought that she might have a long haul, but based on what we were hearing, she was going to live, albeit differently.

Then, we received more news. Mom had done so well, they decided to pull her off the vent. As a group, we had to decide what to do if she suddenly took a turn for the worse. We rallied together, talking together. And the doctors removed the tubes.

We went into her room and light was all around….my mother, now pulled off the sedation whispered over and over again to each of us: I love you, I love you, I love you. Then, she gave each of us a unique, loving message. I felt as though I was on holy ground—that space where the lines between the physical and spiritual worlds is blurred. Her love for us and her faith in God held her strong enough to communicate with us as she wished.

Shortly after my sisters and niece began their journey home, my older sister and I saw that mom was struggling. Her downturn, again, was sudden. Since she had already made her end of life wishes known to us, we made the decision to put her into hospice. Mom died the next day–surrounded by God’s love and light, and with all of us safely in our own homes.

During the writing of my book, and throughout the time since then, Mom and I discussed many of the topics about which I had written. In her last days, perhaps she was confirming the importance of having those conversations and cleaning up unfinished business between parent and adult child/children in order to bring lasting love and eternal peace for the entire family. Thank you, Mom.

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