Facing our own mortality is an undeniable challenge in life. When we are confronted with an unexpected diagnosis that threatens to shorten our journey, we often turn to medical professionals for answers. In our society, deeply rooted in the fear of death, the initial response is often, "What can be done to overcome this?"
Back when I was a high school senior, my mother received a life-altering diagnosis of lung cancer at the age of 48. It was a profound shock to us all, given that my mother had never been a smoker. In an effort to shield her from unnecessary anguish and pain, my father made a heartfelt decision: the words "cancer" and "dying" were never to be uttered in her presence. My mother played along with this unspoken agreement.
With the best intentions, we were never given an opportunity to openly discuss the possibility of her passing, to share our fears, or even to shed tears together. It was a silence that would later haunt us.
My mother's last visit to the oncologist resulted in a clean bill of health. Filled with excitement, she couldn't wait to come home and share the good news with us. Tragically, just moments after leaving the doctor's office and riding down the elevator, she suffered a pulmonary embolism. She passed away that night.
The agony and anguish we experienced during her cobalt treatments were only rivaled by the profound sense of isolation and the inability to say our goodbyes.
I'll never forget that day when I visited her in the ICU. She was awake and alert, her presence a glimmer of hope. It was Christmastime, and she had come to pick me up from nursing school. Our last conversation was about the list of gifts she needed to buy for my siblings. Little did I know it would be the final time I saw her alive.
My mother's passing left me with a profound realization: the importance of embracing life without fearing death. I have always been candid about discussing death, dying, and end-of-life issues.
In a society where death often instills fear, there exists a fine line between acknowledging the inevitable and surrendering to it. Many resist surrender, and this resistance may be rooted in their desire to keep living rather than a fear of death itself.
My mother's death taught me the significance of open conversations about end-of-life matters, especially as the end draws near. The discomfort that arises when discussing these topics is common, but I have learned from my 50 years in nursing that those who take the time to speak openly about their feelings, to say their goodbyes, and to share their thoughts and wishes ultimately ease the burden on their surviving loved ones. These conversations lead to fewer unresolved feelings of guilt and often result in longer periods of healthy grieving. Even today, some 50 years later, I carry the feeling that I let my mom down, but I also carry the invaluable lessons she left me with.
Watch the PBS special- Being Mortal
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