Death and Dying – Lessons I Learned From My Mother

Originally Posted on February 16, 2012 over at Shape Shift Strategies Inc.

Never having been present at a death before, I didn’t know what to expect; and, it wasn’t what I expected.  My brother, father and I held vigil, practically holding our collective breath, as my mother, Mary Patricia Ann Ritcey Jourdain, drew her last, peaceful breaths on Wednesday, February 8, 2012, falling quiet at 12:30 pm.

Then there was silence.  Her silence.  No more rattling breaths drawn with some effort through her lungs into her ravaged body; ravaged from dementia for many years and the refusal to eat for many months.

Our silence.  In reverence for my mother, her journey and the honour of witnessing the final stages of her transition from physical form into spirit.  I already believed much of her consciousness was active in the subtle realms even as her physical presence diminished.  With her last breaths I imagined her spirit gently tugging until the last wisps of it were finally released into a delightful little dance of joy and freedom.

My mother with the beauty of youth.

My mother with the beauty of youth.

My mother’s journey with dementia was a long one.  My journey through hers was an inspired one.  Her greatest teachings for me may have been in these last few years when she could no longer string coherent sentences together, during the contrast of those times when she seemed to have no awareness of my presence to when I knew she was aware I was there.

I had one of those moments of her awareness the night before she died.  We had moved her to a special room where I could stay with her overnight.  One of her medication times was missed.  I was aware of that but she didn’t seem to be in distress. So, I sat on the arm of the couch, eye level with my mom.  I looked into her blue eyes and she held my gaze.

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Me and my mom just after she went into long term care. We posted all kinds of family pictures on the wall behind her in hopes of, I’m not sure what.

When I say she held my gaze, I really mean she held my gaze.  She was just as present as I was.  In fact, I was mesmerized.  I couldn’t take my gaze away.

So, I talked to her.  I told her about some things in my life.  I told her how beautiful she is – not was, is.  I told her how gifted she is and how loved.  I thanked her for being in my life, for being my mom.  Mostly, I held her gaze with love.  Until she began to exhibit signs of distress and I went for the nurse.  And then she was gone again until the moment of her final breath.

Four of us still in the room but now the shape of our lives fundamentally shifted.  As long as we stayed sitting in the room, it was like she was still there in her emaciated form.  But, of course, now she was free of form.  Eventually we had to move and leave her next steps in the capable hands of the Harbourview Haven staff who would transfer her into the equally capable hands of the Dana L. Sweeny Funeral Home.

The staff at Harbourview Haven taught me about human dignity and respect through how they related to my mother.  Even up to the last moment, they treated my mother as if she was fully present and aware.  They called her by her name.  In the middle of the night they would come into our room.  “Mary,” they’d say, “We’re going to turn you over now.”  “Mary, we are going to give you your meds now.  It might sting a little.”

On the morning of her death, a care worker came in to wash her face and freshen her up, providing a depth of love and care, dignity and respect to a woman in her last moments on this physical plane.  I can’t say enough for Harbourview Haven and the care they provided, not just in those last few hours but in the three years and eight months (plus a few days) that my mother lived there.  And not just care for her.  Care for my dad too.  For our family.  They understand about death and dying.  That it is a process and a transition.

My nine year old (at the time) understands about death and dying.  Enough to ask to visit his grandmother with me when I told him I was going to see her.  He hadn’t been there much lately.  I told him what his grandmother looked like and how she was.  He still wanted to come, even when the call came to say it might be her last day.  And his older brother and his girlfriend came too.  We all sat vigil the day before she died, for hours.  Watching my mother with sidelong looks every time her breathing stopped – for the eternity that shows up in a moment.

I am now aware that dying and death requires the same kind of loving care and attention as birth does.  It is birth.  Birth back to spirit.

When my older boys were young children their grandfather on their father’s side died. Their dad and I had already separated.  They went to the funeral and afterwards I asked them how it was.  We began to talk about death.  They said to me, “We think it’s kind of like this.  You know when you go to sleep and dream and when you are in the middle of a dream it seems real?  But then you wake up and you know it was just a dream.  We think life is like that.  It’s really just a dream but it seems real.  Then you die, but really it’s like waking up and realizing it was just a dream.”  Such wisdom out of the mouths of babes.  Closer to source.

I wonder how my mother might be reflecting on the 79 year dream that was her life as Mary Patricia Ann Ritcey Jourdain this time around?

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Intuitive Knowings

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A pathway in Gold Lake Colorado

In 2009, I found myself standing on the side of a mountain at Gold Lake Colorado, drawn inexplicably to this place as if by a magnet. I was there to meet myself. And, I was there to meet the ancestors. Ancestors I had an inkling of but did not yet know intimately. I was there to walk on a land that resonated with every single footstep I took, taking me back to a vision in a drumming circle nine years beforehand. A vision where I “flew” over a land on the back of a lion, arriving at a huge bonfire, to join the ancestors who were dancing, chanting and singing around the fire in wild celebration, permeating joy through every cell of my being.

Kathy Sacred Tattoo DesignNine years later, walking the pathways of Gold Lake, the lion reappears instantly and every footstep reverberates in the beat of the drum only I can hear, growing louder in my soul with each passing day, on a land I had seen in a vision that I did not know existed until I was there.

I was called there through an invitation to an Art of Hosting training, hosted by good friends. I had no role and no need to be a participant in a training having become a skilled practitioner in my own right. And yet, time after time, I could not resist opening that invitation and staring at it longingly. The appeal made no logical sense. Eventually I understood I just needed to go. In making the commitment, one of my friends on the hosting team invited me to stay longer to do a vision quest on the land with her. That was how I ended up on the side of the mountain, in time out of time, visiting with ancestors and other guides not visible to physical sight, being told how much love I am capable of, embracing parts of me I did not know – the stranger in me – with the journey to openheartedness becoming more apparent, conscious and intentional.

This is a dramatic story and example of intuitive knowing. More of that story is shared in Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Openheartedness. Not every intuitive knowing is so dramatic. They happen in everyday occurrences and in subtle ways. Recently my twelve year old son and I were crossing the street on a cross walk at an intersection. A vehicle pulled up on the inside lane to make a right hand turn on a red light just as we were reaching the vehicle. I had my hand out to hold back my son even before the car started moving. Involuntarily, I said, “Whoa.” The driver’s window was open, the driver was startled to see us there. But I knew, I sensed, this driver was going to make the turn without seeing us.

How many times are you driving in traffic that you can sense the intention of a driver near you – that they want to change lanes or make a turn, even before they indicate their intention, if they do so? Or you need to pay a bill, have forgotten the due date and just before or on the due date, it is so on your mind you know you have to check? Or, if you didn’t, later you wish you had?

How about when you sense what is going on with someone even if you haven’t been in touch with them in awhile? Those times when you just know you need to pick up the phone, reach out in an email or go visit? Or maybe you have received messages from a loved one who has passed on? Some people know this with certainty and others hold it with caution, as if afraid to hope it could be true.

We have been trained out of trusting our intuitive knowing in favour of rational, logical ways of knowing. Yet when we open ourselves to what we intuitively know, we also open ourselves up to a more expansive experience and tap into the subtle realms – to see what cannot be seen with physical sight, to feel the energies all around us, to converse with beings and entities that are readily available, wanting to support us but limited in the ways they can do so when we do not see them or acknowledge their existence.

This is not something that is restricted to special, gifted people, which was a belief I carried for a very long time. This is a part of the natural continuum of life that is available to each and every one of us. We need to stop questioning ourselves, allow ourselves to believe what we experience is also real, suspend logic and judgment, bring curiosity and compassion and be in co-discovery with others willing to be in the exploration because it amplifies the experience and gives us someone else who can “verify” our own experience.

Trusting your intuitive knowing offers beautiful expansiveness and access to far greater wisdom and knowledge than is available simply in the physical realm.