For those of you who follow along, my mom passed away almost six months ago. It still feels like yesterday, but we are finding our new normal. I still have moments where grief overwhelms me as does my little guy. But those moments are fewer and further between. We are having happy moments again as well, so I know we are on the mend.
This will be my last post about death because frankly, that is just not the focus on my blog. But from a caretaker’s perspective, there are things that I experienced that may help some of you out there who are going through what I went through. I hope that by sharing them, I can help in some way.
There are things that people never tell you about death and dying. Things that can be impossible to remember to include in any advice given simply because each death is so unique. As unique as the person going through the dying process. But some things every caretaker should know when death comes knocking. These things may never happen in your situation, but I think it’s important to know that they CAN happen so you are better prepared. I was completely unprepared and it made the entire experience extremely traumatic for both my mother and I.
THINGS THEY DON’T TELL YOU
- The person dying can go into rigor mortis BEFORE they die. Maybe it’s called something different when they are still living, but they can become very stiff and cold.
- The person dying can start to decay BEFORE they die. The smell is unmistakeable and overpowering. It started in my mom 3 or 4 days before she actually died.
- The person may feel like they have a fever in one area, while feeling bone-cold in another area. Such as an arm feeling burning hot, while the other is ice cold. This is a normal process, just as is the possibility of the body moving after death.
- You can’t wash out the smell of death from bedding and such, no matter how much you put something through the laundry. If there is something you wish to save that has that decay smell in it, the only way to get rid of the smell is to air it out in fresh air for several weeks, and then wash. I had to air a blanket out for several months before it could be washed and reused.
- When hospice takes over, be sure you are ready for it. While I have no desire to speak badly of the good work they do, it really was as if a legion of death angels had descended upon my home. It can be quite shocking to go from regular medical care into hospice. They are truly there to help the person die, and that is their entire focus. There is no more option for prolonging life, or doing things that may extend a persons life. So prepare yourself for that mentally. Neither my mother or myself were ready for that shift in focus. It was the shock of a lifetime.
- The person dying can have a last “energy burst” before dying. This, as I found out, is very common. I thought my mom was coming back to me. She tried to communicate and was even able to tell use that her foot was pressing up against something uncomfortable. But then she slipped back into her coma. It was heart breaking.
- Dying is a very intense process that many people can’t handle. Those that are there for you with the best of intentions can sometimes give under the stress and pressure of trying to support you through a very difficult time. Forgive them. Dying has a different affect on everyone.
- Everyone has an opinion. People who tell you when you should stop grieving have never gone through the process. It feels all consuming and can last for months and even years in some cases. Get help if you need it, but never let somebody tell you when your own grieving process should start or end.
- Kids handle grief so much differently than adults. I think it just takes much longer for them to process what has happened. My son cried at the funeral, and then seemed to recover almost overnight, only to break down again months later like it just happened the day before. If a child is involved, let them grieve WHENEVER they need to. Even years later. Just hold them and be there for them and let them know it’s okay to feel what they are feeling.
- People are weird about death. Period. There are people who you thought would be there for you, who will disappear. And there are people you never would have expected who will show up and support you through the entire process. Don’t get wrapped up in who is there, just accept help whenever it comes and from whoever it comes from.
- Don’t feel guilty for things you didn’t do. Death is such an overwhelming process for everyone involved, that you can’t get wrapped up in those little things you didn’t do, or you will never get over it. You have to be as forgiving of yourself as you might have to be of other people. After my mom died, I kept going over and over in my mind what I could have done differently. Moments where I hesitated because I didn’t know what the right thing to do was. Little moments that most likely wouldn’t have changed a thing, but were huge in my mind because I thought they might have made a difference for her. This has been the hardest thing for me to get past. But you absolutely have to forgive yourself and know that you did the best you could do in the given situation. And at the end of the day, you were there, which is more than many people have when they die. So don’t beat yourself up. Forgive yourself and move on.
- Know that a dying person changes, and not just physically (although that becomes really pronounced at the very end). Once the process truly begins, it fundamentally changes that person. This can mean different things for different people, but ultimately, how can it not change them? For me and my mom, it was a shocking change of roles. She, in essence, became my child. No longer could I go to her for motherly advice because she no longer had it to give. My upsets were her upsets. My problems were overwhelming to her and made it more difficult for her to accept that she was passing. So just know that once a person begins the process (which we may not always see in the moment) it really does become all about them. They do become very child-like in that way.
So there you have it. The 12 things I wish I’d known when helping my mom through the dying process. I hope this wasn’t too depressing. But if it helps somebody get through what I’ve been through, then I’m happy to have shared.