This is an extract from Sue Pieters-Hawke’s private reflections about the death of her mother and former first lady, Hazel Hawke, in 2013.
I had tried to imagine how I might feel when mum died but never really could. This was partly because I had not been present at any other death and partly because mum was such a profound and fundamental presence in my life. I knew I would feel loss in some way, but not how it would actually be. In some ways, the whole experience really was “unimaginable”.
Mum had lived in a care home for a few years. But she’d just had a couple of mini-strokes, was now bed-bound, and it seemed death was coming. And so we gathered. After about 10 days, she died in her bedroom of several years, and the palliative skills and approach of the staff and consultants in the care home made a massive, positive difference.
It meant my kids and I, and other family, could be with her the whole time. We could nap on the couch or stay overnight. We could help with her palliative care, and create an atmosphere with meaning to us and to mum: music, flowers, family, food, images, soft light.
We played a lot of music she loved — Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, hymns. We played board games and drank lots of cups of tea. We talked. There were lots of comfy silences as well. Each night we had a takeaway meal together with a bottle of wine before some of us dispersed home to sleep a bit, and come back the next day.
I got to witness how death can be such hard work. It takes days for a body to slowly close down; function declines, breathing becomes more laboured. It was hard to be with in a way, but I felt prepared to a degree. For a day or two, we knew it could be “any time now”. We felt pretty sure, on the last day, that this would be when it happened. As a dear Buddhist friend of mine had said: “In a way, dying is simple – you breathe in, you breathe out, and then you don’t breathe in again. That’s it! You have died.”