real life

'The one thing I learned about preparing for a mother's death after I lost my own.'

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.”

In the last days and hours, mum’s breathing set the rhythm of our being. We were all “listening”, intently or in the background, to her. Any pause that happened (increasingly towards end), you momentarily held your own, wondering – “is this it”? I became aware of all our breathing, our connection through it to each other and to being alive — the strength and wonder and fragility of it all. I saw that we are wired for life, and do not surrender it easily. My son, who appeared immersed on the sofa bed in his laptop, and not so involved in conversations, looked quickly across to mum whenever her breathing faltered.

When she finally breathed her last, we folded in over her and each other. I found myself sobbing – “she’s free, she’s finally free”. One of my kids hit the button on Amazing Grace, and as it swelled, I swear I felt her leave. Viscerally, she soared free of her body, and up, and away. I can’t explain this, but it was an utterly joyous moment, and comforts me still.

One thing I learned from this experience is that it really helps to familiarise ourselves with death. That — and living well — is the best preparation there is. And attend to “unfinished business” if you can.

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Hazel Hawke. (Image: Supplied.)

I had received many Buddhist teachings on the subject of death, and had spent time talking to friends who work with dying people. I had also asked some nursing friends, who are passionate and skilled about helping people with dementia die well, for specific guidance. All this helped enormously. Familiarising myself lessened the shock, softened the grief, and helped me "be there".

I think it also helped that we had time with mum in those last days, talking to her, and each other, about everything under the sun. She was by now unable to communicate verbally, but communicated through her hands and eyes and gestures.

She always had someone’s hand, and until she started to finally withdraw in the last hours, she held tight. People ask me if I felt I’d already lost her because of her dementia. No. She was always there. People are, until they die.

We were able to tell her how much we loved her, but also that we were okay, she had lived a wonderful life, loved us to bits, and now we would look after each other, and she could leave. As much as her body had clung to life, we felt she was more than ready, and was now preparing to go. We were there with her until the end.

Sue is an Ambassador for Dying to Know Day, which is coming up on August 8. For a community event near you, head to www.dyingtoknowday.org.

You can purchase Sue's 2011 book, Hazel: My mother's story here.

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