Tending to the Dead: honoring a life

Today I will bury my stepmother.
I’ve spent the past six days getting used to that term: my stepmother. I’ve told doctors and nurses and funeral directors and church people that she is my stepmother.
But Donna was always my father’s wife. Dear, kind, loving: yes. But I didn’t call her my stepmother. She and my father married when I was 22-years-old, 22 years ago. Her husband had died years earlier. My mother and father had divorced more than a decade before.
So Donna became part of my family. She loved me, I’m sure. And I loved her. When I’d come to visit, we would sit and talk for hours. She would tell me the stories of her childhood, about her mother and father. And I would tell her stories of my childhood, my mother, and her husband.
Stepfamily relationships aren’t always easy. Ours was no exception. Donna was fiercely loyal to her husband, my father. And when I took exception to his criticism, or asked him not to speak to me in a certain way, Donna bristled. Her own father was harsh to her, and she would advise me to ignore my father’s verbal assaults and get on with it.
But then she would say, “Let’s go.” And we’d go to her favorite meat market. We’d go shopping for this or that. We’d tuck away in the living room and talk, while Dad was busy elsewhere.
I got the call six days ago that Donna was in the hospital and she was close to death. I knew that my father couldn’t stay overnight in the hospital with her. He’s too sick himself. And the thought of her dying alone in the hospital was more than I could stomach.
 I grabbed the white roses on my counter, a birthday gift from a dear friend, and headed off to say goodbye to Donna. I live four hours away and the drive gave me time to contemplate what was coming. I’m not afraid of death or dying. I’ve been privileged to be around several deaths and I find the process of death can be beautiful.
Dying is, in so many ways, like birth. It’s work, it’s a process, and it’s not always easy. Dying is also as individual as the person. Some people want to be surrounded by their loved ones; some people want to die privately. For most people, I imagine that having someone to help with the process is a welcome support.
In my experience with death, I’ve always been a part of a group supporting the dying person. For Donna, I knew I was going to be alone with her. I readied myself by talking to the women who have also done this work. I readied myself by thinking of all the beauty that Donna has created over her 77 years on the planet.
When I arrived at the hospital, it was 11 p.m. and my father had just left. Donna’s room was freezing cold, at her request. She had been conscious just hours earlier. But she was also gasping for breath, and panicked. So they gave her some medication to help her breathe. It also sedated her.  When I arrived, she was asleep or unconscious or sedated or just going away. Maybe all of the above. At first, I just watched her; I didn’t even tell her I was there. When the nurses came in an hour later and checked this and moved that, Donna didn’t like it. When the nurses left, I went to Donna’s side. I was tentative at first. I told her I was there. I held her hand. She stared at me and I don’t know if she saw me. I don’t know if she heard me.
But then she squeezed my hand.
Plenty of doctors might tell me that Donna couldn’t hear me at that point. That the hand squeezing was just reflexes. Maybe. But maybe she heard me. Maybe it mattered that I held her hand, that I smoothed her hair. Maybe she heard me tell her all the stories of her life that she had once told me. Maybe she was soothed by me telling her that her work was done, that we will all take care of everything now. That we’ll take care of my dad. That we’ll take care of her beloved dog, Buddy. Maybe she understood when I thanked her for all the beauty that she had created throughout her life, for me and for so many.  Maybe she loved hearing me sing Amazing Grace, or I’ll Fly Away, or Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, the songs that people have been using to usher out the dead for centuries. Maybe she smiled when I told her that spring had come early this year in her honor, a sort of final salute. Maybe it helped a little bit when I named all the people who love her and would continue to honor her.
One thing I know: it didn’t hurt. All through the night, I sat with her, and listened as the gap between her breathes became longer and longer. She was doing the work of dying. The next morning, her niece and brother came to the hospital room. They didn’t know how serious Donna’s condition was and I explained how close she was to dying. They came and stood by her, they held her hand, and they talked to her. The three of us were there with her a few minutes later when she took her last, peaceful breath.
Donna created a world of beauty where she walked. I am happy that I got to walk with her a bit. I am glad she was part of my family. Today, I will bury Donna, my stepmother.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this, it’s beautiful.

    Reply
  2. A beautiful piece, Anne. You made Donna real for those of us who never met her. Your story let us sit in her room with you even as far away as we are. There is no finer work than helping the dying to leave us with peace and dignity. It is noble and true and loving work. You express it with such care. Thank you.

    Reply

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