As Mother’s Day approaches, Dr. Chester Goad recalls 4 important lessons about death he learned from his mother.
I tend to think of my mom the most in late spring and early summer, and I have a love hate relationship with Mother’s Day. On one hand, it highlights an emptiness in my life, and on the other I’m reminded of one of the most intense, special, and intimate moments my mom and I shared as she was dying.
Mom taught me to read at the age of four with a used primer called The Wishing Well. She loved the idea I would be one of only a handful of kindergartners who already knew how to read while other kids learned their letters. Throughout my life my mom always reminded me that we are more than our circumstances and more than labels, and that we could be more if we dreamed more. She was intent that I would be the first in our family to graduate with a college degree. I not only learned to read from her, I learned a sense of compassion for people in need. She never broadcasted how she helped others. Instead she privately donated to causes and asked me confidentially if I knew anyone who needed help. She was never in a position to give a lot but she loved giving.
That’s why when my mom called me to explain that her cancer was terminal, I began preparations to leave a job I loved and find work that would allow me to be closer to her. My dad had passed a few years prior and I felt a sense of responsibility. She’d sacrificed in different ways for me all my life, and it was now time for me to do the same.
About a year later, another difficult conversation loomed. She said it was “time to sit down and talk about what was coming”. I knew what she meant and invited her to come to my home on a day I knew the family would be away. I prepared sweet tea, tuna sandwiches, and egg salad (some of her favorites) and we sat out on the back deck enjoying the sun and the wind.
“Get a notebook you need to write all this down.” I grabbed a spiral composition book and a pen, and over sweet tea and picnic food, my mom gave me explicit instructions as to how her latter days of illness and ultimately her death should be handled. We actually had a great conversation. It was honest and not nearly as heavy as I had expected. We talked about property, grandchildren, medical issues, care, and spent a lot of time planning the funeral service. When I asked why this was so important she explained that she wanted to protect her kids not only from having to make painful decisions, but also to protect us from family negativity and fighting that inevitably comes from sensitive situations and death.
This way, everything was on her terms. As the conversation was waning, I realized we had covered everything about her funeral except how she might be dressed. “I’ll leave that to you all. That really doesn’t matter.” I could sense she was tired of talking and that her mind had wandered on to other things.
Mom died that fall on my son’s birthday, but not before making sure she had provided him with a gift (a new bike) which we were instructed to let him open after his party. She also made it clear that the party was to go on even if she passed away on his birthday. She did. And I kept the promise.
I was honored to know my mom and I’m grateful she let me share in her journey. It was a bittersweet gift filled with life lessons. I was lying on the sofa beside her at her home when she took her final breaths, and though it was of course a time of grief, she made sure we were ready. The gift she gave us through her independence and planning allows me to appreciate Mother’s Day even in her absence. So as Mother’s Day approaches here are four important lessons I learned from that experience that you can use to help prepare your family for tragedy:
Talk is necessary.
Talking about difficult things may be hard or uncomfortable, but it’s necessary. When we’re willing to talk about challenges and circumstances with people we love we’re not only showing them we love them, we’re modeling how to handle life situations. As men we sometimes shy away from intimate or difficult circumstances. We know difficult circumstances, can open up a variety of emotions, but talking through tough times is a sign of strength not weakness.
Put others first, even unto death.
When life throws us curve balls and bad things happen, it’s easy for us to focus on ourselves. One of the best ways we can prevent challenging circumstances from consuming us is to put others first. Sure my mom was showing independence and strength by making plans and leaving explicit instructions, but she did those things because she loved her family and she was protecting us even through her death.
Be prepared for anything.
My dad had passed away suddenly, and my mom experienced the chaos that ensued by not having a plan in place to deal with sudden emergencies and tragedy. Men, one way you can show the people you love just how much you love them is to be prepared. Get your finances, medical records, and health plans in order. Having a will and a plan of action in place may spare your family additional heartache. At the very least, a plan will ease their worries and anxiety if tragedy strikes.
Be honest about death.
As men we sometimes shy away from the subject of death. We want our kids to feel confident we’ll always be there to protect them. But the truth is we are not invincible or immune to tragic circumstances. I never expected both my parents to pass away while I was young, and I lament that they will never see my son graduate middle school, high school or college. They’ll never see him marry or have children. The death of my parents made me resolve as a parent never to say things like, “I’ll always be here” or “Don’t worry nothing is ever going to happen.” Anything can happen at any time, and no one is promised tomorrow, so that is what I say. Followed by reassurances of course. Reassure your family that things will be ok, but explain “how” things will be ok and how to move forward. Again, the ability to do that comes from having a plan. Having a plan for tragedy shows your strength as a parent. Just be honest, and don’t shy away from those conversations or from involving them in the planning process. It’s one of the most practical and prudent ways to tangibly show them you love them. They’ll always admire you cared enough to be honest and that you included them.
Photo: Flickr/MzScarlett / A.K.A. Michelle