In mid-December of 2001, my mother suffered a small stroke. After being discharged from the hospital, she was sent to a skilled nursing facility for observation and short-term rehab. In addition to this new problem in her brain, her doctor said that due to her congestive heart failure, her heart was only functioning at 20% of capacity. When I asked a cardiologist friend what that meant, he said, “It means she’s not going to live long.”
She’d been in the nursing home less than 24 hours when she called. Her roommate, a woman with Alzheimer’s, had spent the entire night and all of the morning crying and screaming for help.
I was out buying groceries and when my husband, Alex, answered the phone, Mom launched into her own screaming, swearing fit. When I got home, Alex met me at the door and said, “I think you need to go to Kansas.” It was December 17. I bought a ticket to fly home the next day and packed in a panic. Six of our kids were going to be at our house for Christmas. The out-of-state families were scheduled to arrive the day after I returned. Trying frantically to get organized, I made extensive lists.
When I got to the airport, I realized I’d forgotten to get the little pouch out of my hiking bag in which I carried my driver’s license and credit card. It was just three months after 9/11, and the only identification I had was an expired military ID. The people at Security were not amused. After a comprehensive search of my purse and carry-on bag, a lot of explaining (and a little begging), they finally let me on the plane.
During the four-hour flight and a three and-a-half hour drive to my hometown, I had a lot of time to think. I was painfully aware that this could be the last time I saw my mother alive. I thought about what I’d learned a few years earlier from my dog about making peace with death, and I made a personal vow to tell my mother everything I wanted her to know while she could still hear me.
What I Learned from My Dog about Saying Goodbye to a Loved One
When my husband and I got married, he had a great dog. Val was a German Shepherd/Dobie mix with a sleek dark coat and warm brown eyes. Clearly, Alex was the alpha male in our house, but I wanted her to love me, too, and bribery was not beneath me.
I took over the nighttime ritual of rattling the Milk Bone box and giving Val her treat. It didn’t take long for her to figure out that if she gave me a little extra attention and affection, I’d give her another treat. Every night after dinner, she would nudge my elbow with her nose until I’d get up and rattle the Milk Bone box. She’d bounce up and down and bark until I gave her a treat.
Alex and I had been married four years when Val got sick with a severe digestive disorder. The vet prescribed medication and a strict diet, which did not include treats. In spite of surgery, medication, and loving care, Val’s condition deteriorated.
It broke my heart when she would struggle to her feet after dinner, come to me and nudge her nose under my elbow. I wanted to give her a treat as badly as she wanted to receive it, but the doctor had been very firm about what she could and could not eat, and treats were definitely off the list.
Eventually, we had to accept the fact that Val was not going to get better and we made the incredibly difficult decision to end her suffering. At the vet’s office, I watched Alex kneel down beside her. He hugged her neck and spoke gently as he stroked her soft fur. She looked into his eyes with absolute trust and affection, and then she licked the tears off his cheek. Alex stood, handed Val’s leash to the doctor’s assistant, and we walked to the car in silence.
A few minutes later as we were driving home, I cried out, “No! Oh, no!”
Alarmed, Alex hit the breaks and said, “What’s wrong?”
“I forgot to give Val a treat! I could have given it to her this morning, but I didn’t even think about it!”
How could I have not done that! I knew how much she enjoyed her treats. It wouldn’t have made one bit of difference to her physically. It would have been such a small thing to give her that one last pleasure. I berated myself thinking, “You were so wrapped up in feeling sorry for yourself that you didn’t even think about giving your poor, sick dog a treat!”
I was stunned by my thoughtlessness and the weight of my regret. We couldn’t turn the car around. It was too late. There was nothing I could do to fix it or change the situation. Val was gone.
For months afterward when Alex and I would see a dog that looked like Val, I would again feel that piercing stab of sadness and regret, and it was always as fresh and raw as the day she died.
Fast Forward Five Years
When I arrived at the nursing home and saw my mother, I was painfully aware that my cardiologist friend was right. Her body was failing, and no amount of love or prayer or medical care was going to change that.
Once I got Mom out of the nursing home room and into the car, I asked what she wanted to do. Without hesitation she said, “I want to go out for a steak and a glass of wine.”
I took her to Applebee’s, McPherson’s newest and best restaurant. Our server, a very cute young man with curly dark hair, asked if we were celebrating a birthday or some other special occasion. I raised my wine in a toast to Mom and said, “No. We’re just celebrating life and being together.”
I have dined in many fine restaurants, but I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced more exquisite service than we did that night at Applebee’s. After we finished our meal, that sweet young man brought us a huge slice of chocolate cake. When I said, “I don’t think we ordered that,” he smiled broadly and said, “It’s my treat.”
My mother believed in angels. As she cared for my dad at the end of his life, they prayed together every night that his angel would come and help him make the transition from this life into the next. When that young man said the word “treat,” I was pretty sure I had just encountered an angel and I knew what I needed to do.
After we finished our meal, I suggested we drive around town and look at the Christmas lights. One house had a particularly beautiful display. I pulled over and shifted the car into park. Although I felt tremendously uncomfortable, I took a deep breath and reached for my mother’s hand. As I held it in mine, I said, “Mom, we might not ever see each other again.”
She nodded and said, “I know.”
I proceeded to tell her how much I loved and respected her. I told her how much I had appreciated her support through a job loss, a divorce, and my children’s tumultuous teenage years.
We both cried, and then we started to laugh as we recalled how we used to put the men and kids to bed on summer nights then sneak out of the house and sit under the stars and talk until the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes we battled insects; sometimes it was the wind. There were nights we wrapped up in sleeping bags and still got so cold our teeth chattered. We didn’t care. We were always willing to brave the elements to have uninterrupted time together.
That evening, as we looked at the twinkling Christmas lights, we talked about all of the joys and complications of being wives, mothers and independent women. We both acknowledged that she might not live long. We talked about death and what we hoped would come after it. We talked and we talked until there was nothing left to say.
Alex and I made another trip to Kansas in January to help Mom get her business affairs in order. Two months later I got a call from my brother at 6:30 in the morning. When I picked up the ringing phone he said, “Mom is gone.”
She had suffered a massive heart attack. The doctor said she was probably dead before she hit the floor.
As I stood at her casket and looked down at her tiny, little, worn-out body, I felt a profound sense of loss. I knew I would miss her every day for the rest of my life, but I also felt a tremendous sense of relief knowing that she’d gotten out of this life with her dignity and independence firmly intact.
What I didn’t feel was regret. There was nothing left unsaid, undone, or unresolved. The only thing between us was love. And even death couldn’t sever that.
Coping with Grief
Knowing that the life of someone you love is coming to a conclusion is heart wrenching. It can also be a blessing. Although starting a farewell conversation can feel awkward, it is perhaps one of the greatest gifts you can give to your loved one; and when it’s over, the process of coping with loss can be a lot less painful for you.
Coping with grief is less difficult when we acknowledge that death is a part of life. Fearing it and avoiding conversations about it is not going to change the fact that no matter who we are – no matter how rich or poor, how young or old, how smart, talented, or good looking, we are all going to die.
I will always regret that I didn’t give our dog that last treat. It haunted me that I didn’t do that one simple thing that could have brought her pleasure at the end of her life. And I will forever be grateful for what she taught me about making peace with death.
I learned that even though we will never have control over death, we do have the absolute power to decide how we will prepare for it. My trip to Kansas that year was rough. On my trip home, I arrived at the airport hungry, but too late to buy lunch. During the flight I developed a throbbing, pounding toothache. Our plane was diverted because of weather, and we sat on the tarmac in Grand Junction, Colorado for hours with no food or water. We arrived in Salt Lake City Airport at 2:00 a.m. (all of the restaurants were closed) and I stood in line with 200 other people while two airline employees tried to find seats on sold-out flights. I arrived home 17 hours late – just slightly ahead of our Christmas company.
Logistically, that trip was a disaster, but the time I spent with my mother, holding her hand, looking at the twinkling lights and saying goodbye, will always be my most precious Christmas memory and the sweetest gift either of us could have ever given or received.
Elaine K Sanchez is an author, caregiver speaker and co-founder of CaregiverHelp.com, a video-based caregiver support program. Elaine also writes the daily blog, “Caregiver Help Word of the Day”.