A month ago my mum had a stroke.
The week prior she’d been arranging her next holiday, walking her daily route along a green corridor near her house, educating herself on eating well, riding her exercise bike, and practising meditation.
Then, on 9 September she woke with a headache and was very quickly slurring her words and unable to move the left side of her body.
Five paramedics, including stroke specialists, were soon working on her at my parent’s house and not long after that, my father, my siblings and I were having conversations with the neurologist about her end of life wishes.
She had life saving surgery that day as my brother and I made our way to Melbourne from our homes interstate.
She survived the surgery and we waited.
Days passed as we sat by her bedside hoping she would wake up. Deeply worried about what kind of life would even be possible, if she did.
We knew the bleed on her brain had been significant and we knew at best we were looking at months of rehabilitation and that she may return to us as a radically different person, if she did survive.
She had an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurse attending solely to her 24/7, tracking the great many machines that she was hooked up to, constantly tweaking things to keep her as stable as possible.
As I sat holding her hand, reading to her, talking to the medical team and my family, I thought about people around the world who don’t have access to this level of medical care. I thought about the incredible gift Gough Whitlam gave Australia when he introduced Medicare. I thought about the wonderful things it says about a society to choose to offer this level of around the clock support to its citizens and to collectively carry the financial burden of that.
All the while, the medical team (at the Austin Hospital in Heidelberg) worked tirelessly to give her the best possible chance of recovery.
But the pressure kept rising in her brain and at some point we had another conversation with the neurologist, who was seeking permission to conduct another life saving surgery.
Mum lived through that. She lived through an infection which the doctors caught and treated early. She lived through an anaphylactic fit which saw her tongue expanding rapidly in her mouth, temporarily cutting off her oxygen source.
Western medicine was operating at its finest in those 11 days. The doctors and nurses were exemplary. Thoughtful communicators, they were extraordinary in the level of care and attention and competence they brought to the situation.
Eventually, after many arduous days, they managed to stabilise her condition and remove her sedation entirely.
But she never woke up.
More harrowing conversations ensued. Conversations about whether she had the capacity to breathe on her own, conversations about the quality of life she would and wouldn’t find acceptable if life was even possible, conversations about organ donation.
It was all hard and traumatising and extremely stressful.
My sister and I spent a lot of that time working on the invisible side of things; accessing the energetic and emotional layers of Mum’s being and working to heal what we found.
At the time I thought I was fighting to pave the way – energetically – for a good recovery. What I know now is that what was actually happening was two daughters were preparing their mother for a good death.
A clean passing over.
And eventually, 11 days after her stroke, at approximately 11am, Mum passed away. Just 20 minutes after her breathing tube was removed, she took her final, almost imperceptible breath. It was peaceful and beautiful and we were by her side, holding her hand, telling her how much we love her, letting her know we will be ok, that we didn’t want her to suffer, that we have always wanted what’s best for her.
In the time that’s passed since that moment, we’ve had many more difficult conversations about the final outfit for the funeral home to dress her in, about whether we wanted to watch the cremation, about where to lay her ashes.
It has all been hard.
And through it all, conscious compassionate communication is something my family seemed to fall into.
Certainly there were times when it could have gone another way.
When we wanted to scream or blame someone/anyone, when old wounds and patterns could have been triggered by the pain we are all in. When those wounds could have come to the fore and served as a distraction from the ordeal before us.
We certainly saw that in the ICU waiting room. Families falling apart. Speaking harshly to one another. Even assaulting one another. Such is the level of heightened stress in the ICU.
Truly, some days looked like Dante’s nine circles of hell in that ICU waiting room.
At those times, I was very aware that I had no capacity to witness or engage with anyone else’s grief. I only had space to be with what was right in front of me. To tend to my own family’s circumstances. To hold my people tight to me.
I did my best to honour that, stepping through each moment, each hour, each day with as much grace as I could muster, tending closely to my own heart.
Eventually, after Mum’s death, I came to see that in speaking to other people about death, their own grief, their own unresolved traumas, were coming to the surface. I became aware of grief not as something personal to me – although it was that – but as a deeply human and collective experience.
I tried to remember to say, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’ to people who were sharing with me that they too had lost a parent or a loved one.
I was very aware that their pain hadn’t disappeared simply because mine had shown up. And I set myself the task of stretching beyond my own circle of grief to recognise the grief of others.
It’s not always easy to do that, and I definitely wanted people to wrap themselves around me and tend to my grief, but I came to see that there’s a way you can do that without minimising someone else’s pain. It was made ever clearer to me that we don’t have to create a hierarchy of pain but can instead, be in circle with one another, each with wounds that need to be witnessed, to be tended to.
As further time passed, I thought a lot about people whose loved ones die in deeply tragic circumstances; through murder, suicide, or violence of some kind or another. I understood that one of the great gifts of my mother’s death was that it allowed for a clean sort of grief. It wasn’t intermingled with unresolved issues or with deep anger or hurt, and it wasn’t wrapped up in a desire for vengeance.
Yet, there are still moments when I want the world to stop and just notice the absence of her.
When the fact that the world keeps turning feels hurtful and nonsensical.
But because I’ve met grief in many forms in this life, this being just one of its many faces, I know what works best in those moments.
For me, choosing to yoke myself to that which is eternal and unchanging brings unparalleled peace.
It enables me to bring a deep well of compassion to my raging, hurt, sad, exhausted self.
Which means I can be compassionate with others.
Shortly after Mum died, my husband drove to Melbourne with our kids. In the following weeks, we spent time each day walking along the path Mum loved so much. On one such walk he said to me, ‘You’re being incredibly kind to your Dad. You’re so gentle with him. It’s beautiful.’
But truthfully it wasn’t me who set that stage. It was Mum and Dad. It was something they created.
The need to pause when you’re angry and the people around you are fragile. The need to tread carefully. To recognise that words can be weapons. To choose not to use them against people who are suffering.
To choose instead to couch everything in love or connection or the shared human experience. To not compete to be the most wounded or the most traumatised. To simply honour each person as they do their very best to walk a difficult path.
Over the last month, I’ve seen my family make choices about how to show up, how to speak to one another, about what to fight for and what to let go of. I’ve seen us choose – at every possible turn – to honour Mum first and foremost. To act in ways that are deserving of her. This has been a common and connecting thread in our way of being with one another.
I see now that all difficult conversations need this; one common and connecting thread which people can anchor to. A thread which people can agree to respect as they navigate their way through stressful, potentially hurtful circumstances.
Soon after Mum died, some of Dad’s friends came to visit us. As we sat down with them, he started to relay the story of how everything had come to pass. Sitting there, I noticed myself starting to feel extremely anxious. It wasn’t that particular telling that was making me anxious. It was the anticipation of a hundred more conversations exactly like the one we were having.
I pondered my reaction and how to move forward. I didn’t want to interrupt Dad’s grieving process and I could see that telling the story was a part of it. So when the friends left I said to him, ‘Dad, I’m struggling to hear that story right now. It feels very distressing to me. I don’t want you to stop telling it. What I want you to know is that when you are telling it, if I walk away, it’s because I’m struggling in that moment. It’s not personal to you. It’s about me. I want you to tell the story as often as you need to. I just need you to be ok with the fact that I might not be able to be in the room when you do.’
And that’s how things went with us and how they continue to go.
That’s how we are getting through it.
I know that if we can make these choices as we navigate through deep grief at its most raw and intense, anyone can do it.
I know that we can all use the opportunity that grief presents to us, to choose compassion, to choose connection, to choose kindness.
I know that we can do hard things with grace and that when we find our way to each other through the hard moments, it’s more meaningful, more healing than when we connect in the easy ones.
Remembering this is the path to solace.
In ourselves and in the world.
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