Saving it for the eulogy is too late
My brother-in-law Jack had no love lost for his mother-in-law. One of many points of contention between the two was Jack’s reckless driving. Lillian would shriek from the back seat every time she got into his car: “Jack! I’m going to die!” After years of this, Jack finally reached his boiling point. “You’ve been threatening to die for a long time now,” he snapped back. “Why don’t you just do it already?!”
It’s easy to joke about death when it’s not imminent. Yet when someone we love faces the inevitable, it ceases to be a laughing matter. Humor goes out the window, leaving a void that most of us are deeply uncomfortable filling with any meaningful conversation about what is to come.
Lately this has become all too clear with my own mother-in-law. First, some background:
Fannie will turn 87 years old July 1st. When my husband-to-be brought me home to meet his parents 30 years ago, I was not prepared for the force of nature that is his mother. She was 5-1 at the time (having since shrunk a few inches with age), but with hair teased and sprayed she gained at least 6 or 7 inches in height. An out-sized personality made her appear even taller.
Fannie likes to be the center of attention and isn’t shy about grabbing the spotlight. She has always been impeccably dressed, favoring animal prints and HUGE gaudy jewelry. She is loud and bawdy (cussing like a sailor in English, Spanish and Turkish). And she is a virtuoso of the back-handed compliment. An example: My husband had selected a photo of me for the lock screen on his iPhone. Fannie noticed it and commented: “Valerie, is that YOU? You look GORGEOUS! I didn’t recognize you!”
My father-in-law, Abe, died 20 years ago. Without her beloved, my mother-in-law began a slow descent. She still dresses to the nines and slings a zinger every now and then. But her heart isn’t in it anymore.
It became clear last year after a couple of falls and minor injuries: Fannie could no longer safely care for herself living alone in the condo she had shared with Abe for decades. She agreed to move to an Independent Living Facility, where two lovely and dedicated aides tend to her needs round-the-clock, with family calling and visiting regularly.
Oddly enough, the only photos she cared to display in her new home were of her husband, her parents, and her three older sisters, all deceased. When we asked if she would like to hang any photos of her seven grandchildren, she said no thank you. What card-carrying grandmother says no to THAT?
More warning signs. . .Fannie began sleeping 14 hours a day and complained of constant headaches and fatigue. She lost her appetite. She didn’t go down to the dining room at the facility for meals. We took her to every medical specialist we could think of, but the diagnosis was always the same: We can’t find anything wrong.
Yeah, she’s depressed. We’re not ignoring that. She won’t go to a “shrink” (Therapy is not her style). She does take a small dose of antidepressants. But no pill is going to restore her zest for life. Recently, she has begun telling just that to anyone with a pulse. The problem is no one has had the heart to listen.
Yes, we hear the words. But we have responded by trying to talk her out of it. “Fannie, you have so much to live for! Seven beautiful grandchildren! There will be more weddings, and before too long, great-grandchildren!”
Or we try to “fix” her. “Fannie, you can play bingo and mah jhong downstairs!” “Fannie, you’re depressed. Let’s get a prescription.” “Fannie, you’re just tired because you don’t eat enough. And you have to drink more water!”
Or we minimize her feelings. “Don’t be silly, Mom. You’re not ready to die. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. You’re healthier than most people half your age!”
Or we make a joke of it. "You promised to live at least five more years so you would get your money’s worth out of the apartment you bought here!”
Sadly but not surprisingly, none of this helps. Fannie simply falls silent, exhausted and unheard. Clearly she wants to talk about death. Her death. What she needs now more than anything are compassionate witnesses.
So when Fannie says, “I’m ready to die. I just want to be with Abe again” we have begun to respond a different way: “You really miss him, don’t you? It’s been a long time since you’ve been together.”
I scanned all her old photos and loaded them onto my iPad, so when she talks about how much she misses Abe or her sisters or her parents, we can look at them together. She loves to reminisce. For a few moments, the pain leaves Fannie’s face and she gets a faraway look. Sometimes she even smiles. Often after a bit, she brightens up and wants to share about her day, or she asks about the grandkids and brags how wonderful each of them is.
When my mother-in-law says “it’s hell getting old,” She’s not begging for pity. She’s stating a fact. She can no longer walk without a walker. She needs assistance to stand from a chair. Although Fannie remains alert enough to realize that she has lost much of her short-term memory, this pains and embarrasses her. So now, when she repeats the same story back-to-back in a single conversation, of course we don’t point it out to her. But if Fannie happens to realize what she’s done, we don’t ignore the feelings. “It’s a normal part of aging, Mom, and we can sense how frustrating it is for you.”
What we are learning from Fannie is that death is not to be feared. She has said as much. “I’m just waiting,” she has told me. “I’m not scared. I can’t wait to see Abe and Papa and Mama again!”
Most of us tell ourselves that if we talk about death with someone who is nearing that phase of life, we will scare or upset them. Often the underlying truth is we’re simply making excuses because we are afraid of the topic. Afraid of having to experience any strong emotions that person might express. Afraid of losing someone we love. Afraid of our own eventual death.
We don’t want to hear it. But she needs to say it. So we have begun listening in spite of ourselves. In so doing, we have brought Fannie peace. No longer must she die to rest in it.