When People Die, Take Nothing Personally because Things are About to Get Weird

There is a lot of conversation about our culture’s fear around death, and how that fear stops us from actually talking about it in meaningful ways that would, perhaps, make the process that we all go through less scary. I can tell you that this is something I want, and is one of the reasons for the shift in this blog. This desire on my part to write about it, my interactions with the journey of people dying, is critical to my own processing of my grief around my dad’s death and the illness of one of my best friends. BUT, I must admit before starting, that things get REALLY WEIRD when people die. People react from a base, animal level. People get scared. People get angry. The last three sentences get combined into grief bombs. So, if you can, remember the four agreements:

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (get it right now if you don’t have it)

As my dad was dying, my mom transformed quickly into someone strange and foreign to me. Traditionally, my mom is a cool person, and I mean that in a temperature-personality way. She isn’t cold, but also isn’t warm. I think this comes from her years of experiences, and taking care of a sick person for 15 years. When my dad was diagnosed with the word “cancer” in August (it took over a month to get an actual diagnosis due to COVID and the fact that they live in a rural part of a rural state where there are few hospitals), my mom was very caring toward him. She showed him a lot of care and consideration. She thought he was behaving oddly, especially crying all the time, but she seemed to roll with it with more love than perhaps she had had before. Part of her, I suppose, knew or suspected that something was different this time.

Then there was the day they met with the oncologist and received an actual diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma, the lung cancer you get after a lifetime of smoking. Instead of going home like they thought they would, after the appointment they admitted my dad to the hospital for tests. He never left the hospital. There were days when he was mostly normal. At that time, I had come back to Texas and was here for about a week and a half. I talked to him every day.The first few days he would say, “I don’t know why I am still here! I suppose they have to wait for the results of all these damned tests!”. Then his voice changed and he became extremely breathless and hoarse. He could barely talk, or didn’t want to. It didn’t matter; by then I called him a few times a day and we would talk for about a minute or two at a time.

Then there was the strange day, the one I will never forget or ever understand. At that time, the doctors chose not to tell him he was terminal and there was no treatment. I felt that this was wrong, my brother agreed, and finally our mom did, too. It was Tuesday, and earlier in the day a doctor had told him about the diagnosis, told him straight, no bullshit. I called him that afternoon and he was perfectly clear. He wasn’t wheezing, wasn’t hoarse, and he didn’t want to get off the phone in 1- 2 minutes. He told me a lot. He told me that he knew he was going to die, and that is was all right. He told me that he had had a good life. He kept repeating how we had to take care of our mom. I told him: of course we will take care of her! But remember she is really good at taking care of herself: she will be fine! He said, “no no no you must take care of her”. I told him that we would.

In retrospect, he knew something that day. It is said that sometimes, as people die, they perk up, become super clear, and seem as if nothing is wrong with them: the disease fades. No one knows why. I found this to be true with my father, but not true with Cody’s grandma or my friend Meredith. Meredith was on so much medication by her last few days that perhaps that explains it. Cody’s grandma just stopped talking during the last week of her life and would only nod or shake her head if I asked her something. Dying is a process we know a little bit about, but not alot.

The next morning, I called the hospital and my mom answered. I said, “oh hi! I didn’t expect you to be there.” She told me that something had happened, that my dad was unconscious and on oxygen and machines and tubes, and they did not know exactly why. Later when I talked to his palliative care nurse, she told me that his pain was so severe that she thought once she finally got his levels correct, his body shut down a little bit. At that time, she told me to wait til the next day to decide to come back to Maine, but after talking to my brother that night, I was on a plane the next morning.

I told you that my mom was so caring and considerate of my dad in the 5 weeks before the last week of his life. When I arrived to Maine for that second visit, she felt strange to me. She felt hostile and angry. She took our her hostility and anger on me. Nothing I said would come without a comment. I felt I could not win, and that she only liked my brother. When the three of us were together, she would be closer to him, physically and emotionally, and be mean to me. At first I took this personally as I was grieving, too. I was losing someone as well. I felt that she was acting like she used to act toward my dad when he was healthier. She was famously passive-aggressive and hostile to him almost all the time.

One day the three of us were walking on the Shore Path, one of my favorite walks in Bar Harbor. We were talking about family and old family photos as my brother and I had been going through them. She was telling us about a photo she wanted to find with our cousin as a little boy. At the same time, our cousin and his mom were going through a hard moment in their often difficult relationship, and I made a comment about his mom being a really tough person to have as a mother. I received another harsh comment and I said, “I love you but I cannot win with you! I cannot say anything to you right now!”

And then stuff got weird. My mom started screaming. She was crying. She flailed her arms in the air. She kept saying “I can’t do this right now! This has been 15 bloody years of this!”. She spoke in a way that sounded strange: deep and guttural and pure pain. It was pain pouring out of her, out of her mouth, out of her hands and arms, out of her heart and mind. Screaming, shrieking, flailing. I didn’t know what to do. I said, “it’s ok, it’s ok, I just need you to calm down. Just calm down please”. She walked away from me and left me on the Shore Path. I called my husband who told me to remember that her husband was dying.

As the child, it was very hard for me to remember this in moments. In moments of calm clarity, later in the evening with my friends, in a calm space in which we could talk about it, it all made sense. In those moments of intensity, of loss, fear, powerlessness, mystery, and confusion, it all gets muddied. This is a lesson for all of us.

It took me days to not take the things my mom was saying and doing personally. It took another talk with my husband and one with my brother. It took some reading and researching grief online to understand she had shifted her feelings onto the person next closest to her: me. I am the firstborn, the baby who arrived when they were happy and in love. I am the baby born in England, in their sweet house in Haslemere. I am the daughter. I look like my father, and I am so much like him emotionally and psychologically.

I would love to know why death brings up these feelings of intense, base, emotional madness. I would like to know if women feel it more than men; perhaps it is just felt differently. I wonder if there is a way to not feel these feelings of panicked loss, or if this is part of each of our own understandings of what it means to die ourselves, and to lose our loved ones.

It is a mystery. I know only one thing: I am not afraid of death, either my own or my loved ones’. The loss of death, which for me means I cannot talk to the person anymore, makes me profoundly sad and yet, with time, I can come to accept it. It is a mystery.