My mother has just passed away following a nearly 16 year journey through Alzheimer's disease. I offer the following account of her passing in order to share the comfort I have received.
The day before Mom died, she was so comfortable and peaceful. She kept saying “Peace, peace, it is so beautiful.” She repeated this in various ways throughout our visit; “It is so beautiful! So peaceful!”
She was not looking at me, but through me, or upwards, toward the corner of her room where wall met ceiling. At one point she exclaimed, “Look at that beautiful face! Just perfect! So beautiful!”
I made a quick check of where she was gazing to see whether the veil might have lifted for me as well, but no. I asked, “Is it Jesus?”
She hesitated and then answered, “I think so.”
That she answered a direct question at that point was kind of astounding as she had not been responding to me or seeing me.
Mom was comfortable up until her last 24 hours. If there had not been a delay in getting her started on the 15-minute interval doses of medicine that hospice gives for dying pain, I don’t think she’d have had that hour of extreme struggle. Well, it seemed extreme to me and it may not have lasted more than a few minutes; time telescoped into a form that what seemed like hours may only have been minutes. It was distressing to see her labored breathing, so reminiscent of someone suffering labor pains to bring forth a child.
That thought of the similarity to what Mom was enduring to the labor of childbirth was comforting to me. I had positioned myself beside Mom on her narrow bed and wrapped my arms around her, praying for her, so that her suffering was my suffering. At first I thought I couldn’t bear the intensity of her anguish, but then the thought of how we all embrace labor and childbirth for the sake of the joy that follows put her suffering into perspective for me; she was heading to the joy of Jesus’ presence.
Some time later (5 minutes? 30 minutes?) two nurses appeared to reposition her and I was so cramped and nearly frozen into position that I had to do a kind of gymnastics move to get out of the bed—both nurses thought I was falling and moved toward me to catch me. I landed awkwardly on my feet, straightened up, gave a sheepish smile. They quickly and professionally returned to the task at hand.
My husband, John, was visibly shaken and gave forth the information that my father had gone through the same thing that last day of his life (while I was at my job teaching children to read, this dear man had supported my mother in helping her to see my dad through his final days of life).
I said, “You know it’s just like laboring in childbirth, so similar to having a baby.”
John shook his head vigorously and said, “No, no, it isn’t.”
And I said, “Honey, you never had a baby.”
I was illuminated by the thought that Mom did not appear to be suffering the level of pain I felt myself to have survived in order to bring my children into the world. It was a profound shift in understanding; I had gone willingly into a second pregnancy despite the fairly traumatic suffering of my first pregnancy and childbirth experience. Why? Because of the surpassing joy of holding that new baby in my arms.
I think the difference in our perceptions between laboring in childbirth and laboring to achieve separation of body from spirit is that as observers, we don’t see with human eyes the great joy at the end of the dying labor. But we can receive it on faith.
“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning,” (Psalm 30:5).
“ Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16:20-22).