Monday, January 23, 2012

Death and Life

My mother-in-law on her 88th birthday two years ago
Death is just a part of the cycle of life. But it’s a part that we hide from, push away, avoid like an unfortunate, socially inept relative. In books the baddies die, but never the main characters, at least hardly ever. If they did there wouldn’t be a follow on, we wouldn’t buy the book in the first place. So it’s hard when death becomes part of everyday life for a while.

At the moment my mother-in-law is slowly dying. She’s 89, has been getting frailer for years, but we think this is the final stage. She’s at her home on our farm with a nurse and two of my sisters-in-law taking care of her. My husband and I take turns sitting with her when she’s calm, but can’t really help with the nursing. Our kids are just going on with their usual routine of school and play, even though there is an atmosphere of limbo and holding of breath in our lives.

We wish she could go quickly and have a release from the distress and discomfort that she’s experiencing, but dying happens in its own time; strength of spirit fights frailty of body and the letting go process is hard.

My kids asked questions about death when they were younger. They know our beliefs. But this is the first time it has been so close to them. When my father died it was a distant thing, cut and dried news from the other side of the world. They attended his memorial service but I flew over alone for the funeral. Now they are on the fringe of a gradual, drawn-out dying.

Co-incidentally the story book I’ve been reading to them over the last couple of months Roller Skates (Newbery Library, Puffin) is one of those old-fashioned children’s stories that isn’t afraid to confront death in one of the good characters. We reached one of the later chapters where a little 4 year old girl, befriended by the heroine loses a battle with pneumonia and the doctor she brings to her arrives too late to save her. I’d forgotten about this and it came right in the middle of this week of nursing their old grandmother. We started talking about the old days – this is set in New York in the late nineteenth century, before antibiotics and when poverty meant that young children often did die of diseases that can be cured easily today.

At one point Middle Daughter said she didn’t want to talk about death any more, so we stopped. It made me wonder if we should be talking to them more about what is happening around them, or let them insulate themselves with their regular lives and let it flow over their heads. It’s all part of life and growing up, so I don’t believe we should protect them too much by not telling them anything, but I don’t want to force them to confront more than they can deal with emotionally. I’m a great believer in answering questions when they come up, at whatever age and letting things unfold in their own time, so hopefully we’ll hit the right balance.

Anyway I’m glad it turned out that we were reading Roller Skates just at this time, and have lingered over it longer than usual what with the distraction  of holiday time, and forgetting the book when we went away to the river for our holiday. It turned out to be entirely the right thing to be reading, giving enough room for discussion and putting feelings into words and images.

Looking at the reviews on Amazon, most of the adults had fond memories of it being read to them as children and re-read it regularly, while the kids who reviewed it universally found it boring. So definitely better to read aloud to your kids – mine all enjoyed it.

I don't know how many more days my mother-in-law has left but I hope she finds the right time and slips away peacefully. I hope my children learn and grow from the experience of death happening within the family, rather than removed and sanitized by distance. It is all part of life after all.

25th Jan Edited to add: Juju died peacefully in the night with three of her six children around her. She was compos mentis and full of humour to the end. Go well Juju on your next adventure, with all our love.


  1. My girls haven't had to think about death. When my dad died it was abstract for them as he was so far yours. My oldest reads books where beloved characters die but I don't know how much that helps her in understanding how sad it is when you lose someone really love.

  2. Oh Kit I am sorry to hear that. As yo usay, it is part of life and a rite of passage that we will all somehow have to go through, but it is still hard to watch. I love your phrase abotu how the strength of the spirit frights the frailty of the body - both my parents went through this and it was inspirational and heartbreaking at the same time. My dad would have been 90 this year.

    At my mom's funeral the minister had a fantastic analogy, referring to my nephew who was born just none months before my mom passed away. He said imagine if we could have talked to Sam in the womb and said to him "in a few weeks, everything you have ever known will be taken from you and you will have to enter another world. You will lose the physical bond you have had with your mother all your life and have to go alone to a strange place". Would he have been keen to go? Of course not. But with hihdsight, being born was a wonderful event and the start of an incredible new journey for him. The priest drew parallels between this and our fear of dying and it was one of the most moving and comforting perspectives on death I have ever heard.

    I hope your MIL finds peace and the right time to slip away quietly. My thoughts are with you and with your family. xx

  3. @ Meredith I think reading is a great preparation from life even though it is an one remove, so it definietly helps in understanding, even though it doesn't replace real experience.

    @Jeanne Thanks for sharing the ministers wonderful analogy and your own experience. Your father and my mother in law are exactly the same age - there is an indomitable spirit in that generation that makes it even harder letting go I think! Or maybe that comes with age! Will we be that fiercely determined when it gets to our turn I wonder?! Thanks for your thoughts, I appreciate it.

  4. Your mum-in-law is blessed to have this support at this time of her journey. And as they say in the classic, 'the kids are alright'...

  5. Kit, it must be difficult to have to deal with death from two different directions at the same time... your own reactions and emotions on one side, and trying to teach and protect your children on the other.

    It's good that you realize that your reactions will affect how your children deal with death, and you are taking a level-headed, honest approach. You are a good mom.


Thanks for your comments - I appreciate every one!