When I started interviewing people about their experiences of death, my selection process was a fairly random one. That was deliberate because I wanted the conversations to reflect life around me as it is in my country, in my time, in my culture – no pretence, no artifice, no filter. Those I spoke with all had different personalities and levels of education. But all, no matter who they were, had experienced the death of someone they loved. All offered something a little surprising.
And in Australia’s robust, knockabout culture, listening as people shared these experiences of death and how it left them feeling, so many quietly held and very tender memories surfaced. Unwittingly and unselfconsciously, moments and ideas were expressed extremely poetically. It was fascinating, almost unnerving, to find how simply and sincerely asking people to open up on something they normally didn’t voice was so liberating, for both me and the storyteller.
Hilary, who studied medicine like her father, told her story as we sat in the large room at the back of her house overlooking Pittwater, a magnificent waterway defined by its natural golden and weathered grey sandstone hues, at the mouth of the Hawkesbury River, just north of Sydney. It was dusk on a late spring day and a film of cloud whitened the sun as it set across the opaque water. Birds were flying home in the early evening as the mellowing sunlight glowed and gradually retreated across the darkening water.
Because of Hilary’s training I expected her to speak in concrete and physical terms about the death of her mother. It was so illuminating when she took a completely different tack. When she reflected on her father, the ‘science’ behind why this shouldn’t have been a surprise, was revealed. She had told me she had a novel approach to spirituality, so we opened with her expanding on this.
It’s not something I’ve verbalised
I’ve been thinking about how I can phrase it because it’s not something I’ve tried to verbalise before. But I believe that we’re spiritual beings having a human experience, rather than human beings having a spiritual experience. And as such, I believe that in the death experience that this bit goes (she circles her arms around her body); that the body goes but that the spirit does not, that the spirit is the exact same way as it has always been. It’s still in existence, it’s still in existence everywhere, it’s just that the physical part of it no longer exists.
When my mother got dementia she taught me a lot about what unconditional love really is.
Mum was unrecognisable as my mother
Mum went into hospital for an operation and had a 12 hour surgery and then came out basically as a little old lady with severe dementia. She became a person that was unrecognisable as my mother. I went through all those usual reactions of grief at losing my mother, anger that this person was somebody that I didn’t recognise or couldn’t communicate with because the dementia was severe.
She had early dementia before she went in but she had a malignancy in her jaw and she needed major head and neck surgery and she had a cardiac arrest in hospital and quite frankly that’s when I felt she should have been let go.
But my father was not ready for her to die and he very much needed her to be alive for him, he wasn’t ready to let her go.
At that stage he was 85 and she was 81.
Mum possibly had three years between that operation and her death.
As her dementia progressed I initially I thought ‘Oh what a waste of life. Here was this vibrant and beautiful woman and what’s the point, what is the point? There’s this creature who’s lost everything. She can’t really contribute in any way. She can’t be a mother anymore and she can’t be a wife anymore. In the significant areas she has even lost her personality and on the practical side, she can’t even do the things she used to do so effortlessly before, for example, she can’t even cook anymore.’
As time went on though, as all that had made her who she was, was all gone, all she was capable of, was love. In the end, giving love and receiving love, that is the sole thing she was capable of and she’d say the most insightful things.
She’d look at the view like this – because they looked at Pittwater from the other end – and she’d say ‘Now I understand what it means in the Bible when it says “the peace of God that passes all understanding”. I truly understand that’.
She’d look at me and her vision was incredibly poor – she could barely read and she’d say to me ‘You are so beautiful’. I knew she wasn’t looking at the exterior part of me, she was looking absolutely at the spiritual part of me and she would say it time and time again.
Love was all she was capable of
She was looking through me, she was not looking at my exterior person and in the end she was basically all about love. You had to love this person because that’s all she was capable of receiving, and she felt the love.
At the end, the love between Mum and Dad was just absolutely palpable and that’s why he needed her to be alive. He needed to be able to love her and receive that love and I think they were closer in those last few years than they’d ever been in their entire marriage.
Dad was a country doctor and Mum was a country doctor’s wife and work came first for most of their married life, but then he became the most magnificent carer. In the end we had nurses come in to help but he never wanted to be apart from her. And when he died six months after her, he just, in my opinion, did not want to be around without her.
Mum died in December and basically it took a couple of weeks to see him start to deteriorate. He had deteriorated over the three years that he had nursed Mum. His mobility had become more limited, he was more inclined to fall and he was socially much more insular.
Mum became his world and he really didn’t venture outside of that much. But I think after Mum died he was just incredibly lonely despite having three children who were very much a part of his life. The love of his life had just gone.
I have this sense that I feel them
Since their death I have never felt a gap where my parents aren’t there anymore. I have this sense that I feel them, they’re very much a part of the life that I live. They are no longer here day to day but if I see something Mum would have loved I feel her there enjoying it, maybe through my eyes or through my taste or my smell or something like that. I very, very much feel that.
I actually wasn’t here for Mum’s funeral. She died the day before we left to go to South America and we were walking up to Machu Picchu and I felt this bird kept following me all the time.
Mum used to love tiny little birds like wrens and willy wagtails and things like that and this bird just kept coming back and I just felt very much that she was there enjoying the walk with me.
Now, even now, I don’t feel that my parents are not there. I don’t feel sad. It just feels like the natural progression of their lives and I don’t feel lonely for them, I don’t miss them because I can feel them. So I feel lucky like that.
I don’t see her as such, or hear her voice but I have a feeling of her.
I feel this less about my father but I feel like I knew him less as a person. Because I knew so much about what Mum loved and the flowers that she loved and the birds that she loved and the pictures that she loved and things in the garden – she was a great gardener – I have more of a sense of her.
We weren’t a particularly religious family. We went to church and to Sunday school but religion was not a big part of our lives at all. But relating their deaths back to my sense of there being no real death, I think that Dad felt that immortality came because there was no destruction of matter and so your atoms and the bits of you would continue on because matter can neither be created nor destroyed, so I think he felt that was where his immortality lay.
A Good Death: a compassionate and practical guide to prepare for the end of life will be available in bookshops from May 6, 2019. To pre-order, go to:
To read another story of the death of a parent, go to:
To read a book on the death of a parent, read My Mother, My Father, edited by Susan Wyndham. This can be found at:
Tech lovers, you can follow Dead Parent Club Podcast on Instagram and tune in to the show wherever you get your podcasts.
For help with loss at the other end of life, child or infant loss, you can dive in to one of the instagram accounts or blogs listed here by Miranda Hernandez.