The Seven Biggest Lessons Mom’s Life Taught Me – Reflections a Day After Her Death

by Dr. David Gruder

There’s nothing quite like death to illuminate what’s most important in life. As I sit at my keyboard in yet another wave of grieving a day after my nearly 87-year-old mother died on 11/11/11, reflecting on the lessons I feel gifted by her life and death, here is what most wants to come out:

1. The price of abandoning your passion for ‘the rules’ is far too great to be worth doing: Mom chose to abandon her heart to follow the expectations of her parents, her husband (my father), and the prevailing cultural rules of the time. Had she followed her heart she would have lived the life of a Bohemian writer in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village during the late 1940s and 1950s instead of marrying Dad, giving up her career, and having children. She paid dearly for this and, consequently, so did those around her, much to her chagrin. As I grew up, the chronic depression and anger Mom suffered from because she did this robbed herself of her aliveness and handicapped her lovingness with Dad, my brother Ben, and others who wanted to be closer with her.

2. It’s never too late to reclaim yourself: When Mom was in her 50s she at last stepped fully into the psychological and metaphysical exploration that had intrigued her despite my Dad’s consternation about this. A couple of years before he died in 1988, he conceded to her, “I don’t understand or like what you’re doing but I like who you are becoming because of it.” According to both of them, their final years together before Dad died were better because of Mom’s courage. During that time she also went back to college to complete the Bachelor’s degree she began as a young woman. She got it in Gerontology, the study of aging, and then became the director of volunteers for her county’s hospice. She said she did this because she was afraid of death. The more Mom faced her fear of death, the more she reclaimed her thrill of living. Awhile after Dad died she gave herself permission to start dating again and to have other adventures that she did not find the inner permission to do during her marriage.

3. Face your decline and death with open eyes and deliberateness: Mom first created her Living Will in 1994, in which she mapped out her end-of-life instructions, and these were so clear, specific and authentic that they remained consistent throughout the remainder of her life. She developed a refreshingly delicious “Screw the ‘don’t talk’ rules” attitude and spoke bluntly and regularly with my brother and me about every single detail we needed to know in order to fully honor her directives. We committed to doing just that, should she ever become unable to implement them herself. But, Mom remained active, and indeed proactive, with her aging and dying decisions all the way to her death. In May of 2002, she had heart surgery that included a heart valve replacement, a single bypass and the installation of a pacemaker. Three weeks later, while in a cardiac rehab facility, she suffered a major stroke which then landed her in a stroke rehab facility. Even though she substantially recovered from her heart surgery and subsequent stroke, her capacities had diminished. Instead of my having to initiate a discussion with her about moving into an independent living senior community, she had the clarity and courage to announce to me that she had decided that it was time for her to do this. Eight years after moving there, her capacity to care for herself had diminished to where it was time for her to move into an assisted living community. And again, instead of my needing to tell her this, she told this to me. She moved at the end of December of 2010. In June of 2011, Mom once again led the way, telling me that the time had come for her to activate hospice care. (Thankfully, she was able to receive this care without having to move again.) The combination of her progressing cardiomyopathy (heart deterioration) and increasingly debilitating chronic physical pain had by then diminished her quality of life far below the minimum that was acceptable to her. In her final months of life she did need my persistent and vigorous assistance as her medical advocate in order to ensure that her outside-the-box (but perfectly legal and ethical) end of life directives were followed.

4. Find peace with your regrets and your grievances before you die: During Mom’s final years she was relentless in seeking, finding and forgiving herself for the regrets she had about having abandoned huge pieces of her authenticity and zest for life as a young woman, her guilt over the ways she felt she had harmed many people over the decades because of this, and the resentment she felt toward others for various ways she had felt harmed by then. She did this with such dedication and success that she ultimately embodied what I view as the essence of forgiveness: demonstrating in the present that you are no longer harmed by the unacceptable in the past. Mom demonstrated beyond any shadow of doubt that it’s never too late to forgive yourself or others, and that the gifts from doing this, for oneself and others, are ever-expanding love, light and peace.

5. Dare to die consciously even if this makes some uncomfortable: For a multitude of reasons, our society seems to frown on people at the end of their life dying with intention. Mom had a positive impact on those she knew and did not know, all the way to the day she died. Her end of life directives forced portions of the medical establishment to realize that her decision to die a natural death in a conscious way was the forerunner of a time when the baby boomers who will follow her will be demanding the right to die this way in greater and greater numbers. Her hospice and their licensing board, her assisted living facility and their licensing board, and many other people thanked her for having had the courage to force them to face this.

6. You can have positive impact in the world all the way to your dying breath: In early 2011, a couple of months after Mom moved into her assisted living community, I had a discussion with her about the positive impact that her remarkable aging journey could have on others and invited her to write an article about this (to view it, click on the word "article" or access it below the end of this post). She did so with my help, and even before I have found a major magazine to publish it, those with whom I have privately shared it have told me they found it profoundly inspiring and empowering. As I mentioned above, even after Mom decided that she was finished with her life, she still went on to break new ground for assisted living facilities and hospices in the state of California because she (and I on her behalf) would not back down on making sure that her bold end-of-life directives were honored. And then, the day Mom died on 11/11/11, when the last attendant who saw her alive was about to leave Mom’s room after making her comfortable, Mom kissed Lupe on the cheek and said “I love you.” The assisted living facility director told me shortly thereafter that Lupe had said to her that this was such a powerful experience for her that she would never forget it.

7. Even when your quality of life is stripped from you beyond what you can accept, what’s always left is love: Mom realized this and the closer she moved toward death the more peaceful and loving she became. There is no doubt in my heart that her courage in gradually facing and finding peace with every one of her regrets and grievances during her final years of life made it possible for Mom to die with love and peace instead of bitterness, resentment, guilt and fear. She inspired me each time I was with her during her final months, and she clearly held love in her heart all the way to her surprisingly swift dying moments. I was notified by Mom’s hospice chaplain literally minutes after she died. I called my brother Ben and my wife Laurie on the way over. When I arrived a mere twenty minutes after Mom died, the peacefulness on her face was truly magnificent. I called Ben, who lives across the country from us, to tell him what I saw on her face. He asked me to take a photo and email it to him because he felt this would bring him some measure of peace. As soon as I sent it he told me how soothed he felt, saying “She looks like an angel.” Ben was exactly right. Mom had become an angel before she left this world. The swift and gentle way she left, and her countenance that became frozen on her face at her moment of death, beautifully reflected this.

With all of this said, let me end this piece with all of the most important things Mom taught me assembled all together:
1. The price of abandoning your passion for ‘the rules’ is far too great to be worth doing.
2. It’s never too late to reclaim yourself.
3. Face your decline and death with open eyes and deliberateness.
4. Find peace with your regrets and your grievances before you die.
5. Dare to die consciously even if this makes some uncomfortable.
6. You can have positive impact in the world all the way to your dying breath.
7. Even when your quality of life is stripped from you beyond what you can accept, what’s always left is love.

I am grateful, and indeed overwhelmed by, the huge outpouring of love and prayers from all of those who have already reached out to me only a day after Mom died. Whether you contacted me or not, my heart’s wish is that you and those you love might find validation and encouragement from some or all of Mom’s lessons. For me, they are her most precious legacy of all.

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