"How could I sleep? What if she looked over at the chair beside her bed and I wasn’t there? Even worse, what if she passed away while I was in bed?"
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on January 4, 2019. It has since been updated.
Watching your parents face their last days is never easy. It's a heart-wrenching feeling, one that makes you want to run away in the hopes of sparing yourself some pain yet not wanting to leave them. And Sher Bailey was facing this exact agony. She knew that the days she was with her mother were her last ones. It nearly broke her to see the woman who gave her birth and raised her slowly give into her final moments, Sher did not want to spend even a second away from her.
When talking about her last few days with her mother, Sher wrote, "This will be a painful post to write, and it may be painful for you to read. But it’s an important conversation to have with yourself before it happens." After all, while she will pass on, at the end of the day, you still have to figure out how to work through your grief.
In 2014, Sher paid a heart-warming tribute to her mother in a blogpost titled Her name was Sybil. In it, she thanked her mother for doing everything she had done, including bringing her into the world at the tender age of 19. After thanking her for all the small moments in life, Sher said, "But, more than anything, thank you for sticking with the whole parenting thing and doing your best to figure it out when you were just a kid yourself. It must have been wicked hard, but you put on a brave face and a little make-up, and kept being my Mother."
She recalls that the last words she ever heard from her mother was, “I wish I’d been happier," — something that didn't just affect her, but also changed her life. And so Sher narrates her own personal experience to help you know how to deal when you have to face the same.
For as long as you can remember, your parent has been there and to suddenly imagine a life without them will change you. "Be attentive. Listen to their stories. Commit their words to heart," she shared with Kitchen Fun. "There will be things your parent says or does during this time that will come out of nowhere and break your heart. It could be a sweet story they remember, or it could be something completely honest and raw..."
Everything your parent did for you growing up, it will be your turn to take on the same tasks for them. "The circle of life is never more evident as when you become the one your dying parent looks to for comfort," Sher said. Handfeeding them, bathing them, calming them down, running your fingers over their head, and whispering soothing nothings — all of this will become your job. "You can’t get this wrong if your choices come from a place of love," she went on to say.
When you know their days are numbered, there's nowhere else you want to be except for by their side as they sleep. "She liked knowing I was there, I could tell by the look in her eyes," Sher recalled. "...It was as though I was back at my daughter’s crib in that respect. Watching her chest move up and down was comforting to me."
With old age comes illnesses which can slowly take a toll on your parent's mind and body. Sometimes, they could be with you physically but miles away mentally. Sher said, "If she was talking to my brother who hadn’t yet arrived, I confirmed to her that he was in fact in the house. I never tried to correct her."
"Dying is work, and Mother had a lot of work to do," Sher said. Having a timer on your moments with them makes you want to say and do as many things as you can before they're gone. But with their mind becoming slower and less sharp, it can be a bit of a struggle. She added, "I would see and hear her talking to people not meant for my eyes. And then she’d be present with me again, but only for brief interactions."
It isn't just their mind that takes a hit, their body deteriorates too. That twinkle in their eyes or the blush in their cheeks, it's all fading away and there isn't much you can do about it. "When you sit with your parent as they are preparing for their journey, there are almost imperceivable little changes that happen to their physical body," Sher writes. "And then suddenly, you see what’s happened in its entirety and it takes your breath a little."
No matter what, there will be conversations and decisions you regret. So, when it's time for them to leave, it can be painful. "When an estranged parent dies, they get to leave the demons that haunted them on Earth behind," Sher said. "Ours stay with us, always at the ready to come out and force remembering."
We were quite literally born to die. However, seeing your parents in their last days can make that seemingly casual statement a lot more hard-hitting. "When a parent dies you can’t help but think of your own death someday," Sher shared. "You wonder if this is how it will go for you, and what will happen with your own children if you have any. Will they be there with you? What can you do to make it less traumatic for them?"
It doesn't hit you until their last days, just how much you inherited from them. "Her nose was my nose. Her smile, crooked on one side so that lipstick never looked quite right, was my smile. Her small hands were my hands, although hers were painfully gnarled by arthritis and were adorned by a single ring she wore on her thumb," Sher remembered.
"How could I sleep? What if she looked over at the chair beside her bed and I wasn’t there? Even worse, what if she passed away while I was in bed?" was what Sher used to have on her mind when people tried to get her to eat or sleep. But she also said that sometimes it's just best to listen to others when they say something for your benefit no matter how much you want to stay by your parent's bedside.
You may not see it or even realize it, but just your presence can do so much for your parents in their final moments. However, "you don’t have to talk if you don’t want to. Your dying parent will feel your spirit beside them and know they are in a safe space and well-loved," Sher shared.
But when the day finally comes, their passing can bring you to your knees. No matter how much time you spent being with them, it'll feel like you haven't had enough. And it's the little things that will remind you of them. Sher said, "After two years I can still hear the way she said my name. I worry I won’t be able to hear it forever."
Once they're gone, your grief is yours to find a way to deal with but it might just be best to talk to someone you're comfortable with. Sher said, "There is no shortcut to get through this pain. If you can get to a therapist, I encourage you to do it. Lean on your loved ones as much as possible. Accept help."