Before you start reading my story, I’d like to let you know (“warn” you, if you like) that there are featured, several images of a journey I recently walked with my like-Great-Aunt. It was a journey to her next life. It’s not often that we see beautiful, unadulterated images of the dying, and eventually “dead”. We are, however, more used to seeing fictional Hollywood-generated images of dramatic and unrealistic deaths.
The images are not from my Mamma’s journey to her departure gates, which I shall share with you below if you decide to keep on reading, because I was too engrossed in assisting her transition to take professional photographs. I am deeply disappointed that the only photos we have are from a simple point-and-shoot camera, thanks to an ever present friend’s foresight….and therein lies my motivation for now offering professional End of Life and After Death photographic services. I share these images not to shock you…well, perhaps to shock you with their beauty. When we sit with Death, open to it’s opportunities, sometimes beauty shows Her face.
It seems like yesterday that I was sitting in the sunroom of my then boyfriend’s place, talking to my mum on the phone. She was in Sydney looking after my sister’s two kids whilst her and her hubby holidayed in Thailand. Mum and I had just gotten back from what turned out to be our final holiday together. She’d been really quite ill whilst we spent three weeks touring Nepal, uncured by the anti-biotics prescribed by her GP for “stomach pain” just before we left.
Upon arrival back home, it was straight in for tests, tests and more tests. During “that phonecall” she revealed “It’s cancer again”. I burst into tears. Her response: “I wish I could cry but I can’t”. I could tell she was shaken though because she asked me to go down to help her with the kids. She was a stoic thing, never usually asking for help like this.
Sigh. It was about two months between diagnosis and treatment starting, and what a state of limbo that was! Somewhere during that time, however, I called her GP to discuss her pain relief medication. Towards the end of the call, I happened to ask “Is treatment (chemo) going to work”. He made a pause probably undetectable to anyone else but me, and before he even spoke I asked “how long?”. His reply “maybe twelve months”.
I went into shock immediately. In fact, I spent about nearly two weeks in a state of shock, not eating or sleeping, not able to go to work. Thankfully I lived alone at the time, which enabled me to experience the roller-coaster of emotions that flowed through and out of me without having to hold back. Mum and her wife were not aware of the “twelve months” conversation. Neither was my sister at that time.
Probably the best thing to happen during that time was a telephone counselling session arranged through my work (UnitingCare Burnside). A counsellor was hand-picked for the call. He too had lost a wife and mother-in-law to cancer. Instead of the “you never know what might happen” approach others were taking, he was blatantly honest, sharing his experience, warning that “things are going to get harder”. So I quit my second job, moved home to be Mum’s primary carer, eventually took 3 months (or so) off work, ditched much of my social life, became Mum’s pseudo nurse, and lived like she WAS going to die within twelve months, and as though any day could be her last.
Once I was out of shock, I found my strength and the knowing that my whole life up until this point had prepared me for journey ahead. I knew with every cell in my being that it was my job to walk my beautiful 63 year old Mamma to her next adventure. I am pleased to say, despite the heartbreak, I did a bloody great job! The roller-coaster from diagnosis to treatment and death is a whole other story in itself. Lets just say that much was healed through caring through the laughter, the frustration, the “processing”, the silence. We occasionally talked directly about her death, but the morphine and the cancer (which had reached the brain) and perhaps denial on her part, and being lead by her and where she was at on my part, prohibited extensive conversations on the matter. The most poignant conversation, as I sat at the floor by her feet:
Mum: “Are we going to get through this?
Me: “Do you mean are you going to die?”
Mum: “No, I know I am going to die”.
Me: “Do you mean will we get through this “emotionally”?
Me: “I’ll be with you until the end”.
My beautiful Mamma was birthed into the Afterlife into the no doubt ecstatic and open arms of our Ancestors at 9.05pm on 1st January 2008. We think she waited for the NYE fireworks despite us assuring her in her unconsciousness that they weren’t for her!
So the 5 Reasons I was (and still am) grateful for a “terminal” death (as apposed to a sudden one) are:
- No matter how hard it got when looking after my Mum as she journeyed for 8 months with suddenly identified metastatic cancer, I was always thankful that she hadn’t been suddenly taken out by a bus or a heart attack. There had been numerous times in our lives when we had hung up the phone feeling frustrated or angry (me frustrated with her, most likely! Complex was our mother-daughter relationship), and had she died suddenly on one of those days, I would have been devastated…probably feeling guilty and unforgiving of myself
- Knowing that death was a certain, not-too-distant reality awaiting us, as apposed to the vague “likely” event that would happen when she was “old”, gave us time to grieve. I was in shock for the first 2 weeks, because every cell in my being could predict the outcome, but once I got used to and accepted the journey, I was able to grieve. Essentially, a lot of my grieving was done as she was dying. Or at least a version of it.
- I quickly found out who my real friends were. Journeying with cancer, as a primary carer, is intense, heartbreaking, funny, amazing, devastating, surreal, enraging, lonely, demanding, stunningly beautiful and sacred, and it can drag out over months. And that’s not to mention the aftermath and the grieving process. Some friends can last the distance, and some can’t. Those who lasted the distance are treasured gifts indeed. And i think it’s safe to say that all our lives were enriched by the process.
- It provided me with an on-going opportunity to practice surrender on a moment-by-moment basis. Whether that be surrendering to the truth…the anger…the heartbreak…the relief when Death finally came…and the journey that followed. Most of all though, the surrendering of the illusion that death is something that we can keep at arms distance.
- I was able to “breath her in” daily, as my dear friend who had also journeyed with her own terminally ill Mum suggested I do. I savoured every joyous, heartbreaking, tender moment, knowing it could be her very last, and by doing so, I had no regrets when she finally took flight. We didn’t necessarily always talk directly about her death, but in the silence, the hand holding, the knowing looks, the “service”, the laughter and the tears, we were able to heal whatever unspoken wounds or lessons we needed healing, and journey fearlessly to what we both knew was a beautiful alternative to life on Earth.
Five and a half years on, I am about as healed as I will ever get. I don’t miss her any less, it’s just that the rawness has healed. I’ve journeyed with four more Earthlings since then, either directly or indirectly. The sense of the sacred is ever present during the cross-overs, and I feel utterly privileged to be able to walk a while on the final journey of the deceased and their loved ones. Lives are changed forever.
Thanks to Kim Ryder for share her moving story and photographs. As part of the Dying To Know Day initiative we are sharing stories, knowledge and information on our blog about death, dying and bereavement. Please contact us if you would like to share yours.
Kim Ryder lives on the Central Coast of NSW. She runs an art-based business called Pickled Tink! (www.pickledtink.com.au & www.facebook.com/pickledtinkartwithheart) which includes pregnant belly casting, breast memory casting, henna tattooing, body painting, photography and much much more!
Kim has also literally just started her second business, called Sacred Hunger which focuses on End of Life and After Death Educational and Support Services. Websites and social media pages are in developmental stages, but keep popping on over to see where she’s at! www.sacredhunger.com.au & https://www.facebook.com/SacredHunger