You’ve probably heard phrases such as, “Souls don’t die.” “Death is but an illusion.” “Our departed loved ones watch over us.” We’ve been told our whole lives that souls leave the body and either go to another world or in some cases, hang out in this world as spirits or ghosts. It seems so easy to talk about such things when it’s about someone else or it’s discussed as theoretical hearsay or you watch a funny movie like Ghostbusters. But when you witness a life shrivel away right before your eyes and you look death in the face, if you are lucky, you have the opportunity to experience how real the spiritual world really is.
Here is my experience of coming face to face with the spirit of death.
In the spring of 2004 mom was diagnosed as being in the very early stages of pancreatic cancer. The doctors had found cancer cells in her pancreatic duct. When I was told of her diagnosis around Easter time I remember being in somewhat of a state of shock and I’m sure denial. Mom had a number of health problems for decades such as arthritis, digestive issues and depression, none of which were life threatening. So a cancer diagnosis was a whole new experience to process. From all that I had read and heard pancreatic cancer is a death sentence.
My parents and two brothers lived in Oklahoma City and I had been living in Loveland, CO since 1990. With three young children it was hard to visit more than a couple of times a year and leave my husband, Rich, to look after them. So when my brother, Paul, called in mid April of 2005 to let me know Mom had taken a turn for the worse and that I should come on down as soon as I could, I immediately booked a flight.
Upon arriving home I walked in the house and immediately felt a strange sensation. It still had the same familiar smell that was unique only to our house but I also detected something else. The smell of dying. I could feel the shift in energy as soon as I closed the front door behind me. I walked through the entryway and turned the corner into the large family room but I wasn’t prepared for what I would see. There, in a hospital bed at one end of the room, was Mom lying with her head propped on a pillow making this awful sound as her chest raised and lowered. I was to learn later that sound is what’s called “the death rattle.” I timidly walked up to her side and called out to her to let her know I was there. There was no response. I then stroked her arm gently with my hand. She turned towards me feeling my touch. I could tell she couldn’t locate my face at least not with any eye contact. I told her again I was there, but I’m not even sure she really heard the words. Her eyes were open but they had lost their ability to focus. They only wandered around in their sockets gazing off over my shoulder. I had the feeling that she was looking right past me at someone or something.
I turned to Dad with an incredulous look and said “why didn’t you warn me.” I was not prepared for her to be this far gone. I don’t even remember him saying anything. What I do remember was how tired he looked. He shook his head, which was a common response for dad as he was not the best communicator with words when it came to emotions. He admitted that he was tired and said he was going back to the bedroom to lay down for a nap. At 89 his late afternoon naps were a must.
My sister, Sarah, showed up, as she was visiting from back east where she lived. We both just sat by mom’s side looking at each other in kind of a daze. Mom rested fitfully as she fidgeted in her bed with the “rattle” coming and going. There were times she would cry out “Honey, honey.” I knew she was calling for dad and I hated to tell her that dad wasn’t there because he was resting. I knew she was scared and there was nothing I could do for her except pat her arm and keep reassuring her Sarah and I were there and dad would be along soon.
Late in the afternoon or early evening Sarah left to go back to her friend’s house where she was staying and emotionally regroup herself. Dad awoke from his nap and we proceeded to fix something to eat. We spent the evening there in the family room with mom resting as we chatted about various family matters, some important and some not so important. I can’t remember now any of the specifics. I’m sure we were trying to distract ourselves from what was happening right before us. I do remember, however, that whenever we would talk about mom, especially about their younger years of marriage, dad would start to choke up some. In all my life I had never seen my dad cry and watching him struggle to get words out was emotionally hard on me.
It was around 10:30 or so, time for us to go to bed and dad got up and went to mom’s side. He told me he was going to give her the evening medication, exactly what it was I’m not sure. I think it was something for her anxiety which would help her sleep more peacefully. He put the pill on her tongue and then put a sippy cup of water up to her lips. I must have said or looked a certain way because I remember him saying that this was the normal routine and he assured me that as soon as she felt the cup and water on her lips she would take the water and swallow the pill.
We watched as her mouth took in the small sip of water but then instead of swallowing she started to try and spit the pill out. It all happened so fast. We were helpless to do anything as she made gurgling sounds and she seemed very resistant to the process. Within a minute or so of watching her struggle with the water in her mouth and some that must have trickled down her throat she all of a sudden was quiet. Stillness overtook her. Dad looked up at me with tears in his eyes. He turned around, grabbed the stethoscope and listened for her heart. Since he was a doctor I trusted him to know what he was listening for. He paused. Move the stethoscope to another position. Paused again. Then with tears not just in his eyes but now running down his cheeks and his nose all he said was, “I’m afraid she’s gone.”
I know I held my breath as the tears poured out of me, just as they are doing now as I remember that moment and I try to put the experience into words. Yet there are no words to describe how you feel when you watch a parent, especially the person who gave you birth, leave you, for what you think is an end of your relationship.
Dad and I retreated to the couch. Allowing each other to process what we just experienced. Then we both took to the phones to call the family. I called my husband first. I was in a state of shock and needed to share this with him as he was and will always be a source of strength for me. We called the hospice nurse and the funeral home and waited as they both arrived and went through their routine of dealing with a newly departed.
As we waited I remember wanting some ice cream. I fixed myself some, a dish of chocolate – mom’s and my favorite, and sat on the couch talking to mom as if she could hear me, saying “here’s to you mom.” Mom loved her ice cream and I felt that she was happy that I was indulging in that treat. (I’ve found out recently that we crave ice cream when we are sad and grieving because it provides needed fat to the brain to help it calm down.)
Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, after mom had left the house for the last time, dad and I retired to bed I spent a hour or more journaling the experience and actually slept reasonably well that night. The next morning we had to start to attend to business. And we were to find out that mom was not to be left out.
I can’t remember the exact order but mid morning the whole house literally started to go electrically wacky. And I mean WACKY!! In a matter of a couple of hours we experienced the house communicating to us in a variety of ways. Mom had a “call button” that went off suddenly and dad received a call from the fire department. While he was on the phone with them the house alarm went off making the most God awful racket. Then the TV stopped working and had to be reset, as did the programmed table lamp, and the coffee maker. The CD player by mom’s bed started to cycle and when that happened, by now all I could say was, “Ok Mom, we get it. You’re still here!” At first we were taken back and confused by all the malfunctions. It got to the point where we all convinced, even dad the most skeptical, that mom was still here. There was no other explanation.
The house quieted down after that first day and we didn’t have any more strange electrical modes of communication. But Mom was not quite yet finished with letting us know she was still around.
When mom’s viewing was going to take place, my sister and I went down early to put a few more items in and around her casket. The mortician had put pink lipstick on mom and both my sister and I looked at her lips and apologized to mom for the mistake. Mother never, ever wore pink. She always wore red lipstick. A few moments later one of the funeral attendants brought in a huge spray of flowers from my brother, John’s, workplace, the VA hospital. The young man set them on the table and left closing the door to mom’s small viewing room. Sarah and I were admiring them, reading the note attached when all of a sudden a couple of the single flowers started to sway back and forth, probably a good 2-4 inches. Sarah and I looked at each other. She said, “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” I nodded yes, not taking my eyes off the flowers. Sarah looked around the room. The door was closed. There was no window. She gazed up to the vent and then felt to see if she could feel any breeze coming out. There was none. We kept watching these two flowers sway calmly back and forth amongst all the other still flowers in the beautiful array. Sarah finally didn’t know what to do so she blurted out, “But you look beautiful mom. You look much better than your neighbor next door.” Sarah and I had checked to see who else was having viewing that day. I know it sounds a little callus now, but at the time we were trying to be as light hearted at her passing as we could be and seeing who else was going through the experience was somehow comforting.
The dance of the flowers lasted maybe 5 minutes or so. By the time the rest of the family arrived all was quiet in the viewing room. My sister and I were left with a sense of peace that I know I’ll never forget.
Mom’s communication with us after her passing were some of the most bizarre experiences of my life up to that point. To this day I know mom is with me, watching over me, guiding me, cheering me on and part of my life still. As I have shared this story with many in the last 11 years I have heard similar experiences of loved ones hanging around to let their loved ones know they are still with them.
I was told once that it is a great honor to be present during the birth of a baby and likewise, it is an honor to be present by someone’s side when they cross over and go through one of these two sacred transitions. My mother, bless her heart, trusted me enough to allow me the experience of that great honor when she made that journey and then stuck around to let me know that she was still with me.
Please feel free to share briefly in the comment section your own experiences with departed loved ones who let you know they are still with you.