My sister died three years ago, at 5:35 in the morning, after just one night in the hospice. Life reconfigures itself, because you can’t live in permanent grief, nor deny the blessings you still enjoy, but it does so like a bone imperfectly set. The hole in your life may be smaller and boarded over, other voices speak when the now silent voice spoke, the blessings and trials she brought you replaced by others.
That last day I will never forget. My wife and I sat with her almost all day Monday, which as it happened was Labor Day. The last visitor, one of her oldest friends, left in the late afternoon, and they parted knowing that after forty years of friendship, they would never see each other again in this world. We sat through the evening till the pain got so bad, she who had insisted on dying at home wanted to go into the hospice. If you want to feel powerless, useless, a failure, give someone you love painkillers that don’t kill the pain.
The Ambulance Came
The ambulance came and took her to the hospice. I’d thought I could say a proper goodbye when we got there, not knowing that the nurse who came with the ambulance would give her drugs that put her to sleep. That was bitter. We drove to the hospice house, and spent the evening in a kind of vigil, saying the Rosary, singing to her, pacing. Early in the morning, with the sun about to rise, her breathing became shallower and raspier and a few minutes later she opened her eyes wide, closed them, and died.
She looked so tiny in that bed, one arm skeletal from the cancer, the other swollen from a blood clot. The last day had so ravaged her face she didn’t look anything like herself. I have not cried so much since I was three, if then.
We said the In Paradisum at her bedside before we called the nurse. “Karen, may the angels lead you into paradise, may the martyrs welcome you in your coming, and may they guide you into the holy city Jerusalem. May the chorus of angels receive you and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest.”
My sister had been here, then she wasn’t. We could feel the presence of her absence. The religious and legal rituals help you order the days after the death, but they don’t make you feel better. More resigned to the reality, but not better. At least they didn’t for me or my wife. Your mileage, as the joke goes, may vary.
You readjust your life to account for, to cover for, the loved one you’ve lost. You press on. That’s the only thing you can do. You can’t undo death.
But her absence remains an absence you feel. Not all time time, but sometimes, and unexpectedly. Sometimes you fall into the hole, sometimes you realize that the voices you hear do not include that voice, sometimes you wish you could enjoy the blessing or endure the trial. You wish with that pain you feel in the middle of your chest that she were here, and not not-here.
Of your charity, say a prayer for Karen.
David Mills is the editor of Hour of Our Death. His last article, also talking about the pain of grief, was Memory is Treacherous, the Triggers Many. His other articles can be found here. The story of Karen’s last day can be found here.
The picture is a cropped version of a photo placed in the public domain by Fish-Guts.