Compassionate Love: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness
(c)2014 Nancy Virden
July fourth, along with other patriotic holidays, remind us of our warriors to whom we owe our freedoms. One of the mantras of our armed forces is that we never leave one of our own behind. It’s a great philosophy in other areas of supporting people who are hurting as well.
My mother would have been 83 this year, next week to be specific. She is not alive due to breast cancer which ended her life twelve years ago. She had been diagnosed after seeing her doctor about a lump. There was surgery, chemotherapy, hair loss, exhaustion, desperate last-ditch efforts at a cure, long talks, slow walks, and then after two years I received a phone call.
“Nancy, I saw the doctor today,” she said. “I have only a few weeks to live.”
Immediately I drove the 60 miles to her home to stay with her, my two sons in tow. She had no other family willing or able to help much. Of course, I understood it was my job as her daughter to be there for her, and stepping up was a no-brainer. I had no idea what I’d signed up for.
First I found her taking a nap and an acquaintance doling out meds. While my sons carried our belongings in from the car, this woman tried to show me the basics of medication preparation and to warn me of things to come. My oldest son was almost fourteen and his voice was dropping. When my mother heard him from her room she said, “There’s a man in my kitchen.” The kind visitor smiled knowingly and alerted me that my single mother who had lived alone for twenty-five years was becoming delusional. I just smiled. Later my mother and I laughed about her “imagined” man.
I knew her sense of humor. I knew how she liked her eggs, her coffee, her laundry, and her conversation. I was familiar with her favorite chair, what could and could not be touched, how to hang her clothes, and all of her friends’ names. Her pastor and I were on first name basis, and when visitors came by there were no strangers.
I knew she wanted to hear the Bible read, and so I read it. I knew she wanted singing, and so I sang. I knew her quirks and knew what would make her laugh. Nonetheless, it was my responsibility alone to be a mom to my sons and to watch my mother die. I tried to figure out what exactly I was supposed to do. Fear ruled at first; would I keep her comfortable? Would she suffer more because of my ignorance in these matters? We both understood clearly that I am no nurse. Periodically I asked if everything was ok and she always said yes, trying very hard to do for herself whatever she could.
One day a doctor said that since the cancer had moved into her liver it would be a less painful way to die. She was relieved saying, “That’s good to know.” I gave her morphine when she asked for it, and helped her from room to room. There was some pain I could not relieve for her and that made me angry.
I watched her hurting as her son and his family did not come by. For one hour near the end he mustered the will to show up. She hadn’t been out of bed or talking for a few days, and suddenly somehow rose from near-death to insist I sit her in a chair and fix her hair. My brother was uncomfortable and left quickly, sparing himself the look in her eyes as she said goodbye to her firstborn. I wept away from her and my own sons with the shared anguish of a mother’s heart.
Other family stopped by to tell her she would not be dying if she were only more faithful to Jesus. She instantly forgave them, proving who was actually following him well. Her request that we all sing together failed to put me at ease, but I will never forget the joy on her face. It was all I could do to not demand they leave, but when a person is dying, well, they get to decide who comes and goes.
The death vigil was overwhelming. People kept asking for progress reports. At night I barely slept for fear of missing her calling out to me. In the mornings I rushed to be dressed before she could wake up. She had a baby monitor in her room in case she wanted something, and everywhere in the house I could hear her breathing in the background. It was intense listening for that sound to stop – not wanting her to be gone but being uncertain how much longer I would have the inner strength to wait.
One step after another I helped her to get ready. She wanted to hear about heaven; I read about heaven. She wanted songs; I sang. For the most part it was just the two of us in her room, with me sitting on the floor by her head. Then one morning she asked for grits which I didn’t know how to make. Having anxiously attempted to follow directions on a box, I nervously offered what supposedly was grits. She scowled and refused to eat them. She asked for coffee, I spilled it. Then she wanted nothing at all. No longer was there an answer whether she was in pain so I gave her morphine at my discretion. She winced. I didn’t know if I was doing this right. God led me through many minutes when the next was uncertain.
The afternoon came when her breathing became erratic. At her bedside I watched her take her last breath, and for an instant was afraid. Two of her friends were there as well. It was later, after the hearse had driven away, everyone who needed to be had been called, and my sons had left with their father, that it was me, the silence, and God.
Laying on her bed I could feel guilt and regret. Our mother-daughter relationship had been destroyed in the early years through interference beyond our control. For eleven years before her death we had grown closer. Doubt resurfaced that she received much of what she’d hoped for by way of relationship when her only daughter was born. I knew this, however: regardless of our history she had not been alone in the end. I’d done that much right.
Compassionate Love does its best to leave no one behind.
Happy birthday, mom. I’m certain you are having a great time.
NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.
If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help can be yours.
*photo from qualiystockphotos.com