I received a call from the daughter of a patient I had only seen one time almost a year ago. After my visit with her mother, I had called her to let her know how things went. She hadn't seen her mother in many months; they lived seven hours apart from one another, and they didn't really "get along," but she did want to know how she was. At the time of the call, her mother was doing well and from my perspective had a few months left to live.
We ended up having a very long conversation about relationships between mothers and daughters, especially those that are estranged and carry with them a lifetime of regret, anger, and even guilt. I know these feelings well. My mom and I were not close, and we never had the kind of relationship many are fortunate to have. When she died, I was there, but I did not cozy up to her bedside, or hold her hand, or cry uncontrollably, which is what I witness often as a hospice nurse and as an end-of-life doula. I am admittedly envious of those who have the kind of relationships with their parents that saying goodbye is difficult to do.
I was surprised to get the phone call, I did not recognize the number, and it took me a few minutes to remember who she was. Her mom had graduated from hospice a few months ago, but she told me that she would be coming back on again soon, with very little time left as she had started to decline. She called me to ask for advice, she wanted to know if she should go to her, to be at her bedside. She hadn't seen her mother in a while, and they talked very rarely over brief phone calls, so the distance between them had only increased. She was struggling with whether she should wait until her mom became more imminent, or go to see her sooner.
My advice was this...
"I think you should consider how you would feel if you waited too long, and perhaps missed the window of opportunity to see her one last time. Maybe if you came sooner, you two could talk, not to patch things up necessarily, or change a lifetime of mistakes you both are probably guilty of making, but to be able to have last words, and even some closure, which would also help with your grief. But this depends on whether or not that is what you want. If you have no last words, and you don't feel a need to soften things in some way, then make peace with that. When someone is told time is running out, it is at those moments when all the feelings that have been tucked down deep inside, and all the words you hadn't said, come to the surface, and you find yourself wanting more time to say and feel it all. You realize at that moment you wasted time. This is a decision only you can make, and whatever it is, make peace with that."
I don't regret not saying things to my mom in her last hours, I regret that we did not have a better relationship. I know now that she did her best, which was not good enough for me back then. I have made peace with that, and I have forgiven her, as well as myself as I am responsible for it as well.
I advised her to call her mother and ask her if she would like her to come, and if she said yes, to consider that an invitation. Not an invitation to fix things, or rehash the past, but an opportunity to spend some time together, and to possibly also say goodbye.
She did call her mother, and she said "yes."
Prior to their visit, I offered her a private forgiveness ritual, and a chance to release some of the things she had been holding on to. It was powerful for her, and for me too. She told me that when she blew out her candle and she followed the smoke as I advised her to do, she felt the weight of the past leave too, which was healing.
She recently came to visit her mother, but when she arrived, her mom had declined even further and was no longer responsive. She called me again to ask me what she should do. I suggested she just be with her, and sit at her bedside knowing that her presence would be felt, and to say goodbye, which she did.
I am writing this just after she called me to let me know her mother had died, with her at the bedside. She was not tearful, and there was a calmness in her voice that comforted me. I invited her to share the experience with me, if she was comfortable with that, and she was. She told me that being able to release some of her feelings prior to coming was healthy for her. She sat at the bedside simply wanting to be there for her, and she said goodbye, and she thanked her for giving her life. She told me that she didn’t need to say anything else. She was no longer angry, and she no longer held onto regret. She found a way to make peace with the past, to say goodbye to her mother, and to move forward with ease and grace.
I am learning that it is not always necessary to fix things, or to go back in time and rehash the mistakes in order to find peace within. I do believe, however, that we need to face it, to see it for what it is, to acknowledge it, and to find a way to let it go. It is not easy, but it is doable. The importance of this, of letting go of the anger, the guilt, or the regret, is to be able to move forward in life after someone has died, especially when it is someone we have disconnected from.
I do a lot of candle lighting rituals, which allow me to sit with whatever I am feeling, set intention for release, and let it go. This is what I did for the woman who called me, I helped her let go of some of what she had been carrying so that when she said goodbye to her mother, she was able to do it with some peace in her heart.