~ Submitted by Meghan Gardner
About a year before my mom died, we were talking on the phone about my hospice volunteer work. She said something about how we celebrate our birth every single year, but no one ever thinks to celebrate their pending death. I thought this was a great point and I suggested that we make a Death Day for her. As a hospice volunteer, I had no issues discussing the topic, but this was the first time I had thought about making it into a celebration.
Editor’s Note: April 16 is National Healthcare Decisions Day, which exists to inspire, educate, and empower the public and providers about the importance of advance care planning.
A memorable visit with Mom
I visited my mom in New York soon after our phone call. We dressed up as if we were going to a party. I took her out for breakfast where we talked over mimosas and pastries about what she wanted to happen (if possible) as she was dying. We then went to the cemetery where she picked out her gravesite. She opted for a green burial… just a shroud, no casket. She had to choose from among a variety of locations on a map. One was near the foot of a tree. I told her, “You can feed the tree.” She loved that idea and that was her choice. We learned about the history of the cemetery and the famous people buried there who would “keep her company,” as she put it. We then went out for an early dinner and martinis and laughed about how everyone’s headstone has two dates and a dash. That dash is your life.
When I asked her about religion and faith, she told me that she didn’t think much of religion and the universe couldn’t be read until we all learned the language it is written in. I thought that was an interesting comment.
When I dropped her off that evening, she grabbed my hand, looked into my eyes with deep sincerity, and told me it was one of the very best days of her life. She was immensely relieved to be able to talk about this topic with me in a way that felt more life affirming than any other conversation we had had before.
Mom’s advance directives
A short time later, Mom completed her advance directives with me and my brother, Andy. She named Andy as her health care agent because he also lived in New York.
A year later I sat at her side as she lay dying, and I was able to play Ennio Morricone’s “The Mission,” which she had requested to be played during her dying time. I stayed with her until after she drew her last breath. I knew that she didn’t want a funeral or a headstone. She was quite practical.
Later, when Andy cleaned out Mom’s tiny apartment, he sent me a few of her belongings. One of them was a small notepad. Inside the notepad, filled with mostly appointments and recipes, I found this quote she had copied. This was what my mother had paraphrased to me during her Death Day:
“The universe cannot be read until we have learned the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written, which is a mathematical language. Without these, one is wandering in a dark labyrinth.“ – Galileo
As someone who held education and science in the highest regard, this quote seemed like the perfect ode to my mom’s life.
That day spent with my mom, talking about her future death, gave me both guidance and solace in a difficult time. I think having a Death Day celebration once a year would be an excellent excuse for both a celebration of life and imparting important guidance to our loved ones about our wishes. I know it was a treasured memory for both me and my mom.
Conversations and peace of mind
This celebration of life/death has inspired regular conversations among me, my husband, and our adult children to make sure that our end-of-life preferences haven’t changed over time. The conversation is ongoing, and we adjust our advance directives as needed.
Having my health care proxy and other advance care planning documents in place gives me peace of mind. I’m glad my memory of Mom’s Death Day celebration inspired me to act.
About the author
Bedford resident Meghan Gardner is a Care Dimensions hospice volunteer and a member of the Patient Family Advisory Council.
What a beautiful story. I hope it inspires more to have these conversations with their loved ones.