Finding strength in a loved one’s time of dying

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  • June 6, 2013

My sister was going on a journey and needed me at her side. I told myself I didn’t have the time, the resources or energy to go with her, but she was persistent and loving and had a look in her eyes that pulled me in.

I wasn’t prepared to embark on this particular journey, not yet. But leaving behind my responsibilities at home and at work, I joined her on what became a sacred passage.

My older sister needed me to help provide palliative care for our mom. I was torn by her request but a spiritual force, coupled with my husband’s encouragement, made me realize that if I rejected this call I would regret it all my life.

My 86-year-old mom, Teresa Pilarski, lived with my sister’s family, about 10 minutes away from my home. Our families are close. We had been watching mom’s health decline but she had made several comebacks in the past and, in the back of my mind, I thought maybe she’d do so again.

After daily visits to my sister’s house it became clear that I had to move in, taking over my niece’s bedroom, so we could maintain a constant vigil. Soon we had a hospital bed set up in the living room to make mom more comfortable. Our world came to revolve completely around her.

We were doing out best to provide home care with the support of some outstanding health professionals.

Their daily visits became a blessing as they attended to mom’s medical needs and helped make her comfortable. Dr. Harvey Pasternak, a palliative care physician who works out of Toronto Grace Hospital, was assigned to mom’s case. He was our rock.

“Our goal is to give your mom as many dignified moments of precious life as humanly possible,” the doctor said. “We will work together to accomplish that. Page me whenever you don’t know what to do. The enemy of this process is confusion.

“You can do this! Call me, whenever you need me. I am here.”

It is an extraordinary experience to spend time with your mom wondering if each moment will be her last. Every word became so precious, every breath a gift.

More than ever, the things that are important became clearer and clearer. Observing her moments of agony, hearing her offer up specific intentions, seeing her in constant prayer, listening bedside to her teachings — it became a daily spiritual journey, a retreat. One day she reflected on work and prayer, wondering why it was that so many people believed the path to happiness was through hard work. “People should work less and pray more,” she said.

During this sacred time, she retained her wit and sense of humour. She provided us with levity and comfort at exactly the right moments. One time I mentioned how beautiful she looked, like a rose. She opened her eyes and with a big smile replied: “But a rose has thorns!”

My mom, a woman of great faith, pulled us out of earthly time into a heavenly realm. She used the last two weeks of her life to evangelize, pray, give thanks and make offerings. Even a visiting priest left the house overwhelmed by the attention my mom was according her spiritual health as she prepared to face her Creator.

Mom was a survivor of World War Two. She shared many memories, many stories of a life that was filled to the brim. She remained grateful to the Marian priests who pulled her, as a teenager, out of the rubble in Warsaw after her home was demolished by a bomb. One of her final requests was that, at the end of her funeral Mass, her casket be moved in front of a statue of Our Lady.

“I have always been loyal to her, and she has always been loyal to me,” mom said. “I have worn my scapular since the day of my First Holy Communion.”

My sister and I took more than 25 pages of notes of the things that happened and the things my mom said during those days. I wish I’d taped all her reflections. They were so beautiful. There were so many moments of beauty amid the pain, joy amid the tears and grace-filled interludes amid the prayers.

Mom always taught us that it was important to pray for the grace of a happy and peaceful death. In my mom’s case, those prayers were answered.

(Writer, speaker and consultant, Pilarski’s book, Motherhood Matters: Inspirational Stories, Letters, Quotes & Prayers for Catholic Moms, is available from Catholic Register Books by calling 416-934-3410.)

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