Questions we meant to ask

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Your responses to two questions in my previous column about preparing for death, were inspirational and helpful. Here is a sampling, and to all of you who wrote in – thank you!

I asked: “What do you wish you’d asked your parent before he or she died?”

Readers responded:

I’d ask my mother:

* How she learned to survive with my father all those years?

* To tell me more about her faith in God, which sustained her and held Dad up.

* If she would write a letter to my sister and me? (She died when we were teenagers.)

* How did you show such fortitude and calm during your last illness?

I’d ask my father:

* What he thought about his relationship with Mom – only duty and interdependence?

* About family heirlooms disconnected from meaning discovered after his death?

* About the other women in his life and how many half siblings I have?

* About his childhood after his mother died and his stepmother treated him cruelly?

I’d ask each parent:

* What they believed about life after death?

* About my grandparents and all relatives whose history is lost with their deaths?

* What was your life like when you were young?

* What were your favorites things to do? The disappointments, roads not taken?

I asked: “Did you leave anything undone that you wish you’d done?”

And this reader’s words beautifully summarize many responses: “I wish I had done more to reinforce with my mother her value to the family and to me with words and more hugs and anything else that would have helped reassure her of her own worth. She often thanked me for the help I was extending to her and my response was that I was doing it because I loved her. Then, we simply went on with whatever it was we were doing. That would have been the perfect time, however, to talk more about her value from a whole variety of perspectives. I think I was somewhat lazy in not thinking of this until after her death.”

Another reader wrote a testimony to peace: “One thing I learned from my mother’s death is how to be when my own children gather round (I hope!) to see me off. Let them know I’m not disappointed or fearful or needing anything more than their presence…going with grace. Mother was a clear writer, but I never read anything more perfectly worded from her than this final letter she had left on her desk…the clear intention being to free us from worry and regret:

To my family, my physician, my clergyman, my lawyer –

If the time comes when I can no longer take part in decisions for my own future, let this statement stand as the testament of my wishes: If there is no very good expectation of my making an excellent recovery from physical or mental disability, I demand that I be allowed to die and not be kept alive by artificial means or heroic measures. I do not fear death as much as I fear the indignity of deterioration, dependence and hopeless pain. I ask that drugs be mercifully administered to me for terminal suffering, even if they hasten the moment of death. You who care for me will, I hope, feel morally bound to follow this mandate. I recognize that it places a heavy burden of responsibility upon you, and it is with the intention of sharing that responsibility and of mitigating any feelings of guilt that this statement is made. In case of cardiac arrest which is instantly detected, I permit two minutes maximum attempts to resuscitate me.”

And if you do have regrets? Many people have found it helpful to write letters to deceased loved ones, then to write another letter from that person back to themselves. This process can be freeing, like the following words from Canon Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918):

“Death is nothing at all: I have only slipped away into the next room: I am I and you are you: whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by my old familiar name; speak to me in the easy way, which you always used…. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.”

Margaret M. (Peggy) Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice. She writes a monthly column for Washington Window

and teaches a course, “Congregational Leadership: Family Systems Theory for Clergy” at Virginia Theological Seminary’s Center for Lifetime Theological Education.

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