Losing my Mum to dementia at 85: the terribly sad yet sweet relief

By Bone & Silver with permission

The 2nd last time I saw her, it was her birthday July 4th, and I video called. She was in a Home in Wales, and I’m here in Australia, where I’ve lived for 35 years.

Mum was kinda asleep, though it was 11am, but muttering to herself. The staff held the phone, and tickled her chin to wake her, but no success.

I kept wishing her Happy Birthday, singing that damn song, but she only stirred and seemed to smile when I teased her for being so old now.

It was a sad experience.

Then 2 days later the Home Manager emailed to ask me to call her.

I’m sorry to say this over the phone, but I think your Mum is coming to the end of her life- we’ve seen this before- she’s stopped eating and drinking, and won’t open her mouth.

Our adult relationship hadn’t been easy– I was a rebellious teenager, then emigrated to Australia when I was 20, so rarely saw her over the years before Skype and mobile phones.

We were very different in personality, and in our ways of moving through the world… so much of how I am now is actually in opposition to how she was, or how I perceived her to be.

But her politics were fabulous, raising me as a proud green Left feminist, and we loved reggae music, old movies, walks on the moors, and animals, especially cats. My younger brother and I each moved away from Mum though, (he to Norway), and had our children whom she rarely saw, and that was a constant source of sadness for her.

1994- In a musical in France, aged 58.

On July 7th my son hugged me hard, and we video called the Home. My cousin and her Mum (Mum’s younger sister) were there, holding the sacred space, waiting…

It was a shock to see her like that, struggling for breath, so old and clearly departing, and all I could do was sob.

But an hour later I composed myself; I called on my meditation habit, my compassion, my Buddhist Dharma practice, and I rang back. My friend H says I brought my ‘selfless presence’ to the fore, and she’s right, thank you.

I really said goodbye. I thanked Mum for all she’d done for me, for the great mothering she’d given, for all the confidence she’d gifted me with despite the lack of her own, and for helping me create such a wonderful life for myself and my son.

I spoke to her in French (she lived there for many years), scraping my best accent from the barrel of memory, and told her over and over to relax, to go to sleep, to let go, and be at peace.

It took another 2 days, but at 1am Saturday July 10th, my cousin called to say she’d passed. She’d been with her, playing reggae and Frank Sinatra as we’d requested, and her sister had just stepped out for a walk- it was 4pm in Wales, July 9th, and a lovely day.

Mum was diagnosed with Dementia in 2016, at 80 (her Mum was too, and lived to be 90 with it). We knew Mum was struggling for a few years before that, and official diagnosis was a relief. But the slow, clawing decline, as memories, speech, and cognition disappeared, was a terrible way to go.

When I last visited the UK in 2018, I determined to get Mum into a Home in Wales, where she was born, and which she remained fiercely proud of. I knew I was saying a big goodbye, as we sorted some of her papers and clothes, but I didn’t know COVID was going to stop me getting overseas again.

I guess I’ve been mourning her since then, hearing her speech become more of a word salad/gibberish, and hearing of her decline from the staff at the Home.

At the end of April this year, I went on a 9-day organised Yatra, or silent walk. We meditated several times a day, and bushwalked in silence too. We were invited to use a Mantra sometimes when we walked, saying one phrase over and over with intention, and I altered mine to suit Mum:

“May she be Safe, and Free.”

Over and over as we passed through previously-burnt bushland and open heath, along the Southern coastline of Eastern Australia: 

“May she be Safe, and Free.”

And now I very much have the feeling that she is at last. 

I’m not going to pretend I believe she’s gone to Heaven, nor that I didn’t wish her to die. 

2018: Grateful for my wise crone Mum #gratitude #wisdom #crone #wellbeing @boneAndsilver

Our relationship was complex, but I can proudly say we reached a kind, caring, and fun place together in the last few years. She was super intelligent and very witty when in a good mood; hugely sentimental and romantic; hopeless in the kitchen yet loved food; passionate about her politics and human/animal rights; adored celebrity gossip and chat shows; was haunted by childhood difficulties and anxieties; made poor choices in both love and real estate; was as loyal to her long-lived Pyrenean Sheep-dog Dylan as he was to her; and was a proud Head Librarian with her own collection of leather-bound first edition books on shelves all round her tiny garden flat.

Catching the bus to the Mall July 2017 (the hats were unplanned) #motheranddaughter #ageing #dementia #over50

I love you Mum. I’m so glad you’re free at last. I’ve cried and cried, but I’ve also danced, walked, prayed, written, meditated, and talked. I feel massive relief, and immense gratitude that you’ve passed. I’m being so well-supported by my beloved V, by my son, and my friends. The family overseas are doing the best they can from a distance, helping to sort out the cremation, and the Celebration of her life next month.

I am blessed.

Life is a blessing, to be sure, even in its terrible pain and distress. 

But dying is also a blessing, whatever you believe happens next, and I wish for us all that we fear not the end, for it is always also a beginning.

In gratitude for being Judi’s daughter

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