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Losing Mom

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Rabbi Sherri Hirsch: One day my mother was complaining of a terrible headache and the next thing we knew, she was being rushed into surgery to remove a large mass from her brain. It was unclear to the doctors and to us whether she would survive.

woman holding mother in hospital bed

It was surreal. Only a few days before, she had traveled with me to Chicago on a business trip. Now the doctors were telling us to say our good-byes. Letting go of that gurney and giving her that final kiss was by far the most difficult moment of my entire life. Then we had to wait -- hours and hours. Even when she returned from surgery, it was unclear what the future held. So when her eyes opened a few hours later and she tried to speak, my body welled up with gratitude and love.

I was so afraid that she would die in an instant and that I would never have had the chance to say good bye. As a rabbi, I have counseled many people who never had a chance to right a wrong, to ask for forgiveness, or to say things that had never been said. I knew from those experiences that the pain of not closing with your loved one becomes compounded with all the other pain and can make it even worse.

While it was not my decision to make, I did not want to be in that position. People always tell me that they would rather die in an instant than suffer and make others suffer with them. This is not true for me. Even though we are all suffering -- my mother, my family, myself -- we still have the opportunity to be with her each day. To say all the things we want to say, to hold her hand, to rub her back, to crawl into her bed. I am grateful for these moments.

Why is it that when you need your family to be united the most, they are the most divided? My mother is sick and my brother, his wife, my husband, my stepfather, and I should be an all-star team working in perfect unison. We should have the goal in mind and work together to achieve it. Ha! This is so not the case.

There are a few real problems with this fantasy. First, we have all reverted to being children. Instead of being the mature adults that we are in our "regular" lives, we are behaving like our children on their worst days. We all need the most attention. We all need to be right. We are all super-sensitive. We seem to be bringing up past hurts from years ago. And we fight all the time.

Secondly, we are all grieving. The truth is that grieving begins long before the actual death. Grief begins when your life as you knew it is over forever. And everyone grieves differently. This is the unfortunate truth about grief -- there are no instructions. Grief is messy and disorganized. I find myself waiting at a stoplight and suddenly filled with tears. Grief is unexpected and inconsiderate of my schedule. And it is exhausting. Whereas in the past I would have more patience and tolerance for my sibling, I find myself short-tempered and unaccepting. I don't want to talk it out. I want him to follow my way. And he wants me to follow his. So we are at an impasse.

Lastly, we are struggling to find a consensus on the goal. Is the goal to keep my mom comfortable? Is the goal to extend her life as long as possible? Is the goal to mend all the family hurts before her death? Is the goal for her to perceive that we are one happy family? And since we all have different takes on the actual objective, the team seems to be running in opposite directions.

In the end, my mother is the coach. Her wishes trump all of our own. Except she is not so clear either. Whether it is that mass in her brain or just her conflicting desires, we can't seem to get organized.

So I have a choice. I can either be angry and frustrated on top of grieving, or I can begin to find acceptance for my family and myself. Now if they would only do the same.



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