At Life’s End, Clear and Meaningful Communication

It has been too long since I posted anything to this blog, but I found it difficult to write much of anything — here or anywhere else — after my mother passed away on May 19. I live an integrated life, one in which my personal and professional experiences intertwine to the extent that sometimes I can’t tell where one leaves off and the other begins. As a result, I’ve been thinking about what I could draw from my mother’s last days and her death that might inform my work as a communicator.

Where I’ve ended up is a place I’ve been before — the realization that while I’m passionate about the effective use of communication as a business tool, what I’m really passionate about is the power of the everyday, organic communication that takes place among people. I’ve called it “small-c communication,” as compared with the engineered, strategically planned “Big-C Communication” that occupies most of my working hours.

I wrote in February about my mother’s dementia and how it had robbed us of “small-c communication.” What I could not have foreseen is that the final days of her life would afford us some opportunities to communicate in ways that were more profound than I’ve ever experienced before.

My mother died of cancer. Breast cancer that she had defeated years ago came back in her liver. The dementia made caring for her even more challenging. My father was determined not to institutionalize my mother for either disease and, thanks to the incredible work of hospice providers, she was at home to the very end. Because of that, my sisters and my father and I were able to come and go and visit as we pleased. That was a gift, as we’d come to find out.

We witnessed a series of small miracles in my mother’s last weeks. Despite the fact that dementia had ravaged her mind, my mother experienced moments of unmistakable clarity. She still mostly struggled to express the thoughts that crowded her head, but she knew who we were and understood the things we said to her.

On Mother’s Day, my sisters and I spent an emotional afternoon telling our mother how much we loved her and shedding tears of joy along with her as she told us goodbye by scarcely uttering a word. It was the last time all four of her children were together with her and, as we held her hands, we understood what she was trying to say but couldn’t.

Over the next week and a half, each of us individually spent a lot of time with our mother as she began to drift away. Much of what she said was incomprehensible, but from time to time we experienced those miraculous moments in which she clearly described visions of the next life. She described masses of people, some sitting and some standing, and a long road that she was reluctant to take only because of the unknown. She saw people who had died long before and seemed comforted by the sight of them. She described her vision of God and how beautiful He is.

These were not the ramblings of a feeble-minded woman. Each of us had become accustomed to what those sounded like. In these moments, which were only occasional and fleeting, she was able to put the words together in a way that clearly communicated what she saw.

I was amazed that, despite her illnesses of mind and body, communication with my mother was clear and meaningful in the end. One of the blessings our family experienced is the fact that none of us had any unfinished business, anything left unsaid, before she began the severe decline that resulted in her death. We had enjoyed years of “small-c communication” with her, which made our last conversations with her easier. Two nights before she died was the last time I talked with her; the next night she had slipped into a final deep sleep. I knew I would never talk with her again, but it was OK because there really was nothing left to say.

That’s the way our everyday communication should be: real, honest, meaningful and complete.


5 Responses

  1. Robert, Bill and I are praying for you and your family.

    We have such a compassionate heavenly Father! There’s no doubt in my mind that He orchestrated those “small miracles” to bring some “Big-C Comfort and Closure” to your family.

    May you continue to feel His comfort and peace in the days ahead.

  2. Robert, I’ve said a prayer for you and your family. We went through a similar situation with my dad 11 months ago. I will always remember his being focused enough to sing “happy birthday” along with us as we sang to him – just 5 days before he died. This post was spot-on in dealing with “small-c” communication. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Beautifully said. So glad you put the words to paper. You and your family have wonderful relationships that I hope inspire others to work on the “small c” in their own lives. Your mother and father are inspirations that turned out an inspirational family. Sometimes we do not learn by words but action and your father has set a wonderful example to all by the way he took care of your mother. We should all be so lucky to have a Holland man in our lives. I know I am grateful to have you as my friend.

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