We buried my mother today.

She had turned 100 last month so obviously we knew that her time was limited. A week before she died, she fell in her room at the nursing home and broke her leg. She had been confined to a wheelchair for years and, we assume, tried to get up unassisted. She was never a very patient person. Although she was conscious after the fall and complaining of pain, by the time she got to the hospital, she had lost consciousness. She would never wake up again. She spent the next six days in a coma. To us (my sister and me), she appeared to be sleeping but was completely unresponsive. We initially hoped that she might eventually come out of this condition but her doctors were not at all optimistic. Over the course of those six days, it became evident that her body, in response to the shock of her injury, was shutting down. Her kidney functioning was very bad and her other vital signs were worsening day by day.

As we came to accept that she was not going to recover, we consulted with a palliative care doctor to make sure that her last days were as comfortable as possible. That doctor was the most compassionate physician I've ever met. He began the consultation by asking us personal questions about Mom; what were her interests?, her accomplishments?, her family history? He listened patiently and was not at all in a hurry to wrap things up quickly. I'm sure this information wasn't necessary for him to care for her but it demonstrated to us that he saw her as a unique individual, to be treated with dignity and respect. He then examined her carefully and discussed her medical history. It was clear that he knew her history and had studied her current charts carefully. Finally he gently but honestly described what was happening to her body and assured us that she really had no chance of recovery. He said the words that we already knew but didn't want to say. "She is dying". He estimated that she had, at most, another couple of days. As it turned out, she died almost exactly two days later.

We were with Mom during her last living hour. When we arrived at the hospital that day, she looked about the same but seemed a little colder, a little weaker. We touched her and talked to her. She didn't respond and there is no way of knowing if she, at any level, was conscious of our presence but we felt the need to reassure her that she was not alone. That she was loved. After about 45 minutes, her breathing pattern seemed to change. It had been a little labored, like someone snoring, but now it became shallower and more intermittant. She would stop breathing for a few seconds and then suddenly gasp for air. This process repeated itself several times, each time lasting a little longer. We knew the end was very near. Finally, there came a last breath. And then, there were no more.

I had, I believed, been prepared for her death for some time. I had thought about it often in recent days. And yet, when it came, I experienced a profound and uncharacteristic sadness and my voice was briefly choked with emotion. However, as that raw emotion faded, I felt relief that she was at rest and enormous gratitude that I had been present. It reminded me that death is a natural process to be witnessed and shared with loved ones - not one to be avoided. She lived a long and full life and it was a great gift to be with her at the end.

Since Mom was a Christian, as is my entire family (as far as I know, I'm the only atheist), the funeral was held in her church and was heavy with resurrection imagery and empty promises of everlasting life in heaven. Only a douchenozzle would point out the silliness of those claims during a funeral, so I kept my mouth shut and tried to accept the well-intentioned condolences ("She's with God in heaven now", or "We'll see her again someday", etc.) with good grace. It irks me a bit when Christians automatically assume that I share their beliefs although I give them no reason to. (I know..."reason" isn't their forte.) If any noticed that I never bowed my head or mumbled "Amen" during the numerous prayers, they didn't say anything to me about it.

The church experience mainly reinforced my impression that the believers have a powerful, and vaguely creepy, social network that, unfortunately, is based on a childish fantasy.

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Comment by Father Nature on August 16, 2010 at 4:31pm
Thanks for that Jim. A loud and raucus party is the right way to go.
Comment by Jim DePaulo on August 16, 2010 at 3:50pm
My father died on July 4th 2001 in my home as did my mother in law 1 year earlier. Both spent their final days surrounded by sons and daughters, grandchildren, great grandchildren and friends they had known for years. It was an unique situation and one which I found to be comforting to all concerned, most importantly to my father and mother in law.
My father was a 92 year old Atheist and had no desire to see a "man of the cloth. My MIL was a, church every Sunday, Christian but, oddly, never asked to see a minister or other purveyors of mumbo jumbo - she seem content to die without their assistance.
My father was adamant about NO FUNERAL - he was cremated and a loud and raucus party was held to honor his life.
Comment by Father Nature on August 10, 2010 at 1:06pm
Thanks to you too, Pat.
Comment by Father Nature on August 10, 2010 at 12:51pm
Thanks AAF and David. One lesson learned from this experience is the importance of pre-planning ones own funeral. My mother had planned and pre-paid hers years ago and, as a result, her wishes were known, the expenses were 100% covered, and the funeral director knew exactly what was needed. I plan to make arrangements for my own funeral that will insure that it's religion-free.
Comment by Pat on August 10, 2010 at 12:40pm
My deepest condolences Father Nature. David mention that your mother passed away with the most possible dignity. From your story, the dignity you, your sister, and that caring physician, provided your mother speaks volumes. More so than any hallelujahs, clasped hands, and "see you in the afterlife" well wishers could ever do. A cogent lesson that actually dealing with reality and doing something about a situation is always 100% perferable to asking an invisible entity to intervene while you sit and do nothing.
Comment by Against All Fanatics on August 10, 2010 at 11:45am
My sympathies to you Father Nature. I am sorry that your grieving could not take place without the childish nonsense of religion. Most of my family is religious as well, and my brother is a priest, so I expect that I will go through this type of event myself in the future.
Comment by David Sensei on August 8, 2010 at 7:07pm
Thanks for sharing. I was moved. Your mother passed away with the most possible dignity in the circumstances, and that is something to be grateful for. I was impressed with your discretion during the funeral - that's how it should be. Take comfort in the fact that, though she doesn't live in heaven, she lives in your memory.
Comment by Father Nature on August 8, 2010 at 8:12am
Thank you Grace. My sympathy to you too.
Comment by Grace Fitzpatrick on August 8, 2010 at 7:49am
I am so sorry for your loss. I lost my own father a month ago.
Comment by Father Nature on August 7, 2010 at 4:51pm
Thank you and best wishes to you and your grandpa. I agree that hospice (or palliative) care is a much more humane approach. The doctors and nurses were wonderful.
The "commercial for Jesus" aspect was somewhat offset by our display of numerous pictures, documents and memorabilia from her life at the funeral service. I think people will remember those more than the prayers.

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