March 15th 1996 – December 10th 2007
This is a Poem of sorts that I wrote for my son a couple of years ago in which I try to explain my personal experience with death. It was posted to my Blog.
Ode to Death
by Vivien Ní Dhuinn
She moved with the grace, serenity and elegance of a Swan,
Our beautiful and gentle Indian Nurse, her speech soft and compassionate.
We worked together, removing wires, tubing and syringe drivers,
He had passed at 6.30, my son Conor, just 11 years of age,
With his systolic at 52 and his oxygen at 25, he had drawn his last breath,
The hiss of his oxygen mask sounded loud and pathetic,
Pointlessly being wasted on the dead, it was switched off and the room sank into a calm stillness
No beeping machines, no shrill sound of alarms dragging us from our petrified fractured sleep, alerting us to dangerously low stats
And my son, now free of restrictions and contraptions, lying there as if asleep, motionless
Death had eventually arrived and we had flung open the doors to greet him,
Embracing his long cool, yet comforting darkness, I wondered what had taken him so long,
Death had eventually taken pity on us all, and not before its time,
But my son had gone before his time, a life ahead to live, a childhood still not done, A future waiting to be revealed,
Yet, I had welcomed the appearance of Death, with his penetrating cold stare and chilling understanding,
Death had expert and ancient skills at his disposal,
He had come to do his job, and both nurses and doctors stood back to allow him work, watching once more in awe and reverence. They had watched Death work many times before,
They had learned that Death is not always there to punish or upset, but so many times to comfort, ease and soothe,
It was the disease, the cancer, that was guilty of inflicting pain and horror, not Death,
Death knew what must be done in order for release, a release from suffering and endless pain,
The only guaranteed antidote when drugs don’t work, won’t work, can’t work
During many nights on St John’s, I had fled through hospital corridors, seeking Death,
calling out for him to help me help my son, to end the screaming and the torture,
Oh yes, Death was busy elsewhere, many wards and theatres to visit, my piteous calls lost in the din of Parental tears and wails,
Should I have turned a corner, entered a room, found him,
I would have dragged him with me, begging and pleading my son’s case,
‘Now, please now, please. He can’t wait. Don’t leave him like this’
But Death was not yet ready for us; he had other places to be
Until that night, December 10th, 2007 when all hope had been lost, and our minds gone beyond the beyond,
He arrived and I recognised his presence immediately. Relieved and frightened, I felt both privileged and honoured to bear witness to his work,
It was where I had to be, the most natural place,
I had been there when my son was brought into the world and breathed life into his lungs; it was only fitting that I should be there at the end, when those very same lungs exhaled their last,
Too soon, too premature, we all cry, but there was no turning back from where we found ourselves in that little hospital room. Cancer had seen to that.
Outside our curtained little room, the ward was busy and noisy. Doctors and nurses passed up and down, parents carrying steroid-starving children towards the kitchen in search of more food to appease their cravings, catering and cleaning staff moving fast, their workload heavy and demanding, chemo-sickened nauseated teenagers being pushed in wheelchairs like old men and women, their bodies collapsed and exhausted.
It was all going on, on the other side of the door, yet inside was peaceful if not surreal,
Our Indian nurse helped me bathe my son, her long slim arms tenderly lifting his legs and arms as she slowly drew the warm cloth over his cooling skin,
I cleaned his face ever so carefully, not wanting to cause him any more pain or discomfort, soothingly wiped his closed eyes, his beautiful blue eyes that had suddenly gone blind in less than two days from his tumour. The shock of that still nauseating to the pit of my stomach,
We worked through this beautiful ritual, speaking softly to my dead son, blessing him and holding him,
I held his feet and palms against an ink-pad our Indian Nurse produced, and pressed gently,
There, an imprint left behind, the lines and shapes forever recorded, his footprint, his handprint,
We cut a lock of hair from his precious head and stored it safely, his bed was tidied and smoothed down,
She asked if I would like to take a photograph? I declined.
We were then left alone. I tried to let it sink in but couldn’t. However, I let out a deep sigh and thought to myself, ‘there it is done, it is over, thank god he has been let go’. I held his hand and talked to him. I asked him if he was still in the room or had he already gone? I asked him what it felt like to be well again, to be able to get out of that bed and be free once more?
I listened for answers but none came,
Too soon perhaps, he had other things to attend to,
but I just wanted reassurance that he was okay, that someone had come for him, that he wasn’t on his own or frightened, It was out of my hands now, there was nothing else I could do.
The brave and distraught began to arrive to pay their respects,
Ashen faced and unsure of what to say, they cautiously entered the room, their eyes drawn immediately to the boy they had all known and loved so well,
They knew this time was coming but were unable to prepare themselves for the reality of staring down at a dead child in his bed, this same child being their brother, grandchild, cousin, nephew, friend, pupil,
He was gone, no more. Only memories and photographs would survive. Frozen in time at 11 and ¾ years of age in December 2007. He would be left behind in that year, in that decade. He could no longer look forward, for it had all stopped with that last breath, with that last heartbeat. This particular life-time for my son was over,
Living the horror every day strengthens you, prepares you, but those on the outside, they struggle, their minds exploding in horrific despair at the mere thought of it happening to them or one of theirs,
I too had thought the same before cancer had arrived into our lives. It had sought out the youngest of my children to launch its attack. What was I to have done? Run away and leave him to fight it all on his own?
One does what one has to do, and one can do remarkable things, things one never thought possible,
Courage, strength and bravery sat in every room on St John’s Ward that night and every other night, yet none so brave as the parents of similarly suffering children who dared to enter our little room just to show they cared, to offer support and to kiss my son on his forehead or hold his hand,
God, what it must have taken for them to stand and sit there looking at my dead child thinking that it might be their turn tomorrow, the next day, or week,
They shed not a tear but just held me; they spoke no words of comfort, for they of all people knew there was nothing that could be said. I shall never forget them and their solidarity.
Slowly, they fled the room one by one, family and friends, home to a sleepless and tearful night,
Alone once more, the room fell into its deathly silence,
I felt tired and exhausted. I needed some air and some space. Leaving the room I headed down to the front of the hospital, down the long corridor, the statue of Our Lady, her eyes cast down as I turned the bend,
Drawing close to the front door, I could feel the chill of the cold December air and pulled my heavy cardigan tightly around me,
The security guard nodded kindly at me as I passed through the automatic doors and out into the dark still night,
I was drawn to the tall, looming Christmas Tree that stood imposingly at the entrance, twinkling its soft blue lights, a painful reminder of all that I had lost,
I sat for a while, the cold seeping through my bones, wondering about what had just happened, staring at the Christmas tree and thinking of all the children who would be counting down the days until Santa Claus came,
My son had been one of them until now. Beside his deathbed lay his sealed letter to Santa that I had helped him compile. It was full of the usual stuff a nearly 12-year-old boy would want; Xbox, new phone, games etc. His list was as usual, endless. What was to be done with his list?
The cold and tiredness eventually drove me back inside, the same security guard smiling good night as I passed,
Could he not see from my face, from my being, that my son had just died? I passed several others on my journey back to St John’s, they too smiling and passing friendly comments. They didn’t know what I knew. If they did, they wouldn’t have been smiling and laughing at me, or worse still, wishing me a Happy Christmas,
With leaden legs, filled with heavy wet sand I let myself back into our little room and took up position by my son’s side once more,
In the time I had been outside, he had already changed. His hand was much cooler now and his appearance had altered slightly.
I suddenly knew that Death was still with us, had not completely finished the process,
Death was unravelling my precious son, bit by bit, every minute passing, taking him further and further away from the physical. There were certain things that still had to be done and all I could do was standby and watch as my son, the boy I knew for so long, begin to dissipate and disappear before my eyes.
They came for him in the small hours of the morning. It had been at my request. I had wanted to spare the other parents the torture of watching his gurney being wheeled by their rooms, their children understanding and knowing only too well what was before them,
I too had watched similar scenes pass my window during my time there. Young children, teenagers; alive one day, dead the next,
We all had stood as if to form a silent guard of honour as the gurneys were wheeled by, parents sobbing and holding each other up, overwhelmed by their circumstances.
Painfully aware of the fragility of our own situations, mine was more definite, terminal from diagnosis, yet I had watched other children with treatable cancers suddenly take a turn for the worse,
All knew that Cancer had its own schedule and cared little for who it took or the suffering it caused.
And so we began our journey to the Morgue, the gurney moving slowly, the porter quiet and reverent, respectful,
Out under the bright lights of the long corridor, I could see my son’s face more clearly now and it frightened me,
Death was doing his job for certain. Gone was the colour from his face, his lips now pale and drained,
I forced myself to look, for this was my son and we had gone through so much together, I would not fail him now. I would walk with him, right to the very end, into that Morgue where I would have to hand him over to others,
Down past St. Roch’s, the long corridor stretched out ahead of us,
Over each metal strip on the floor, the gurney rattled and my son would move slightly, but I could see that his movements where stiff and hard,
Death was here alright and there was no pretending anymore. He no longer looked like he was just asleep. The change had startled me, leaving me unstable and weak,
The Porter stopped to unlock the door that led down another corridor,
The sign above the door, ‘The Mortuary’ hit home and I felt so afraid of what I might see. I had passed this door so many times, my eyes each time trying to avoid the signage, yet now I was here,
They were unlocking the door just for us and there was no turning back.
The chill became intense as we entered the actual mortuary. I instinctively wanted to put extra blankets over my son’s lightly covered vulnerable body, a mother’s protective nature still active, even after death,
We found ourselves in a little chapel-like room with rows of pews and seats. At the top of the room I noticed a baby’s wicker bassinette sitting on a stand and drew back in horror,
A mortuary official appeared just in time and reassured me that it was empty at present but that they were awaiting the arrival of a baby from one of the wards,
I nodded through chattering teeth, unsure whether it was the cold or shock that was causing my body to shiver and shake so much,
My son’s gurney was wheeled and put in place beside the baby’s bassinette and we were told they would leave us to have some time with him. We were assured we could stay as long as we liked,
Sitting next to my son, I stared at his cold, lifeless body, unsure of as to what to do next,
The cold seeped through my bones and my body convulsed in shaking
No tears fell, my body numb and in shock,
I let my eyes wander around the room and thought of all those children who had gone before my son and those that would go after him,
This room stank of death and the horrendous grief of those left behind,
This was Death’s domain and I could feel his long cool stare as he watched us from behind,
Death reached out with his thin bony fingers and touched me in an attempt to comfort,
Chills ran up and down my spine and I turned to face him,
Written on his face was the loneliness of his job and the acceptance of always being misunderstood or blamed,
Death had not killed my son, it was not his fault. It was the cancer. He had only wanted to end his suffering,
Death told me to go home for this room was for the dead and not for the living,
Assuring me that he would look after my son, he knew exactly what needed to be done; he had much experience and practice behind him.
Death stood beside me as I kissed my son’s forehead and bade him goodnight. Walking away slowly I reached the door and turned around,
Death was still staring at me with his knowing ghostly look’
Before I left, I wanted Death to know that I would see him again sometime, and now that I knew him, would not worry so much when he came to visit upon me in the future. Death I do not fear, it is pain and suffering that is worse than any death.
And so, we left Death to carry out his work. It was time for us to go home and back to the living once more. My work was done and I would have to find a way to carry on.
Godspeed my precious son, Godspeed. xxx
Peace and love 😇❤️
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God bless you and your son. 💟 may his light continue to guide your journey until you can reunite again in warmth and love to hold him once again and craddle him in your arms. Until then he will shine from above showing his love and comforting you above. Such a personal journey. Peace to you and your family. This has touched my heart 😢💜💟
Vivian, As a parent who is suffering from a very different kind of loss but a mourning of sorts, I want to let you know that I read every word of your experience regarding the passing of your son. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank you for sharing your loss with us (me) in such an eloquent way. You have inspired me to write of my own personal grieving. It is not of a physical death, but the mourning of what we thought was going to be our reality. I do hope somehow you have found a peace.
From tear filled eyes, and a very heavy heart, thank you.
Sent from my iPad
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Beautiful and moving. May love and peace be with you and your family
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And peace to you too Caroline.
Blessings on you both. May the joy of his presence light your day.
Thank you Lee.
Sending you warm thoughts of love & light. May his precious soul be held infinitely in the freedom of beyond. I just returned from a memorial Mass for my uncle who passed 8 months ago. I lost a baby myself, though we were at 10 weeks gestation so it was much different from your loss. I wished I had had hand prints or foot prints. Walking away empty handed just made the sting of the painful loss all the more impossible. I say impossible because it feels like a lifetime before I was able to think again, plan again, dream again…. Everything you’ve written, so generously shared, meant a lot to me. You’re right about Death & I am comforted by your keen perspective. God bless you for sharing so much of yourself and your knowledge of the spiritual. You are a light, a positive beacon.
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Thank you for your touching message. I have attended many bereavement days since my son’s death and met many bereaved parents. The days were open to anyone who had lost a child, regardless of age or how long ago it was. I met parents who lost children 30 or 40 years ago, parents like yourself who never got to meet their children and parents who lost children who were adults. We all shared the same thing in common, we had lost our children and we all experience the horrible grief of it. During the meetings we would have group sessions when we could tell our stories. I always found it was the women who had suffered miscarriages or still births who felt guilty about sharing their story. They would say, ‘but your situation is much worse than mine’ but that was not true. I have photos and video of my son but most of these women had nothing to hold on to. There were women who felt guilty that their son or daughter had at least reached adult hood and had experienced some life, unlike other parents who lost young children. I witnessed terrible pain and suffering from all who attended the groups. We were all grieving for our individual children. Life is never the same when something as major as that happens. You must wonder about your baby and how he or she would have turned out. A foot or hand-print would have been something but you were also denied that. I treasure what I do have but it is still cold comfort and will never make up for what I have lost and all the unrealised potential. It does shatter your dreams and fragments your vision. It sounds like you have ventured forth into life once more and I wish you all the happiness and peace you so deserve. Take care.
Thank you for sharing something that was surely one of the most difficult moments of your life. All love from Japan.
Thank you for sending love from Japan. Yes, it was a very difficult time. I sometimes write about it as a form of release.
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Bless you, I am sure he is with you every single day giving you comfort in his own way.
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Thank you Myriam for your lovely supportive message.
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Blessings to you and yours , I do not know you but we are all connected somehow , I cannot tell you I know how you feel , but know I have tears in my eyes , I was never blessed with children .
You must know he was here for a reason , believe he is with you for the rest of eternity .
Love, light and beauty coming your way ,
Your friend from across the pond .
Oh I am so sorry for causing you tears. Yes we are all connected somehow and can share each other’s pain and sorrow through compassion. Thank you so much for your lovely words.
Sending you Love, Light and Beauty too,
Thank you, Vivien for sharing such an intimate aspect of your life with us. You are such a kind, loving, and supporting soul. Your son is always with you, loving you and supporting you. What a beautiful child he is. May god continue to bless and protect you ❤
Thank you Nicoleh,
I do like to think he is always with me.
Sending you love – that’s all I can do.
Thank you Rainbow.
thankyou fo sharing your pain and grief so openly and freely for us all to see and some to resonate with. blessings and love to you as you live your life with conner with you and clos to you in spirit. stay strong you brave, wonderful women, you give strength to others through your words. love and light j xx
Love and light to you too Julia,
Thank you for such kind words. I am far from brave and even further from being strong. I do not mind sharing my personal experiences as the subject of death, especially the death of a child is very often taboo. After my son died, I was invited to meet with his classmates as they had asked to see me. He was in 4th class, 11 years of age, an age when you are no longer a child. His classmates had watched his health deteriorate and had helped him in school, carrying his books and taking turns to stay in with him during yard time as he hadn’t the energy to go outside. They saw him change from the healthy crazy boy they knew as he became bloated with steroids and wheelchair bound. They were old enough to know that he was very ill and probably dying. Their parents had protected them by not talking about it, but these boys had questions about death. If it could happen to one of their classmates what was to stop it happening to them? They probably hadn’t thought about their own mortality prior to this. Some had become worried and anxious about their own health. I had given a talk at my son’s school the week after he passed. I had been invited to attend his Christmas school concert and was presented with a bouquet of flowers at the end. I was asked by the principal if I wanted to say a few words. I was happy to do it. So many people in the community had been affected by my son’s illness and death. Tonnes of letters and cards had arrived into the hospital or to my house. People offered all kinds of practical and financial help. Strangers ran marathons and fundraisers to help cope with the costs of such diseases. I wanted to thank everyone.
My talk was met by tears and rounds of applause. I suppose it was what prompted the kids to request a meeting with me as I appeared to be open to talking about death. The day I arrived at the school for a chat with the boys I was touched to find my son’s desk was unoccupied. His classmates decided it was his seat and that no one else should take it. They had placed some of his school books on his desk so that it would looked occupied. The questions when they started hit me right between the eyes. The first boy asked me to explain what his death was like. Had he opened his eyes, had he said anything, had his breathing stopped before his heart etc? The teacher was mortified and assured me that I did not have to answer such questions but I was not phased. Of course I knew I was dealing with young boys so was cautious about the information I offered. I was truthful but not scary. Another asked if enough had been done to save him? That he had researched on the internet and found cures or treatments for brain tumours. I explained to him that Conor’s tumour was very rare, and because there was brain-stem involvement, was not possible to successfully treat. Another asked if he had been laid out in his coffin or in bed? Hands were flying up in the class and the questions moved on to cremation. Towards the end of my visit, one of the boys told me he had written Conor a song and wanted me to hear it. He handed me a copy of the words and took up his guitar. It was lovely and everyone was crying. That same boy was to lose his life in a drowning accident only a few years later. The boys seemed more relaxed as I left and asked if they could meet with me again as there had not been enough time to get to everyone.
I never got to see them again but from time to time I bumped into some of them in the local village or shops. I always got a hug, even as they got a bit older. By sharing my experiences, I really hope I took away some of the mystery and stigma of death for these boys and stopped them lying awake at night wondering and worrying. The imagination can get carried away when it does not have all the information.
I am so very sorry for your loss. Your poem struck me as we recently lost our 23 year old son quite unexpectedly and tragically.
But I suppose, when isn’t it tragic when you lose a child?
Thank you for sharing.
Peace be with you.
So sorry for the terrible loss you are having to deal with. You are right, losing a child is tragic at any time. I think the sudden and tragic death of a child must be horrific to endure. You are given no time to prepare, it is the last thing on your mind and then your world explodes and shatters into millions of pieces. How does your brain cope with such brutality? I know some parents who have lost children quite suddenly and it is a shock the body and soul rarely recovers from. For me, the shock part was the diagnosis, and I suppose I did a lot of grieving prior to my son’s death. His death when it came was expected and I was relieved for him as he had suffered so much from the brain tumor. It was not possible for him to continue the way he was. If a miracle was not to be then the kindest thing was for him to be released from his hell.
After he died, I hit the road running and kept so busy and active. I was proud of the way I was coping with bereavement. Then it caught up with me in 2009/2010. The experts say the body takes about 18 months to 2 years before it manifests symptoms of trauma. Just when I and everyone around me thought I should be moving on with my life, my health began to break down bit by bit. My mind was strong but my body was collapsing and protesting. I have fought these breakouts all the way, refusing to accept that my body is trying to tell me something. I haven’t got the time to give in. My health has continued to thwart me since then and I have developed some very strange conditions and symptoms that baffle the doctors. My balance vanished, my jaw misaligned, my speech slurred, my intestines stopped functioning, fibroids appeared in my womb, my neck muscles contracted and turned into steel girders, my left side became so weak I could barely lift my arms, and several familial auto-immune conditions activated. The list is not complete and I wonder at this stage what is to come next.
I now know the price my body has paid for the trauma of losing my son. I have bottled up my grief and it destroys me from the inside out. I believe I learned to repress my intense feelings after his diagnosis. Whereas I was heartbroken and terrified, I would never let my son see this. I put on a front for him everyday so as to spare him more fear. I did it so well that after he died, I still held on and kept up the facade to protect other people. I didn’t want people worrying about me and so it seemed to all that I was coping very well. It became a habit I couldn’t break and I still do it. No one wanted to see the other side of me as it was dated and out of context. Now it is very hard for friends and family to understand me or react to my health conditions. Very few make the connection between my son’s death and my illnesses. For them life has moved on, but for me, the nightmare has yet to be faced and released before any peace will descend upon my body. It is as if I am continuously on the front-line caught up in a battle that no one else can see. Retreating to a place of sanctuary, or surrendering to the inevitable is easier said than done. I know what must be done, but my body and mind are on automatic pilot and continue to do their own thing. I always think that a part of my mind, soul, or heart disconnected shortly after my son’s diagnosis. It was the part of me that took the hit and couldn’t deal with the reality of what was going to happen. She was too afraid to be present so jumped out and has run into hiding. She is still out there somewhere, terrified to come home and face the experience. Home she must come and reconnect to it all. Full integration is necessary for healing.
I am not sure how you handled your situation when it was sudden and unexpected, but I could imagine for many the grief comes hard and fast without concern for the need to act brave in front of others. I have a friend whose young daughter was killed in a car accident. She cried solidly for about 6 weeks before she was able to face life again. I think I needed to do that but have left it too late. What would people say if I collapsed into grief 8 years after my son’s death instead of the immediate days and weeks that followed his passing? You are told to grieve in your own time and at your own pace, but the reality of that is not always acceptable or appropriate. I am only now in bereavement counselling as a means to possibly improving my physical health. I walked with my sister in the forest today and we spoke about grief. She lost her husband to cancer a few years ago and so has an understanding of trauma and loss. I told her that part of me died when my son died. I did not survive my son, it just seems that I did. His cancer not only took my son’s health, it also took mine. My body has been damaged and it is doubtful it will ever fully recover from the brutal assault on my heart, mind and soul. Only a parent who has lost a child will understand this process.
I find that writing about the Tarot helps me explore and express my feelings on many subjects. They ask questions of me that demand answers. They tell the story of everyone’s life. I use them to tell my story. I am not unique. My story will resonate with many who share similar experiences and hopefully some readers will feel less alone because of it.
I wish you peace and comfort for the year ahead.
Yes a difficult time and followed swiftly by Christmas. This time of years puts everything under a microscope and highlights loss. Thank you for thinking of me and hope you are well.