Not Left Behind: My Mom Dies with Her Daughter at Her Side

Compassionate Love: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness   (c)2014 Nancy Virden

lovely fireworksJuly 4th, along with other patriotic holidays, reminds us of the warriors to whom we owe our freedoms. One of the mantras of our armed forces is that we never leave one of our own behind. It’s a great philosophy in other areas of life as well.

My mother would have been 83 next week. Breast cancer took her life twelve years ago. She had been diagnosed after feeling a lump. What followed was surgery, chemotherapy, hair loss, exhaustion, desperate last-ditch efforts to find a cure, long talks, and slow walks. Then after two years of this, I received a phone call.

“Nancy, I saw the doctor today,” Mom said. “I have only a few weeks to live.”

Immediately I drove the 60 miles to her home to stay with her, my two sons in tow. Stepping-up was a no-brainer. Still, I had no idea what I’d signed up for.

When I arrived, she was taking a nap and a family acquaintance was doling out meds. While my sons carried our belongings in from the car, this woman tried to show me the basics of medication preparation and to warn me of things to come. 

My oldest son was almost fourteen and his voice was changing. When my mother heard him from her room she said, “There’s a man in my kitchen.”

The woman acquaintance smiled knowingly and alerted me that my mother was becoming delusional. I just smiled because I had caught the joke. Later, Mom and I laughed about her “imagined” man.

I knew her sense of humor. I knew how she liked her eggs, coffee, laundry, and conversation. I was familiar with her favorite chair, what could and could not be touched, how to hang her clothes, and all of her friends’ names. Her pastor and I were on first name basis, and no visitor was a stranger.

Nonetheless, it was my responsibility alone to be mom to my sons and watch my mother die. I tried to figure out what exactly I was supposed to do. Fear ruled at first. Periodically I asked if everything was ok and she always said yes, trying very hard to do for herself whatever she could.

I gave her morphine when she asked for it, and helped her from room to room. There was a deeper pain I could not relieve for her and that made me angry.

She hurt when her son and his family did not come by although they lived close. One afternoon, she hadn’t been out of bed or talking for a few days. Then my brother said he was coming. Somehow that amazing woman rose from near-death to insist I sit her in a chair and fix her hair. 

He was uncomfortable and left quickly, sparing himself the look in her eyes as she said goodbye to her firstborn.  I wept with the shared anguish of a mother’s heart.

Some extended family members stopped by to tell her she would not be dying if she were only more faithful to Jesus. She instantly forgave them, proving who was actually following him well.  Her request that we all sing together failed to put me at ease, but I will never forget the joy on her face. 

The death vigil was overwhelming. People kept asking for progress reports. At night I barely slept for fear of missing her calling out to me. In the mornings I rushed to be dressed before she could wake up. She had a baby monitor in her room in case she wanted something, and everywhere in the house I could hear her breathing. It was intense listening for that sound to stop.

She wanted to hear about heaven, and hymns sung. She asked me to read the Bible. For the most part it was just the two of us in her room, with me sitting on the floor by her head.

Then one morning she asked for grits which I didn’t know how to make. Having anxiously attempted to follow directions on a box, I nervously offered the dish. She scowled and refused to eat them. She asked for coffee, I spilled it. Then she wanted nothing at all. She stopped indicating if she was in pain so I gave her morphine at my discretion. She winced. I didn’t know if I was doing this right. 

Her breathing turned erratic. At her bedside I watched her pass away, and for an instant was afraid. It was later, after the hearse had driven away, the pastor had been consulted on funeral arrangements, and friends and family had been called, that my sons left with their father. It was only me, silence, and God in the house. I thanked him for leading me through many uncertain moments.

Laying on her bed I could feel guilt and regret. Our mother-daughter relationship had been destroyed early through interference beyond our control. For eleven years before her death we had grown closer. Doubt resurfaced that she had received what she’d hoped for when her only daughter was born.

I knew this, however. She had not been alone in the end. I’d done that much right. 

I’d not left one of my own behind. 

Happy birthday, mom. 


NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.

If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help can be yours.

*photo from


Submit a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.