Letter to my dead mother — or what I learned about life from death
The Fall is, for many people, a time to look back, to contemplate and to say goodbye.
I choose this post to share about a very personal goodbye. In October, my mother died of her bone-marrow cancer. Due to the nature of her illness, we had known for more than ten years that she would die younger than most.
My mother, Theresia Hebenstreit, was an artist who successfully sold her sculptures and paintings all over the world. In the last few months before her death, I thought a lot about how I would communicate to the world that she had died. Traditionally, one would send out postcards to people who knew her and make an announcement in the local newspaper for the general public. But my mother also had a whole life that happened online, were she was in touch with people she had never met in person and for whom she did not have an address.
Still, posting “my mother died” on Facebook felt slightly bizarre given the sad nature of the occasion. Also, what are others supposed to do with that entry? “Like” it? I therefore decided to publish a letter to her that I read during her memorial service on October 27th.
In my letter to her, I speak about insights about life and death that I had with her and because of her. I hope what I have learned will resonate with you.
With warmest and sad regards,
Last week you died.
You were an artist who touched many people. During this past week, condolences from all over the world started flooding in by email and post, many of the letters accompanied by a photograph of one of your sculptures or paintings in the home of their current owner.
To know how your creations continue to bring joy to people worldwide, is a great comfort.
In this letter, I want to share with you what I have learned about life and death during the last year from and by being with you.
There are five insights that will guide and support me for the rest of my life.
1. Life organizes itself around the priorities I pick
As you know, my profession as a psychologist and coach, traditionally required me to travel a lot. When your condition worsened significantly at the end of last year, I made the choice to dedicate this year to you, to us. In order to make this possible, I cancelled all the corporate client work that would have required me to be anywhere in the world for longer than two consecutive days.
I have been sharing with my clients for years to prioritize what is important to them — but I only came fully understand what I have been preaching this past year. My life organized itself magically around the priority I decided on; to have time for you and our relationship.
For ten months, I came to see you and Holger once, sometimes twice a month. And still, my work life continued to develop in a quiet way: I had more time for myself and finished writing my book, I served my individual clients in a deeper way and I spent more time at home with Olga.
I know I will never regret having made this choice and will be forever grateful for every hour I spent with you talking, painting, reading, walking and cuddling.
I now realized that only I can decide what is truly important to me. Naturally, I would have always declared the most important things in my life to be my family and my friends — but I didn’t live it. To me it was worth it to look behind my constraints and my fear.
I found freedom. The freedom to live the life I want to live and that I was able to share with you for some wonderful and intense months.
2. Speak about love
Too often we take love for granted. And we assume that people close to us know how we feel about them.
With you I experienced how wonderful it felt to say “I love you” and how wonderful it was to hear the same words from you.
I can’t count how many times you and I expressed our love and appreciation for each other verbally over the last twelve months especially. This created more than one moment in which we were both crying — out of the sheer joy and gratitude for being alive and being able to experience and share a feeling of this depth and magnitude.
Perhaps you remember the joke about the woman who, one day at breakfast, wants to know from her husband if he still loves her after 20 years of marriage.
Slightly annoyed he looks up from the morning paper and says “I told you that I loved you on the day we got married. If anything changes, I’ll let you know!” I am glad we were never like that.
My inner child never ceased to yearn for these words from you. And it never ceased to feel incredible joy when it felt seen and wanted by you.
3. Speak about death
The subject of death triggers a primal fear in many of us which we hope to escape by simply avoiding the topic.
More than a few of my friends also have loved ones in their families who are battling a terminal illness. And yet, death is rarely talked about even in these households. We avoid the topic because we don’t know what to say or because we fear that speaking about it could somehow “make it worse”.
You and I spoke a lot about death.
Your death, but also death in general. These uncomfortable conversation always led us back to other topics, most often, they led back to love. I since started speaking about death and dying with other loved ones and am always touched by the depth of these conversations.
Our conversations about death did not actually make the inevitability of your demise more comprehensible. But speaking of it made us both feel less alone, more connected on this mindboggling human journey.
4. Do touch
You and I had an unusually physical relationship.
I know that not everyone is or wants to be physical with their parents in particular — but I do think it is worth to give it a try, to dare to be close, seek out physical contact — even if it is just holding hands.
My body, your body or anyone’s body, is not just a means of transportation for our heads. Our body is our home, it is where “I” unfolds and as such, I rarely felt more loved and cared for than when you held me, my hand, or stroked my hair.
To witness your physical demise was not easy.
I saw you go from a strong and healthy woman to one who was too weak to lift her arm even to scratch her nose.
I saw the bruises that covered your body and that were a side effect of your illness. But I still loved your body at every stage because I love you.
To be physically close made it possible for us to express our feelings in moments when words would not suffice.
5. Laugh as often as you can and cry as long you have to
One of your wonderful qualities was your ability to be with your feelings and not feel that one feeling negated or discounted another.
During the final years of your illness, we shared a lot of funny moments. When asked about how you were feeling, you often replied: “I ‘d be great — if it wasn’t for that little bit of cancer.” And you kept giggling about my running cancer-jokes “Mama, don’t eat the burned toast, it could give you cancer!”
During your last days in the hospital, you slipped in the bathroom and hurt your ribs quite badly. As you were lying in bed, strongly sedated by the painkillers, you said to your favourite nurse: “First I was unfortunate, then bad luck came on top” (the original quote from the German soccer player Jürgen Wegmann after a lost match). We all had to laugh about the deeper truth behind this joke in the context of your life.
Yet, at the same time, you gave room to your sadness, your despair and even sometimes your anger.
Together we grieved about your dwindling life. You were not ashamed to share your feelings with people who cared to know. And you were not shielding yourself against my emotions and always encouraged me to express how I felt.
You were simply not afraid of emotions and acknowledged them all as being equal expressions of your humanity. Because of this, you were uncomplicated to be around. Things were as they were and you didn’t pretend them to be different.
You were a wonderful, creative and deeply caring woman.
You were my first love, as probably most mothers are for their children. And now you are gone.
I envy religious people who find solace in the idea of paradise, an afterlife or a soul being reborn. Although I don’t believe your consciousness will be transferred into another body, that doesn’t mean I believe your consciousness is lost or your life to not have mattered.
Who you were, what you created, but even more importantly, how much you loved — all that counts. It is my belief that love is our contribution to the evolution of life itself.
I like to believe that I am like you in many ways. The quality I accredit to you and that I am most grateful for is the ability to love and be loved. And therefore, the most valuable thing you left me is not your art, it is the people you loved who will continue to be a part of my life. For this reason, you had a fortunate life and you knew it.
I would like to close this letter with a quote that touched me in the movie Interstellar:
„Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful, it has to mean something… Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.“
And because love is an event inside of me that unfolds whenever I think of you, I do not say “Mom, I loved you so much” but rather “Mom, I love you so much.”
Thank you for everything.
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