Three Things You Should NEVER Do or Say When Your Mother in Law is Dying
My relationship with my mother-in-law got off to a rocky start to say the least. She told my husband that she wished I would be run over by a bus. To her credit, she decided that wasn’t very Christian like and changed it to him being run over by a bus instead. Being a strict Catholic she was less than impressed that not only was I up the duff and we were living in sin but we had both left our previous partners to be together.
Luckily, as time went by I guess I grew on her and although we had our fair share of rocky moments, for the most part we got on pretty well.
Her husband Jim (and my partner’s father) died suddenly of a heart attack at 54 and she spent the rest of her life trying to figure out how to kill herself (in a non-suicidal-cause-you’ll-go-to-hell way) so she could be with him. For her, that meant taking up secret smoking in her bedroom which she was sure none of us knew about despite the clouds of smoke emanating from her bedroom that we saw when we turned up unexpectedly or the smell on her clothes and her breath and also, to completely shun doctors until she turned 75 when shit finally hit the fan.
We had suspected for nearly a year she had diabetes as she transformed from a fairly stout woman to weighing only 50 kilos, constantly drank water and constantly had to pee but she ignored any and all pleas to seek doctor’s advice until the insidious aftermath complications of diabetes began to appear. With most of her organs trying to shut down, and probably a little more than nervous, she eventually allowed her friend and local Parish nun to drag her to the doctor where the truth was revealed.
I had an office job at the time but my day off was Wednesdays; the day which had for years allowed me time to get stuff done turned into taking Joan to specialists; eye doctors for bleeding behind the retina, diabetic specialists for diet advice (ALL ignored, you should have seen the cookie stash we found under her bed), podiatrists to treat her feet, tests for circulation in her legs, trips to hyperbaric centres to treat wounds that refused to heal and weekly visits to the GP to get another referral to see yet another specialist when another symptom reared its’ head. Seven sons, numerous sisters and daughter-in-laws and somehow I got stuck with the entire job. Cause, well, apparently seen as how I already knew all the history by then there was no point anyone else putting their hand up.
Then one day we got a phone call that she had woken up feeling funny and called an ambulance. We rushed to her house and the paramedics weren’t overly concerned but transferred her to the hospital to be on the safe side. I remember saying to my husband on the way there, “I’ll be surprised if she’s still alive this time next year.”
We stayed in the waiting room for nearly 2 hours before a doctor told us he’d be surprised if she survived the morning as she had suffered a massive heart attack and her lungs were full of fluid. We immediately called the rest of the family and the Priest to come and administer last rites.
So number one thing not to say or do when your mother-in-law is dying. Don’t come into the room after she has been anointed with holy oil, see her shiny forehead and say “Ooh, mum you’ve got something on your face, let me just wipe that off”. Holy crap you should have seen the 6 sets of Catholic hands whip out and stop me. I had No. Idea…
She managed to rally though and not only did she survive the morning she was pretty damn perky by 4pm and they transferred her to another hospital to recover for a few days. The first day she was doing pretty well and was eating and up and about, but after that she went downhill again; pale and listless, didn’t want to get out of bed and refused to eat anything that was offered. We brought in all her favorites; jam sandwiches, cookies, chocolate, her favorite tea but she refused it all saying she was nauseous.
We thought she was depressed.
The doctors thought she was depressed and said she had to go home.
We were all concerned how she was going to go home when she wouldn’t even get out of bed and started panicking wondering if she was going to have to go into a home. But a few days later we got a call that she wasn’t depressed after all. Turned out all the drugs they gave her for the fluid in her lungs completely screwed up her kidneys. Her only option was dialysis which she absolutely refused.
A meeting was called with all the boys and partners and we all confirmed that she didn’t want any further treatment and she had been trying to get to this point for the past 25 years to join Jim so the doctors agreed to let her die. This consisted of inserting a catheter into a central line to automatically administer enough morphine and sedatives to keep her comfortable along with other drugs to counter-act the intense itching and discomfort that comes from kidney failure.
No IV, no food, nothing was to be given to her and the Priest was called again.
(This time I was on top of it, got this Holy oil).
Despite the morphine and the sedatives she remained semi-alert and a little frightened, so myself and one of her brothers who was able to, took turns sitting by her bed to keep her company. She was semi-comatose and didn’t speak.
One morning I was sitting with her when a nurse came in to give her a sponge bath and asked me if I’d like to help and I said I would actually love to as I was dying to wash her hair and it just seemed like a really nice, special thing to do for her. Just as we started one of my sister-in-laws who up until this point had been nowhere to be found rocks up and says “Oh, I’ll help too” and I cannot tell you how much I wanted to scream at her to get out of the room.
I KNEW Joan would not have wanted her there but couldn’t work out how to convey this on her behalf. This SIL proceeded to chat away a million miles an hour about her latest holiday and while we were washing her, Joan started to shiver and managed to say she was cold and then turned to the SIL and said, “When are you leaving?”
My SIL laughed and said “No, mum I told you we already had our holiday.” OBLIVIOUS to what she really meant.
And then: number two thing you don’t say to your dying mother in law: “Well, at least you won’t have to go into a home now Mum”. OMG.
I dragged her out into the hallway and said “What the fuck did you say that for? She never knew that was on the cards, now she’s dying and you think that dying is a good alternative??? Wow.”
A day or two later she was completely unresponsive and I sat by her bed with my husband and our two kids so I did what they do in the movies which was the third and final thing you do NOT do. I leaned over and whispered in her ear that it was OK to go. Really, mum you can go now. Jim is waiting for you. She sat bolt upright in her bed like she’d been electrocuted, opened her eyes and swung her head wildly around the room saying: “Where? Where is he?”
I have never been so horrified in my life as I told her to lay back down muttering, nothing, never mind, go back to sleep while my husband pissed himself laughing.
How she survived on no food and no water for as long as she did astounds me but she refused to go until, out of carer’s leave I was forced to return to work the day after my birthday and that was the day she chose to leave. Maybe she didn’t want to upset me by dying in front of me.
I don’t know but I am still so glad I got to be with her during those last few weeks but I am NEVER going to live down the things I said and did when I was.