My mum was always very social. So it was fitting that her death was a sociable one.

It was 6:30pm on a Friday the week after Easter. There were 5 of us in mum’s house with her: me, my daughter, my niece and two carers. The carers were changing mum, then they came down to tell us she was dying.

We need more than one word for dying. So, when you say “my mum’s dying” that could mean she’s in a hospice or nursing home, potentially living there for many years, slowly fading away, before she draws her last breath. Or could be over a period of a few months, weeks or even days. Or it could mean, as it did for us that Friday: “No, come right now. Stop what you’re doing. She’s about to go.”

So we ran upstairs: me, my daughter and my niece. And we crowded around Mum, hugging and holding her. She breathed heavily and slowly, with difficulty, for a few long minutes. Then the breathing stopped.


The obituary notice said mum died peacefully. But in reality it was tough. it’s not nice seeing someone you love struggling and gasping for breath. It’s like they’re drowning – but in air. The death itself, the going, is like shutting a door forever. Everything stops. And then there is nothing. I don’t think it was easy for her, in particular. I think it was quite terrifying. Shut down forever. Just like that.

But there are concentric circles around the dying person, moving out like waves. And we said mum died “peacefully” because that’s the language people use, and what people expect, but also because the moment itself was relatively peaceful. It was peaceful in mum’s bedroom where we sat, with a candle burning and the family photos and her things all around us. With the sunshine still outside the window, on the jasmine, and the evening coming in. And mum laid out, high up on her hospital bed, finally at peace after 2 years of losing her independence and not really liking that at all.

Adrenaline and cortisol

When someone you love is dying, or at risk of death, your stress levels rise. Adrenaline is pumped into the bloodstream, and cortisol lis released. It’s hard to relax or let go, because you think the death might happen at any minute. So you stay in this state of heightened alertness.

The community nurse, Edith, had a mantra: “Don’t miss the moment”. Edith (or one of her team) came every day to give mum Morphine. Edith would look at mum and say “it’s soon”, but then mum would keep on going. Not eating, or drinking, but surviving. The GP had given mum 2 days to live 2 weeks before her death. So we were all on tenterhooks for a while.

My sister said, “Don’t hold onto Mum, because you need to let her go. If you keep holding her hand or hugging her, she won’t be able to leave.”

But I didn’t want to leave mum. And I didn’t want her to go. She already had a live-in carer (half way through the pandemic she’d had a fall and living on her own became too frightening). But once she took to her bed, she needed two carers to turn and change her. I was living in and helping to this for a week before my family persuaded me to let someone else come in.

The hyper-alertness is fine for a short time – but not healthy over a long period. This is something we all learned during the Covid pandemic. It’s exhausting – and when it’s over, you experience a drop.

For a week after Mum died, I’d wake up in the night and think I was in her bed. Higher up from the floor, with a wooden headboard behind me. It wasn’t spooky or scary. I literally thought I was in her bed. Like an echo of her, or looking at a negative of a photograph. Maybe it’s possible that if you hold someone tight as they die, some of their spirit passes into you. That’s what a friend said. But it also felt like a post-stress reaction.

After mum died, my sister and I wrote this Instagram post.

Staying connected

I was partly inspired to write this post by UCL’s Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing project which has been exploring how elderly people across the world use mobile phones and digital apps to connect and communicate in their everyday lives. Some aspects of the project touched on death and dying (see these blogs on smartphones and dying, fear of dependence and the burden of caring.

Mum was born in 1938 but she was always a technophile. She used to use email all the time. And she loved to take random pictures on her iPhone. She watched tons of Netflix and YouTube. She’d started off with long box sets like The West Wing and Justified but towards the end of her life, she honed in on the short-form stuff: she watched videos about the royal family repeatedly on her iPad. And for some reason, she became hooked on The Big Bang Theory (she said Sheldon reminded her of my godfather).

In her last few months, mum almost completely withdrew from the outside world. When she was dying, my sister made a long playlist on Spotify and we played it repeatedly on a loop in her bedroom. I think she liked it. It was hard to tell. She’d stopped speaking by then, although she would cry out if she really didn’t like something.

Every day, people stopped by to visit. And the house phone rang a lot. One friend phoned from the US and demanded to speak to mum over Zoom, but mum couldn’t talk. So mum’s friend talked at her for a while. Later we called that same friend on WhatsApp video from the wake – passing the phone round from person to person so she could talk face to face to people. I know that was a great comfort for the friend and, I guess because of that, would have been important to mum.

Digital communications were important, but not nearly as important as family being in the house. I know that that’s what mattered to mum in the end. We were very, very lucky we could be there.

Photo by Angèle Kamp on Unsplash

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