Caring for a parent, Death & Dying

After Midnight: Death

Dear friends of Daughter on Duty, Retired.

My mother died at 1:10 this morning. April 21, exactly two months from the June 21 anniversary of her beloved’s death and six weeks before her 102nd birthday.

It was a difficult week with many theories about the cause of her abdominal pain and agitation. In the end, it didn’t really matter what it was. What mattered is that it became more evident with each passing hour that she was transitioning both in body and spirit. Hospice came several times, adjusting the cocktail of meds to keep her comfortable.

Rebecca spent a restless and wakeful Thursday night with her, following my afternoon and evening. I was daughter on duty last night. One last turn of duty as it turned out.

My night was peaceful, but I couldn’t sleep. I started a third Facebook status update, sitting in the recliner in the dark corner of her room, but it got too long. I decided it was a blog post. Here is what I was writing when my 281st post over the past nearly six years became epilogue.


Rebecca is at home, hopefully sleeping. Hopefully Jo Ann arrived safely from Virginia and is up the hill in the guest bed, sleeping. I am at the Manor and have given up on sleeping.

Mama is sleeping with the rattle in her chest that hospice tells us sounds worse to us than it feels to her. I’m on high alert every time she stops making the sound I wish she would stop making because I want her to be more comfortable, because I’m afraid it will wake her up, because it sounds frighteningly like the end and I’m not ready, because I’m afraid she is taking her last breath and I will miss it, because I’m afraid I’m too far away. Because I’m afraid.

I sit in the chair next to her bed after pushing her call button at ten minutes til tomorrow to make sure the med tech brings her three comfort medications on time—including the one to stop the rattle—my head not quite in her lap but close, my hand on hers. “I’m right here, Mommy, I’m right here.” Maybe she knows, maybe not. But I know.

Her hands are cool and clammy, but for the first time ever—before the temperatures rise in July—she wants only the barest of covers and no heated rice bags. Not that she says that, she just doesn’t ask for nor expect them. She hasn’t asked for much of anything today, except to indicate yes or no to our questions. No to more covers. Yes to the leg and foot massages I offer that I could not get anywhere near right 24 hours ago but now are accepted however I give them.

All her routines are gone. No frequent requests for drops in her eyes. No rice bags too hot or not warm enough. She hasn’t eaten anything for 36 hours, nor wanted anything; though she did tell me a few hours ago she’d ordered two egg rolls. No bathroom requests. No requests for water.

Later today three of her four grandchildren and two of her four great-grandchildren will come. The others will be here in spirit. We’ll say goodbye to a life well lived. Maybe then she will feel free to let go. Or not.

The “I love yous” and “thank yous” have been said many times in both directions; barely whispers from her today and yesterday, but crystal clear in intention. The entire hospice team came by yesterday morning before she finally went to sleep after 36 hours spent mostly awake in pain and agitation. Friends came by to hold her hand while she slept. Her heart daughter came after she woke up seven hours later. Rebecca and I have been here; she knows the family is coming.

I’ve played for her the ukulele she gave me for my birthday two years ago and I’m finally learning, that she asked me to play for her two weeks ago but I didn’t know how well enough. I played Appalachian Spring. Mary Oliver has been read. Last week I finished reading to her the book of women born before suffrage, of which she was a contributor. We have told her she has done good work here on this earth, that we will be fine, that we are fine. “It’s okay to go.”

She has named people we are to tell she loves them. We have told her to tell Daddy we love him. She has told us he loved us so much. We have said “we know.” She has told us she loves us. We have said, “we know.”

We have done all that needs to be done when you are saying goodbye to the one who gave you life. We are complete. Nothing left undone except all the things that never could be done.

Wait a second. There’s no sound from the bed.


I got up then and went to her side. She was so still. “Mommy,” I said softly. “Mommy!” I said a little louder. No return to shuddered breath. No flutter of anything. Her brow was unfurled, soft, unworried, finally. “Mommy!” I sobbed. “Mommy, mommy!” Oh, no. Oh, no.

I howled into her shoulder, kissed her face. Called my sisters to come. I crawled around the double bed to the far side, Daddy’s side and gathered her into my arms, it no longer mattering that I might be hurting her fragile body. Sobbing again, I rocked her and sang in a voice crackly with tears: “Lullaby and goodnight, with roses bedight…lay thee down now and rest, may thy slumber be blessed.”


Mama left this earth on the day of the annual Earth Day work day at the Seminary Hill Natural Area she loved so much, the existence for which she is responsible; her legacy to this city and the earth. We joined the group later in the morning, each of us wearing one of Mama’s signature hats that kept the bright light from her damaged eyes, and my sister—in beautiful words of extravagant gratitude—told the gathered crew she was gone. She told them one of the last requests Mama made of us was that we find out how many were in the crew this year and let her know.

We’re sorry the family she knew was coming were not in time, but perhaps she just needed to know we would be together and didn’t need to see and be seen. Her work is done, the mantle is ours alone.


To be with her for the end is a gift I’ve prayed to be granted since, in 2013, I was challenged to write the end of the story. The fiction and reality were remarkably similar. My heart is full. I know Rebecca wanted to be here too. I feel her loss keenly.

My nagging questions over these past five plus years have been 1) will the relief that it’s over be so great that I can’t grieve? 2) will I ever be able to hold her essence in my memory untainted by how hard these years have been? and 3) how long will it take?

As I held the empty shell of her in my arms and whispered in her ear that I love her, I knew already the answers: no and yes and no time at all.

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63 thoughts on “After Midnight: Death”

  1. I was sleeping in the hospital waiting room when my mom died. My sister and dad where with her. I was 20, she was 47. Cancer. Now, over 50 years later, I only have pictures of her and memories. Too few. I can’t remember her voice….. My older sister died at 47, of cancer, also. That was 35 years ago. Reading this from you brought tears to my eyes, making me realize how much I missed. You have truly been blessed.
    Thank you for sharing.

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  2. Gretchen, I am so very sorry for your loss. I lost my own dear grandfather three weeks ago (and, thus, was unable to read your entire post at this time). It doesn’t matter if they’re 93 or 102, the loss is still deeply felt. Take care of you….

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    1. Oh LaNae, I’m so sorry. It is deep loss. It’s surprising me. There hasn’t been time after those first long nights of waiting, though we didn’t completely know we were waiting at first, to wrap my head around how my life will change. You take care too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a raw and beautiful testament to these years of shadow and light! I’m glad you were able to be with your mother in the end and know your loving presence allowed her spirit to at last take flight. May you, Rebecca and the rest of your family and care community be filled with peace. xoxoxox

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    1. Thank you, Kristie. In an important way, you were there at the beginning, listening to the first stories, supporting me. And then offering me haven for a respite by your beloved sea. Much gratitude. G

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  4. Gretchen, it has been a long, winding journey filled with the real stuff of our human experience — humor, grief, grace, anger, amazement, the unknown and the unknowable. Thanks for allowing us to witness this through your prose. I am aware of your personal courage to experience and express the full range of these emotions. And what a beautiful ending…

    David Robinson

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    1. David, I can in no way come close to thanking you for your guidance and support on this journey. Watch for yourself in the acknowledgements when the book comes out! So many times you pulled me from the brink, assuring me that whatever I was feeling was okay. Thank you, thank you. Gretchen

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  5. Oh, Gretchen, what a beautiful and moving account of those last hours with your mother. I’m thinking of you and Rebecca, sending love and deepest sympathy. Your mother is at peace. May you both rest and heal and collect yourself gently in the coming days. I hope you will, as you are ready and taking the time you need, continue to share your story – your thoughts, reflections, nature meanderings, and journey through the aftermath. xo

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    1. Thank you, Susan. I know there’s at least one more post about the aftermath, what happens after a death, which I have had no experience with at all. Yesterday, today, tomorrow are a race against the clock before my sister goes home. I do not know how my mother did this alone at 79. I’m not sure I can give up the writing about this yet, it would be a second abrupt loss. ❤ Gretchen

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  6. My heart is with you and your family, Gretchen. You have served your mother well as daughter on duty, and you’ll have many memories to keep close to your heart.

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  7. A life well-lived and an honoring equal to that life! Thank you for your commitment you have shared so lovingly here through your writing. I am sorry for your loss. My best to you and Rebecca.

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      1. It is International Earth Day…how appropriate and timely about Stellajo and her life! And I bet she had a great collection of hats! Much love, Maryl

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Your wonderful mother had the wonderful daughters she deserved. Your blog has brought back memories of my time with my mother in her last two years. Thank you for the gift that your words have been to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Dear Gretchen,
    I have followed your blog for as long as you have shared it. I knew this time was coming, but none of us wanted it to really be here. You and Rebecca have been the best supporters and comforters and daughters to your dear mom. I know she loved you so much. Now you can all share the stories, the laughter, and the anecdotes that will surely be remembered over and over for your lifetimes and for the next generations. God bless you all.
    Love, Kathy Marynak

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    1. Thank you, Kathy. Your words make me suddenly realize I’m walking with a different community now. That’s interesting. It’s like a move across the country.

      Thank you for your thoughts, for being a loyal reader. There are a few more words in me for this spot in the cloud, and then I guess I will have to move on.

      Much love. G

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  9. Gretchen,
    Please accept my condolences. You’ve been an attentive, steadfast, loving daughter both on duty and off.
    Your mother has left. Your journey continues. May it be fulfilling, and full of peace and love.

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  10. Gretchen, I have no words except for a thanks that you have shared this part of your earthly journey with us. Your mother must have been quite a lady indeed. She was most fortunate to have such loving daughters, especially in her final years. I will be thinking of you in the days ahead. Thank you again. May you find peace and rest.

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      1. Yes, yes. A great adjustment for you and Rebecca. I hope you will give yourself time (especially), care and grace as you navigate it.

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  11. I know that rattle. I never knew there was something deeper than silence until it stopped. 

    I wondered how you would ever find words in this moment and yet you have elevated this story to a place that defies gravity. Your honesty, your masterful syntax, your beautiful, beautiful heart … thank you. For these things, I love you. May your sleep tonight be deep and peaceful. 

    She is home ♡

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  12. Gretchen, I’ve followed your blog for quite some time. You are the daughter I wish I could have been. Your mom was lucky to have you. Grieve when you need to but always remember the treasured moments. Thank you for letting us all follow your journey.
    Margie

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    1. Aww! Really? Thank you, Margie. Sometimes I’m quite sure my mother wished for a different daughter. But she raised me, so hey. Thank you for being such a faithful follower. I’ve got at least one more coming here. And then what???

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  13. Sorry to hear the news…I have journeyed with you through your blog here and it has been such a blessing to me…Peace to you and sisters and family…

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  14. Gretchen, Tears came when I read your “Mommy, Mommy” words of anguish. I felt like I was there….and I was with the shared heart of love and loss. I was with my husband, my sister and my best friend when they each took their last breath. It is such a sacred moment.
    I had visited with JoAnn on Thursday before she got the word about your mother’s failing condition. I hope to spend time with her when she returns to Virginia. I just spoke with Peter.
    I am with you as your move through this transition. Your Marriage of heart and head sharing is quite amazing. Thank you.

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  15. I began following your blog when I was struggling to care for my mother during her final years. She has been gone now for almost 3 years. I saw myself in you and my mom in your mom and that was somehow comforting. I have often wonderied when this final post would come. Thank you for sharing your journey; I will miss the connection. Please accept my deepest sympathies on the loss of dear mother.

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  16. Love and prayers to all of you. Stellajoe was my favorite “English” cousin. Our family loved her and George. Know they are together again. Blessings.

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  17. So many have said so beautifully and eloquently all that I would have wanted to say so my words would add little to that. Just know I felt tears come as I read your words. It brings back memories of my being with people I have loved when they have transitioned. Thank you for sharing this journey with us and thank you for sharing it with such honesty and openness. May the love you all share be of greatest comfort to you in your time of loss.

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    1. Thank you. This was a first for me, other than cats, that is. I kind of wish I had been right there at the moment, instead of across the room, but I can let that go. It was a sacred honor to be in the room.

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  18. Gretchen, so grateful that your commitment to being a generous conduit for this story remained so present for the words to flow… in the dark corner… in the chair… in the wee hours… even as your mother was taking her last steps and breaths. Honoring your silent, loving presence that surely created a necessary spaciousness for her dignity and courage in doing it “her way.” Broken heart. Open heart. May you feel and find her in a multitude of ways in the days ahead. Gentle comfort, deep rest, and loving kindness to you.

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    1. Thank you, Lisa, my friend. The night was everything I wanted the end of this journey to be. I don’t even understand how the river found the path I longed for through all the diversions it could have taken. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. ❤ G

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  19. Gretchen. Your mother’s ‘crossing over’ now complete leaving a wonderful legacy to/for you. You handle it masterfully. Rest for you as you navigate the days ahead my friend.

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  20. Oh my dear Gretchen. . .you have made your sweet mama so pleased. Your goodby eulogy is such a beautiful benediction to a life so thorough lived. Love and peace to you all.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Gretchen, i hold you, Rebecca, and all who love your mom and y’all in my heart.
    i
    get
    it.
    breathe. in and out. repeat.
    love, lisa

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  22. You have all done so very well by your mother. Stellajoe is not gone far. There are too many people who love her and whose lives she has touched, tethering her spirit here for a while longer. Thinking of you all during this bittersweet time.
    Love, Jan

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    1. I love that idea, Jan. Thank you. She is not far. I hope she is back here on the hill for a little while. I know I will never clean the detritus off the roof without hearing her telling me she doesn’t want me on the roof. Love to you. G

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  23. Oh, my dear Gretchen. What an eloquent entry. My mom passed unexpectedly over Presidents Day weekend while I was on the other side of the country. I was the sole immediate family member not present in some fashion. When I finally got back home and it was time for her cremation I physically could not bring myself to be present then. While I don’t regret my choice, I’m still sad.

    Be good to yourself in the time ahead. It will be full in so many ways, and yet there will be spaces of such emptiness, too. Be gentle. Be kind. It has been such a lovely gift follow you in this journey.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Gheeta. Such a beautiful response. Thank you, dear one. I’m pretty numb right now; so tired. The coming days will be busy, and then I will have to figure out my new life. I expect some emptiness.

      I am sorry for your unexpected loss and sadness of the aftermath. All will be well.

      Much love. Gretchen

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