Little deaths along the way teach us . . . by Kate Green


little deaths along the way teach us

Terese Eileen Murphy (Kate Green’s mother)

The Card read “All who have been touched by beauty are touched by sorrow at its passing.” My mother, Terese Eileen Murphy, was blessed with great physical beauty, but I was witness at the end of her life, to see her beauty in its purest form.

To the untrained eye, my mother appeared to be a 80-pound emaciated woman. Those trained to see more deeply saw pure essence, a spark of the divine, the stuff that we’re made of.

There is a hole left in your heart when your mother passes from this life, but with Alzheimer’s disease it is the “little deaths along the way” that prepare you for the final farewell. The ache of watching your independent mother surrender her car; of seeing the trust in her eyes while signing a power of attorney form; of witnessing her courage as she struggles with the loss of her autonomy. It’s the sorrow you feel the first time you realize that your mother will never go out to eat at a restaurant with you anymore, or see a movie, or even be able to sit through her granddaughter’s graduation from law school.

These are mileage markers on the journey that is Alzheimer’s, but these are not the only milestones. This journey is for the strong hearted, and you soon learn that it belongs to you as well as your loved one.

Along the path, you will have head-on collisions with pain, fatigue, guilt, resentment, anger; and soothing encounters with joy, laughter, courage, understanding, forgiveness and love. These are your companions.

They surface when you need them, are masters in the art of disguise, and are important guides to your ultimate destination—healing. They are gifts of feeling, of feeling deeply, and they take you to that hidden place of the heart, where wounds lie. You visit and return to this place as many times as needed, until you begin to understand the origins of the wounded parts of yourself and begin to forgive, heal, and lay them to rest.

American society celebrates birth and fears death. My experience, with observing the death of loved ones, convinces me that we need to celebrate both.  Words fail to communicate the depth of feelings you have at the birth of your child. It is a sacred moment. You feel partnership with the divine, surrounded by love. I have felt this also when death arrives. When death began its 7-year journey toward my mother, there was no way of knowing that the “little deaths along the way” would change forever the way I viewed this great passage. There was no way of knowing that these “little deaths” would help my mother heal and let go of the wounded parts of herself, and in the process would break down my armor and open my heart to forgiveness.

It may be hard to understand how something as devastating as Alzheimer’s disease can bring with its destruction unimagined gifts of spirit—but it does. Hospice workers know this. They recognize that there is a sacred aspect to death and in many ways they serve as a bridge to help those who are dying cross over from one dimension to another.

Those who minister to people dying with Alzheimer’s often witness the peeling away of the personality and find themselves relating to the authentic beauty of the spirit within that person. Hospice workers shared that their visits with my mother were intentionally planned to be at the end of their day in order “to take her beautiful energy home with them.” Staff members from other parts of the nursing home where mother lived would visit her daily because “just one of her smiles made their day.” In other words, they saw a beauty more profound than physical beauty—true beauty—authentic and pure, and it touched and opened their hearts.

Does one ever get over the loss of a parent? Back then the loss was so fresh it was hard to imagine. But the “little deaths along the way” did help prepare me for the final farewell to my mother. Now it is the memory of seeing true beauty and witnessing the nobility of the human spirit expressed by caregivers, friends and family that continues to comfort me and ease my sorrow. And perhaps, during the years that she struggled with Alzheimer’s, it was not so much that Death was moving toward her, but rather, Life—opening the door to new beginnings. The final gift I received from my mother was the realization that the journey of life continues for me—without the fear of death.


Originally published in The Durham Herald-Sun (Sunday, October 15, 2000), Edition: Final, Page: G1

Kate is a member of our team.


Read a woman’s reflections on her husband’s battle with lung cancer.

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