Wednesday 21 August 2019

'Dementia is the long goodbye' - Dr Ciara Kelly on the recent death of her beloved mum

Operation Transformation's GP Dr Ciara Kelly. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Operation Transformation's GP Dr Ciara Kelly. Photo: Gerry Mooney

My mum died last week. Those five little words don't really seem big enough for what that means. I'm not really sure I know what it means myself yet. I'm not sure I've really processed it.

Once or twice I've had to write it down in a text or in an email, to explain why I couldn't be somewhere or do something, and every time I see it written coldly in print it jolts me like seeing it written makes it seem suddenly, briefly, real in a way that it isn't quite yet in my head.

Some of you may remember me writing about my mum before. She was old, older than she ever liked to admit. And she was frail and sick. She had been going downhill for a long time. She had dementia. But even though I knew all that and even though my grown-up's voice would talk out loud matter-of-factly about us coming near the end I never really believed she'd die.

It was peaceful. A sleepless night spent sitting together, around a single bed. Her breathing was slow and shallow and then it stopped. She stopped. And that was the end of a life. It doesn't seem possible really that such a force of nature could just end. But quietly she slipped away. Perhaps in time I will be able to get my head around that. The funeral was nice - warm and personal. It genuinely helped that people turned out for it, to comfort us or as a mark of respect. I know I've often left funerals after the church not wanting to intrude on family at the grave or afterwards at the food bit - but I was very glad of those who came with us to the cemetery and the lunch. It helped me get through it. And I think in future I will go to those bits of other people's funerals myself, where I can. It's not an intrusion, it's kind and supportive. And the whole thing was like a low-key celebration - exactly as it should be.

All of my siblings and the grandchildren played a role, played a tune, read a reading, sang a song or brought up a gift, and it felt fitting and like a good send off.

There was much mentioning of her gentle soul ascending into heaven which made me smile. She was never a gentle soul. She was a firecracker. She was feisty and full of mischief. Often rebellious, one of my favourite things about her was she really thought rules were for other people - they didn't apply to her. I've a diluted version of some of those traits myself and if she never left me another thing I'm very grateful for that. I see glimpses of those traits too in my kids and I feel glad she passed that spark on to them.

By the end of it all though I felt like I'd run a marathon. I was dog tired and took a few days off and did nothing. Which is very odd for me. I never do that. I thought I might do some private grieving and reflecting on losing my mum - the person I knew longest in all the world. The person I have my earliest memories of. The person whom my child-mind feared losing more than anyone else. But I haven't really. Mostly my mind's been almost empty. Strangely blank.

Oh I'm aware I'm slightly more fragile than usual. Tears are a little closer than normal if something sad comes on TV. I played a song for her on the radio on Saturday and my voice almost cracked as I introduced it. It takes me a long time to fall asleep and then I stir several times during the night and I'm still awake before my alarm. But I am not in the depths of pain. If anything I feel a little numb and disconnected emotionally.

I'm reminded a little bit of when my father died many years ago, and three weeks after he died thinking I was a bad person because I felt OK. Not realising the great truckload of grief that was about to arrive.

But this death is different. It was expected. It was her time. It was a release. I had been letting go slowly over months and months. Dementia is the long goodbye. It's not really like losing a parent because you have become the parent in the relationship.

And I'm different too. Older, stronger, more mature and prepared and with a greater understanding of death - having lost others. So I'm hoping that this numbness will pass and not leave crippling grief in its wake this time. I'm not sure I could go through all that again. We shall see. I'll keep you in the loop.


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