We buried my mother today.
She had turned 100 last month so obviously we knew that her time was limited. A week before she died, she fell in her room at the nursing home and broke her leg. She had been confined to a wheelchair for years and, we assume, tried to get up unassisted. She was never a very patient person. Although she was conscious after the fall and complaining of pain, by the time she got to the hospital, she had lost consciousness. She would never wake up again. She spent the next six days in a coma. To us (my sister and me), she appeared to be sleeping but was completely unresponsive. We initially hoped that she might eventually come out of this condition but her doctors were not at all optimistic. Over the course of those six days, it became evident that her body, in response to the shock of her injury, was shutting down. Her kidney functioning was very bad and her other vital signs were worsening day by day.
As we came to accept that she was not going to recover, we consulted with a palliative care doctor to make sure that her last days were as comfortable as possible. That doctor was the most compassionate physician I've ever met. He began the consultation by asking us personal questions about Mom; what were her interests?, her accomplishments?, her family history? He listened patiently and was not at all in a hurry to wrap things up quickly. I'm sure this information wasn't necessary for him to care for her but it demonstrated to us that he saw her as a unique individual, to be treated with dignity and respect. He then examined her carefully and discussed her medical history. It was clear that he knew her history and had studied her current charts carefully. Finally he gently but honestly described what was happening to her body and assured us that she really had no chance of recovery. He said the words that we already knew but didn't want to say. "She is dying". He estimated that she had, at most, another couple of days. As it turned out, she died almost exactly two days later.
We were with Mom during her last living hour. When we arrived at the hospital that day, she looked about the same but seemed a little colder, a little weaker. We touched her and talked to her. She didn't respond and there is no way of knowing if she, at any level, was conscious of our presence but we felt the need to reassure her that she was not alone. That she was loved. After about 45 minutes, her breathing pattern seemed to change. It had been a little labored, like someone snoring, but now it became shallower and more intermittant. She would stop breathing for a few seconds and then suddenly gasp for air. This process repeated itself several times, each time lasting a little longer. We knew the end was very near. Finally, there came a last breath. And then, there were no more.
I had, I believed, been prepared for her death for some time. I had thought about it often in recent days. And yet, when it came, I experienced a profound and uncharacteristic sadness and my voice was briefly choked with emotion. However, as that raw emotion faded, I felt relief that she was at rest and enormous gratitude that I had been present. It reminded me that death is a natural process to be witnessed and shared with loved ones - not one to be avoided. She lived a long and full life and it was a great gift to be with her at the end.
Since Mom was a Christian, as is my entire family (as far as I know, I'm the only atheist), the funeral was held in her church and was heavy with resurrection imagery and empty promises of everlasting life in heaven. Only a douchenozzle would point out the silliness of those claims during a funeral, so I kept my mouth shut and tried to accept the well-intentioned condolences ("She's with God in heaven now", or "We'll see her again someday", etc.) with good grace. It irks me a bit when Christians automatically assume that I share their beliefs although I give them no reason to. (I know..."reason" isn't their forte.) If any noticed that I never bowed my head or mumbled "Amen" during the numerous prayers, they didn't say anything to me about it.
The church experience mainly reinforced my impression that the believers have a powerful, and vaguely creepy, social network that, unfortunately, is based on a childish fantasy.