What My Mom’s Death Taught Me about Living

I wrote this essay one year after my mom, Suzanne Shefska, passed away. Yesterday I stumbled upon it. Now, two and half years after her death, I feel comfortable sharing what I wrote with you.


“Can we go shopping at Marshalls?”

I still have a guilty conscious for how I responded… 

“When we get back home, mom. It’s about a mile and a half away, and I don’t think I can push the wheelchair that far. I promise we’ll go once you’re feeling better and we’re back home.”

We never made it back home. I’m still waiting for the trip to Marshalls. In the back of my mind I knew we should have gone, but the cracked concrete, my mom and her portable oxygen concentrator… they told me otherwise.

It’s been a year since my mom, Suzanne passed away. She was an awesome woman, and I could write for hours about how she inspired me, shaped me, and compelled me to become the person I am today. Witnessing her death was a profound and gut-wrenching moment. It was enlightening and empowering just as it was horrendous and torturous.

It would make sense then that such an emotional experience could teach you so much about yourself. Is it paradoxical that witnessing death can inform how you live your life? Sure, but maybe that is the point. Observing death exposes you to the reality of your existence. You’re going to die — no one has beaten the odds yet.

Witnessing my mother’s death shook me to my core. I thought her cancer diagnosis, stroke, and other myriad health concerns had broken into my heart, but nothing pained me more than watching her body completely shut-down.

Death isn’t pretty. It’s nightmarish. Death from liver failure seemed particularly hard to witness (although I am sure they’re all terrible) — my mom turned yellow.

Yet it wasn’t her color, complexion, or inability to function that moved me most. No, it was her heart. The thing is, it was healthy when she died. It was actually exceptionally strong. Her heart wasn’t ill, unfortunately the rest of her was.

That might not sound like a bad thing, if nothing else it could be perceived as a good occurrence, but let me tell you, it wasn’t. Why? Because when someone dies from liver failure they don’t just collapse and it’s all over. No, that would be too easy. They lie there and slowly but surely lose all of their bodily functions. What is the last to go? The heart.

With a strong heart you can lie there, motionless, broken, and uninformed for minutes. Holding my mother’s hand that had no function, while listening to sharp, gargling breathes was painful — that is the torture. Recognizing how resilient and strong the human body is, how desperately my mom’s heart wanted to keep beating — that was enlightening.

Death is tricky. It’s not scripted or planned out. My mom decided it was time to go while I was eating lunch (talk about feeling too sick to eat). There isn’t an exact time or an exact moment when you’re going to die, it simply happens.

It doesn’t look like it does in the movies either. A gunshot almost seems more pleasant then listening to those deep, gross, gruesome breathes. When you’re in palliative care there are drugs they’ll give you. They’re supposed to make you feel more comfortable. How do they know? What’s the point? When it’s over, it is over.

Death teaches you that.

It exposes you to the concept of finality. Death is final. A bad test grade isn’t. A divorce? Not final. Bankruptcy? No a big deal. Death is.

Witnessing death desensitizes you.

Why get upset when you know you’re at least not dying? In the year since my mom’s death I have slowly regained emotional context — oh, it is upsetting when something bad happens. For a few months after her passing, I was numb to this. “How can anything even compare to death?” I’d think.

Young people joke about death. Old people joke about death. You shouldn’t. It’s not trivial. In fact, it’s the opposite. Some people politicize deaths. Others applaud them. That’s gross. You’ve never witnessed death if you do either of those things. If you had, you’d know how truly terrifying it is.

Death is unforgiving. It doesn’t come and go. When it’s here, it’s here. There is no escaping it. Death doesn’t consider your marital status, how successful your career is, or your age. When it comes it acts swiftly and conducts its job.

It’s interesting to think about death in the context of “work.” If death had a job description, how do you think it would read? What are the qualifications, roles, and responsibilities of an act so cruel, but so necessary?

“Applicants should be detail oriented, thorough, and willing to work long hours (holidays and weekends included).”

Maybe it’s morbid to consider death in this context, but the reality is, it’s right beside us. You may not know someone who has recently passed, but I can assure that someday you will. There’s no getting around it.

What does all of this gibberish mean? It means death is important, and although it’s rarely discussed, infrequently described as what it truly is, and for the most part shunned in our culture, it’s worth contemplating and considering.

Witnessing death put my life into context. I’m not suggesting you should go observe someone pass away right now. There is a time, a place, and a reason to be a part of that moment. I am however imploring you to consider how truly final death is, and to not fight that finality, but rather harness it to help shape the decisions, actions, and desires you take today.