On the day before Christmas Eve, my mother died. It was quite a shock.
My brothers and I made our usual Christmas trip out to Devon to visit. We were all getting into our usual Christmas routines. Then Mum said she’d had “a funny turn” and began to complain of chest pains so she went to bed early. The next day she wasn’t feeling any better so Dad took her to the doctor. The doctor did the usual prodding with all the cheap-as-free gizmos that modern medicine has to offer. But he couldn’t find anything wrong and sent Mum away with some pain killers and orders to get plenty of rest. It’s amazing how widely applicable this treatment is for so many undiagnosed problems.
She died in bed that evening due to a tear in a main blood vessel close to her heart. In docspeak it comes out something like: a ruptured dissecting aneurysm in the lower thoracic aorta. The warning was the dissection itself: the “funny turn.” This was when the inner lining of the blood vessel split and blood leaked out separating it from the outer lining. This caused the swelling (aneurysm) which eventually burst (ruptured). We were told that once it had burst she would have died almost instantly.
A dissection is treatable, with a reasonable chance of survival, but detecting the problem quickly enough is difficult. About 25% of people die in the first 24 hours; 50% in the first week. What makes detection even more difficult is that the symptoms can be exactly like the normal aches and pains you get from time to time as you get older. Also it doesn’t tend to show up on an ECG; which was the case for Mum.
I’m not sure, even now, I have fully recovered from this event. This has been the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to write. Maybe subconsciously I thought if I didn’t write about it then it might not have happened? But I want to move on now. I want to write, and think, about other things. And I feel that if I don’t write something now I probably never will.
I’ve not really felt sad about the way she died. It’s true that she still had things to do and see. But she died the way she’d always hoped: quickly, quietly, at home, and with her family around her. I’m sure there are many things about her last few days that we’d all have done differently if we’d had a bit of warning. But is there really any good way to die; or any good time?
One benefit of Mum dying younger than her peers was that her funeral was a real celebration of her life. The house was packed with people who’s lives she’d shared and changed over the years. I certainly hope to have had as much impact when my time comes.