How Catherine Died

Catherine died three years ago today.

The next day, I wrote this email to a good friend, subject line How Catherine Died:

Oliver1 spent yesterday in the Palliative Care Centre; they kindly set aside the family room for him, put a do not disturb sign on the door, and secured a DVD player. During movie intermissions he would come and visit with Catherine. 

By this point Catherine had been asleep and unresponsive for almost 48 hours. In the middle of the afternoon I was laying down in the recliner beside her; it was quiet, and I didn’t expect anyone to stop in for a while, so I leaned over and told her that we were going to be okay, and that it was okay for her to die. 

It felt strange doing this, both because it feels strange telling someone it’s okay to die, and because it’s strange talking to someone who’s asleep. 

But I felt I had to say it, out loud, so she knew.

Around 5:00 p.m. Oliver got ready to go home for supper with my mother and my brother Mike; he came to see Catherine and gave her a big hug.

After seeing them off, I came back into Catherine’s room, and one of the volunteers brought in supper for me. I picked up my tray, then I heard a subtle change in Catherine’s breathing and put my tray down. Something had changed. I wasn’t sure what. But she was breathing a new rhythm.

I settled down, took my dinner tray, and ended up eating only the dessert, a strange kind of cold pear crisp.

Around 7:30 p.m., the nurses came in to freshen Catherine up, as they did every night she was in palliative care. I waited in the kitchen next door. 

While I was waiting I had a chat with a volunteer, someone I’d met a few nights earlier. She was finishing up her shift, and told me she hoped my mother would be okay. I didn’t correct her. On either front.

I got settled in the reclining chair beside Catherine’s bed, and felt restless. I alternated between trying to have a nap, and reading a book. The book was one given to me by a friend last week about a Hollywood actor who died from lung cancer; it was written by her husband, and made up mostly of the email newsletter he sent out to friends and family every night. 

After 9:00 p.m. I was well past the place in the book where the protagonist died and was several months into the husband’s grieving.

At 9:15 p.m. I looked over at Catherine and her eyes, the the first time since Tuesday, seemed to be open. 

KD?”, I asked.

She made a sort of cough or a sneeze, grimaced, scrunched her nose, and seemed to stop breathing. But she’d seemed to stop breathing a hundred times over two days and so… 

Then she did breathe a couple of breaths.

And then repeated the cough/sneeze. I think at this point I half expected her to wake up and say “surprise!” 

But she didn’t: after a few more breaths, she stopped. 

And everything was still.

Until I re-read that email, just now, I’d forgotten that I’d told Catherine that it was okay to die.

It’s uncomfortable writing that out loud here.

It remains in the mystical realm whether Catherine heard me, and whether my words had any effect; it was something, I suspect, that I had to say out loud for my own benefit more than for hers.

But, also, we knew she was going to die, if not that day or that night, within the next few, and releasing her from any obligation to hold on seemed important.

We are so collectively terrified of death that it’s something we seldom talk about, and that itself is part of what amplifies the terror. For six years, since she was given an incurable diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, I knew that Catherine was going to die. But I had no idea how or what that would be like, and the world around me seemed aligned in a desire to keep my eye off that ball.

And that’s why I’m repeating here those words I wrote three years ago: I want to help, if not “normalize” death, at least make it more possible, more permissible, to talk about, to write about, to anticipate death without abject terror.

The grief that followed Catherine’s death, three years worth of it, has been the roller-coasterest part of my life to date. I’ve felt my lowest lows, and my highest highs. I’ve had times when I have woken up, for weeks on end, in a cold sweat at 3:30 a.m. and not been able to get back to sleep. I’ve felt the freedom of being able to consider the future again. I’ve imagined being coldly fearfully alone, forever. I’ve tried my best to help Olivia process the loss of her mother. And I’ve found great new love. A way forward. Happiness.

What I’ve arrived at, three years in, is that grief is only on the surface about the things it appears to be about: deeper below is a complicated web of trauma connected to the bottom falling out of everything, maintaining daily life in the face of certain death (at some random point), the exhaustion of trying to buoy everyone else’s spirits, the (unspoken) frustration of not being able to plan anything, of having the future capped. Grief fucked me up, and for many, many more reasons than “I’m really sad that Catherine’s gone.”

And so, more recently, it’s been this that I’ve been quietly confronting, walking through, accepting.

For all of you who knew and loved Catherine, I am thinking of you today, in solidarity, and with the hope that you’re finding your own ways through the forest.

1. Oliver (he/him) now identifies as Olivia (she/her).


Jill Chandler's picture
Jill Chandler on January 16, 2023 - 17:34 Permalink

Thinking of you today. And I agree with your observations. Grief is about so much more than the loss of our loved ones… It’s the loss of ourselves, our own identity… the uncertainty of the future. The new understanding of just how fragile everything is. The fear that if life could throw us such a curve ball- that more could come… and if that happened- wondering how could we possibly cope with the bottom falling out of anything again?
I wish more people spoke openly about death and their experiences with grief and I admire you for sharing your story.
Also, I am absolutely certain that your words were heard by Catherine - and that they were important in helping you both.
Jill xo

Neil Strickland's picture
Neil Strickland on January 25, 2023 - 00:43 Permalink

I just read this post. I fully agree with what you wrote. For better or worse, much of my identity was wrapped up with my parents - we were all friends with much in common (despite them being thirty years older). Both of them are now gone and I’m now trying to figure out who I am. I try not to dwell on the idea of death but if I talk about my parents I say that they are dead (the accepted euphemisms such as “lost” bother me - I didn’t lose track of them in a store). Not enough is known about how those who are dying react when people speak to them but I am convinced that Catherine heard what you said. The final time I saw my mother my younger brother, my father and I were visiting her - my brother had just left the room and my dad and I were tidying up. I’m not sure whether she knew that we were there but her last words were “I love you”.