I didn’t have a meaningful moment with my mother before she died. Well, that’s not true, my life with her was filled with meaningful moments. I guess what I mean is that I never had the Hollywood Moment that, in the movies, is part and parcel of death by terminal illness.
My mother never sat in her bed, calm and alert, resigned to her death and ready to receive her family. We never shared a moment where we both knew and accepted she was dying. I never told her that she had been the perfect mother and she never told me she was proud of me and that I was going to be okay.
For a long time, I have fixated on the moments I did have at the end of my mother’s life, and mourned those I didn’t. Logically, I know this is foolish. When I test this idea of a “meaningful moment” at the end of life against reality, I see that it should be looked upon as a rarity as opposed to the norm. How could a Hollywood Moment ever be assumed when so many people die in ways that make it impossible?
Screw Hollywood. If I must compare life to a narrative (and apparently, I must), I’d say it’s more like a good book that you never want to finish and when you do, you realize there was no way the ending could have ever lived up to all the great stuff in the middle. Instead of relishing in the closure of the book’s final page, you flip back through to reread your favorite parts and relive the moments that, in hindsight, were significant themes, turning points, and revelations.
In the midst of life, we’re not very good at predicting which moments will matter later on. It’s only after the story ends that we’re able to see the significance of certain events. We assume big moments like milestones, beginnings, and ends will be the most important. When in truth many of the moments that give us pause – either because they cause us the most pain or because they are the dearest – quietly happen somewhere in the middle.
Sometimes the moments that feel significant after a loved one’s death become ‘stuck points’ in our grief which, in this context, might be the thoughts and memories that remain distressing over time and which a person continues to struggle with in an ongoing way. Technically ‘stuck points’ aren’t emotions, they’re thoughts that result in distressing emotion. For example, a person might have the thought “I should have done more to save my loved one” and as a result, they feel guilt. These points can derive from big obvious events and they can also revolve around moments that are surprising, small, and seemingly mundane.
Famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote about the “decisive moment” in his book Images à la sauvette. He said,
“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment…The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression…Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
He was speaking about composing photographs, of course, but I think idea of the decisive moment has relevance in thinking about how we reflect upon our loved one’s lives and our relationships with them. When we know how things end — when we know what came after a moment, what people did and did not say and do, and the things that did and did not matter in the end — it’s easy to say “That was a decisive moment. It was a moment that mattered, a moment when something changed, a moment when someone could have said or done something differently, and now the moment is gone.”
I think maybe this is why the absence of a meaningful moment at the end of my mother’s life bothers me so much, because while I passively waited for this unlikely convergence of events I allowed so many other decisive moments go by. I didn’t pay close attention to or treasure the moments that were significant and I didn’t bother to initiate a meaningful moment with my mother by saying or doing something, anything, other than nothing.
Life is full of moments that matter – moments of clarity, truth, perfection, and connection; moments that signify turning points, missed opportunity, fate, and luck. It’s too late for any of us to change the past we shared with our loved ones who’ve died. What we can do is look back on our relationships in the same way we would flip back through a good book, feeling compassionate towards our actions knowing that, when they happened, we did not have the benefit of hindsight, and slowly relishing all of our favorite parts.