Ask a Franciscan

Coping With a Mother’s Death

Q: I need your help and prayers in trying to accept the death of my mother at age 90 over a year ago. She had been active right up until her death. She suffered from cancer and many, many other medical problems throughout her life. I was her caregiver. Sometimes she got mad at me for taking her to so many doctors. Most of these medications made her more sick. About a month before she died, she was in and out of the hospital with urinary tract infections. When they treated her with I.V. antibiotics, she got better temporarily.

The last time she was discharged from the hospital, she came home and went to bed, hardly able to eat or drink anything. After several days of her refusal to go back to the hospital, I called an ambulance. The next day the staff told me that she had developed sepsis from a urinary tract infection or from another infection. Septic shock led to her coronary and respiratory arrest.

I feel very guilty and responsible for her death because sepsis is reversible. If I had taken her back sooner or had transferred her to the hospital where she had been treated most recently, the outcome might have been different.

Does God have a specific minute for us to die—known to God before each of us is born? How do I know that my bad decisions didn’t cause this? How can I heal the hole in my heart? A beautiful spring day makes me sad that she’s not here to enjoy it. Can you suggest any prayers or readings that would help me?

A: The death of a parent—even at an advanced age—is always tragic. On some level, the “hole in your heart” will remain—no matter what decisions you make today. I encourage you to entrust yourself and your mother to God’s loving mercy. In addition to praying, you may want to speak to a grief counselor.

It sounds to me as though you acted very responsibly. I’m not sure that you need to regret any bad decision. We can torture ourselves by asking, “What if I had acted sooner or made a different decision?”

Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, six weeks short of his 85th birthday. Although he received excellent health care, the pope experienced septic shock and died.

People’s bodies give out eventually. Constantly second-guessing your decision about when to return your mother to the hospital could hasten your own death! You asked if God has selected the time of each person’s death before he or she is born. Does God live in chronological time as humans do? Does God operate in terms of past, present and future?

I think the answer to both questions is no—even though some parts of the Bible suggest that God remembers past events and makes plans for the future. For example, God advises Noah to build an ark (Genesis 6:12-21) and God sends Jonah to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh (Jonah 1:2).

Other parts of the Bible affirm that we cannot impose human time on God. According to Psalm 90, “A thousand years in your eyes are merely a yesterday” (v. 4). In the Second Letter of Peter, we read, “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day” (3:8).

Ultimately, our lives are in God’s hands. Even so, the Church has never believed that the moment or manner of a person’s death is deliberately selected by God. If that were true, then martyrs for Christ would not act freely.

You asked me to suggest a reading. I have in mind two Scripture passages: Wisdom 3:1-9 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Many people have found A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis, helpful. Care Notes, a series from Abbey Press, includes “Grieving the Loss of Your Parent,” by Judy Ball, and “Grieving in Your Own Way,” by Kass Dotterweich.

May the Lord be your strength and your consolation!

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