When your mother dies: a daughter’s experience

The Daughterhood - when your mother dies

“A small frown, as though she’s forgotten to turn the heating off at home, then a shudder, and then with one barely audible exhale, there it is, the moment you’ve spent years and years wondering about.”

If it hasn’t already happened to you, it’s likely you’ve wondered what it’s like. Recently, curiosity got the better of someone and they asked outright: “What’s it like to lose your mother?” Put it this way: I wouldn’t want to do it every weekend. But the truth is, losing a parent changes you on a cellular level, the way being a mute witness to a minor miracle might.

It ages your bones by decades – but experience it, in the natural scheme of things, you must. Inexplicable sorrow awaits us all, if it hasn’t already happened. That’s just life. To those who ask, I tell them about how you wake up that morning and although you don’t know it yet, today’s the day that they’ll need you right away. You start working on a newspaper column and get halfway through before a hazy phone call tells you that you might be better off coming in, like right now.

Just as you’ve done for months, you pack up the pyjamas that you washed blood from the night before and ring your editor with the best excuse ever as to why you won’t be filing your column today. It looks like your mother is going to die.

You arrive at the hospice that has become . . . well, not so much a second home, but a place you’ve become amiably familiar with in the past few months. A kind-eyed nurse, someone who has become one of your small-talk sparring buddies, rounds the corridor. “We have reason to believe your mother is coming to the end of her journey,” she says, her face in rehearsed but still believable sorrow.

Right-oh, goes you, all business, but the thought of the “journey” and how long and complex and imperfect it has been, makes your resolve crumble until your sobs surface in deep, heavy sniffs.

You enter Room 5 – her own private room because she said she’d go home and bloody well die there if she didn’t get one – and someone is playing Tom Waits on a stereo that has materialised out of nowhere overnight. This is your brother’s doing, you think, but you’re damned if you’re going to let this ruin listening to Tom Waits for you forever, so that’s the end of that. Already, she looks like someone you don’t know.

“I can’t believe this is happening to me”

The night before, things had been so very different. Sad, tired, bewildering chaos. As you wheeled her bed into the hospice smoking room – covered in nicotine patches and with the morphine pumps going a mile a minute, she was still gasping for a smoke – she started shouting and trembling.

“Careful. The nuns are behind you,” she gasps, afraid. “They’re coming for me.”

It’s confusing, but you laugh it off, light the cigarette and hold it between her lips. She sucks on it hungrily, her gem-blue eyes feral. Another patient – slight, 30s, her hair in sparse, pitiful patches – gives you a soft, sad smile that tells you more about what’s happening than any staff member ever could.

After another hour of her frightful ramblings (“I can’t believe this is happening to me”), it’s time for you to leave for the night. But you have no idea how close to the end you are in that moment, and you can’t wait to get away. You kiss her on the forehead, and she recoils, making a pained face. That stings, and a nurse registers your hurt. “I just want this to end,” you say, like it’s some form of retaliation.

Great grace and terrible beauty

The funny thing about hospices is that, although they are places of great grace and terrible beauty, their inhabitants are deeply human, too. Allegiances are formed; so are cliques. Your mother, predictably, has finagled herself into the position of queen bee. And so the one-upmanship and the gossiping begins.

“They say I’ve only four weeks left,” announces a fortysomething woman one afternoon. Sturdy and with a wild shock of hair, she looks virile and strong, as though she might well be in the wrong place. Her boasting is met with withering scepticism.

“Well, I’ve got three.”

“I’ve been told two.”

The wild-haired woman dies two days later, and that shuts everyone up.

But on the morning when you’re needed right away, the end is sooner than you think. She is unconscious, her breathing strong and steady. A nurse enters the room and observes her chest rising and falling. Something is vibrating in her ribcage like a tiny, demented hummingbird. “She probably has a lot to say and that’s why her breathing is like that,” says the nurse.

There’s a knock at the door, then a complete stranger – a tall, able-bodied visitor – opens it wide, making everyone in the room feel naked. He has clearly got wind that someone is dying in here and he drinks in the macabre theatre. Instinctively, you run to the door to block his view. “I’m just looking for . . . the nurses’ station,” he says distractedly, looking past you to the body in the bed.

By now, however, you know the hospice’s code of gentle politesse, so instead of reading him the riot act, as is your wont, you hurry him along the corridor briskly.

The afternoon arrives and so do various family members. The looks on their faces and the way they kiss your mother’s waxy, wet forehead put the frighteners on you.

Saying goodbye

At about 6pm, another nurse gently reminds you that you and your brothers should each take some time alone with her and say the things you want to say. Left alone in the room for the first time all day, you half climb on the bed, crying freely, pawing at the panting body. Something in you registers that this is the first body you ever climbed all over.

It is the most alive, the most present, the most scared you have ever been; the first time you’re ever stuck for words.

You think about how, as a really young girl, you were only ever really afraid of your father dying. It never occurred to you that your mother would go anywhere. That’s the thing, though, about mothers who are nurses. They have a way of letting you think that with them in charge, nothing in your life can ever really go wrong.

7.30pm. You go across the road to a convenience store, where everyone is going about their daily business, which seems crazy. Do they know? A few minutes later, you sit outside Room 5, next to the nurses’ station, flicking through Heat magazine, hating anyone in a bikini on a beach, and eating a turkey and coleslaw sandwich. It’s the last one you’ll ever eat.

Back in Room 5, you harbour an embarrassing little daydream that someone will just burst through the door with a cure. The truth is, her hands are getting colder, and her breathing is slowing down. You have already forgotten what her eyes look like, so you drink in the feeling of her hands, her pale hairless arms, her bony clavicle. Another nurse enters the room and surveys our helplessness.

“What’s going to happen to her?” you ask, snivelling.

The nurse leads you outside, not unkindly. “We believe she can still hear you, so we’d rather not discuss that in front of her,” she says. But you’re told of breathing apnoea, of how it will seem that she has taken her last breath . . . until she takes another breath.

 The moment you spent years wondering about

In the end, this goes on for several minutes. A few instances of “was that it?” before another gasp rips you anew. A small frown, as though she’s forgotten to turn the heating off at home, then a shudder, and then with one barely audible exhale, there it is, the moment you’ve spent years and years wondering about. All you can hear in the room is the sound of the morphine pumps, still working away with metronomic efficiency. You hear someone say, “Well done, I’m so proud of you”, and then you realise that it’s you.

Your mother had previously briefed you to ring the funeral directors right away at that moment. Someone answers, despite it being 8pm. “The funeral will have to be Friday,” they say. Friday.

Only the Friday before, you had tucked your mother into bed with patience worn Rizla-thin:

“Is that everything you need now?”

“Oh no, I’ll have a Bailey’s.”

You fix the drink from the bedside supply, agitated. “How about now?”

“Sure that’ll need ice.” Sighing, you comply. “Okay. How about now?”

She wants you to stay, but you want to go. You know that if you’re there for even the beginning credits of the Late Late Show, that’ll be you there for the night. You escape, but only just, waving with feigned gaiety.

On the night your mother dies, you go back to your own apartment even though family members return to your family home. A friend decides to pay a visit, ostensibly to help. You answer the door to her creased, sufficiently pained face. She is entirely thrown by your complete and utter nonchalance.

“Look at it this way, I’ll be able to go on holiday now,” you say. This confuses her even further.

The next few days are just as those who went through this before you said they would be. Some blessed soul hands you a few Xanax in a hanky with a knowing wink, while a few Zimovane sleeping pills somehow end up on your person, too.

The wake

As befits Irish tradition, there’s a wake in your family home. Your mother has taken up residency in the den, as per her exhaustive instructions, written down two years ago at the dawn of her spinal cancer diagnosis. It is a wicker coffin, and far, far too big for her, so you wrap a faux-silk quilt around her. You fill the coffin with flowers from the garden. Add a packet of cigarettes and, as a running joke, no lighter. She is wearing Ugg boots underneath her best suit. Another joke you shared months ago.

An old school friend, meanwhile, tells you that you look a bit thin and drained. Deadly, you think. You like the thin bit. You haven’t eaten anything since the turkey sandwich. Maybe you can keep this thin business up. The day after the funeral, in fact, you walk into a gym and take out a full year’s membership. It’s the first and last time you go there.

On the day of your mother’s funeral, your brother delivers a barnstormer of a eulogy and he quakes with emotion and disbelief the moment they lower the coffin into the soil. But you are motionless in that moment, feeling the weight of a hundred stares. Later that evening you take temporary and bewildering leave of your senses.

“We need to go and get her,” you start to shriek. “We need to go down there and bring her home.” Everyone looks a bit freaked out because, frankly, you’ve never lost it quite like this, not even when there was absinthe involved, but the only thing that will work is for you to have that white wicker coffin back in the den.

Outrunning the grief

In the following months, you’ll try to outrun the grief. You even go as far as trying self-imposed exile in Australia, which, as coping mechanisms go, is about as useful as a handbrake on a canoe.

Your friends go through the same thing and few truly give in to their grief. “I think I’m actually okay,” hoped one, about four months after her own father died. Maybe she was. But she was putting herself on the clock. And the fallout of losing a parent is something you simply can’t outsmart.

So learn this: let people in. People will want to reach in. Not just at a time like this, but for all of your sorrows. And all sorrow matters. It’s as vital a part of life as the really good stuff; a tester of mettle and a detector of guts and guile. Only through sorrow will you find that you’ve got both and that’s what makes the day you’re needed right away so very beautiful, in its own strange and unknowable way.

– Tanya Sweeney

Originally published in The Irish Times. Kindly republished with permission from Tanya Sweeney.

Five minutes with…Miriam O’Callaghan

The Daughterhood Miriam O'Callaghan

Each week, we ask a daughter to give us an insight into their relationship with their mother. This week, we sat down with RTÉ’s Miriam O’Callaghan.

The Daughterhood Miriam O'CallaghanList three things you do with your mother.

I go out a few times a week to have lunch with my Mother where she lives in Foxrock. It’s the same house I grew up in. I love when she cooks me a fry as she makes the best fry in Ireland! I make a fry for my children every Saturday and Sunday morning in my own home, so it is a lovely treat when my Mum makes one for me. We chat about everything and attempt to solve all the world’s problems.

On other occasions, we also spend a lot of time together chatting to and playing with my children, and with my nieces and nephews. My mother is a wonderful grandmother and is always dispensing great advice. As a former school principal of a very large primary school, my mother has a very wise way of dealing with children. My mother and I also enjoy chatting to each other in Irish – she has very good Irish, mine used to be good but is now weak, but we enjoy talking to each other in our native tongue.

What characteristics do you share with your mother?

My mother is the most hard working person I have ever met – I got my work ethic from her. My Mum is also very positive about life, and I think I share that in common with her. Also my Mum is always in good form – I hope I too have that trait.

What life lesson did your mother teach you?

Two key life lessons I learned from my mother – work hard, and be stoic in the face of adversity.

Where do you fall down as a daughter?

I am always rushing from one place to another, it is the story of my life. I wish I had more time to stay with her when I visit. However there is never a day that goes by when I do not speak to my mother – I call her every day, often more than once, no matter how mad busy I am.

How has your relationship changed with your mother over the years?

I cannot ever remember having a  row with my mother – ever. We are similar in that we both loathe confrontation. I have always loved my Mum and have always been very close to her, but I feel blessed that I have been able to spend even more time with her in recent years.

My mother makes me feel…

Loved, secure, grounded and very proud that she is my mother.

Story of the week: Mental illness and my mother

The Daughterhood

“It has taken years of questioning, understanding and acceptance of Mum for who she really is that has allowed our relationship to be so close and special.”

I could write a book about my Mum. I feel so much love for her that at times it can be overwhelming. The love translates into a language of mutual understanding. I’m convinced that my Mum is telepathic – as soon as we speak on the phone she instantly knows how I am as I take my first breath. She is a true detective in her own right and always manages to get the truth out of me! The bond we share is very special and we enjoy the very simple things in life. As I grow older, my love for Mum reachIes a new level that fills my heart so full of unconditional love it could burst.

This wasn’t always the case though as I grew up with confused feelings about Mum.

I watched as she went through the heartache of loosing her first born daughter who was five-years-old. She struggled with a mental illness and two years later her own heart struggled to beat to the pain of her past and she underwent a heart transplant at the age of 48.

When I said I had confused feelings about Mum, I was embarrassed that she had a mental illness and required multiple admissions to a psychiatric hospital, the first when I was 15-years-old. I didn’t understand what was wrong with Mum and resented the fact that my teenage years were stolen by the mystery of her illness. I had two younger brothers to look out for. It felt like I was landed a promotion that I knew very little about…pseudo motherhood.

Thankfully, I was blessed to have my Nana (Mum’s Mum) always there to help. We lived on Nana’s brown bread filled with her faith in always seeing the good in challenging situations. To be honest her positive energy alone would have been sufficient in keeping us afloat!

With each admission to hospital, we nursed Mum back to health. I always worried that Mum was no longer a mother figure and struggled to translate how to love Mum with a reserved fear inside that she would return to hospital yet again.

There can be so much emphasis on ‘good’ parenting, but what about schooling on how to love our parents (especially when tragedy comes knocking on the door).

When I was growing up, all we were told was to respect our parents, reminded of  one of the Ten Commandments: ‘honour thy father and mother’. But how do we do this?

It has taken years of questioning, understanding and acceptance of Mum for who she really is that has allowed our relationship to be so close and special. I have so much respect for her, with each knock back she always manages to get up on her two feet with a fire inside her belly that allows her to enjoy this life. A couple of years after her transplant she stepped outside her fear of heights to climb the Sydney Bridge. When asked how she does it, she puts it down to her special angel in heaven, my sister, her daughter, to who she prays to and in return, she looks out for our family.

The bond between a mother and daughter goes beyond understanding the dictionary of life in a clearly defined language but more to accept that this is a special love called ‘unconditional’.

– Fiona O’Neill, Dublin

Are you becoming your mother?

The Daughterhood - becoming your mother

“I remember sitting in my house last year and musing, like your woman in Sex and the City except I was gazing out at a Cork skyline instead of over Manhattan: ‘I couldn’t help but wonder – am I morphing into my mother?’ And if I am becoming my mother, is there something wrong with that?” -Cathy, The Daughterhood

The Daughterhood - becoming your motherMother phrases

“You don’t have enough clothes on you”, “They’re the good plates, you can’t use them”, “This house is not a hotel”, “How many times do I have to tell you?”. There was a time when you used to snigger or groan when your mother whipped out one of her mam-isms, but now you catch yourself saying them. You can try and stop yourself, but they’re embedded in your brain and anyway, those plates really are the good plates, only meant for the most special of occasions.

The Daughterhood: Becoming your motherYou’ve inherited ‘The look’

You know exactly the look we’re talking about. The one she gave you when you first got detention in school. The one she gave you when she caught you and your friends drinking for the first time. The one she gave you when you had a sneaky McDonald’s on the way home and are too full for her home cooked dinner. And now you do it yourself, with others saying to you what you would have said to her – “don’t look at me like that”. The look is enough to make a grown man cry.

The Daughterhood: Becoming your motherYou’ve taken over the cooking at family gatherings

When you were younger, your mother probably cooked a big roast dinner when all the family got together. Gradually over the years, helping her out with this big roast has now turned into you cooking it yourself so she can take some time off to relax with the family. Despite the gourmet meal you serve up to them, your family never hesistate to remind you that “you didn’t do the gravy like mum’s”. Queue a cheeky grin from her end of the table as you take another slug of your wine.

The Daughterhood - becoming your motherYour shoes are actually comfortable

Do you find yourself getting excited looking in the window of Ecco and Clarks? Are the days of hobbling around in Jimmy Choos long behind you? There was a time when you used to laugh at your mother when she waxed lyrical about her comfortable shoes but now she comes with you when you’re looking for a pair of your own.

EVENT: The Daughterhood talk for the Mountains to Sea Book Festival

Natasha Fennell The Daughterhood

Are you a daughter? Do you have a mother?

If you’ve answered yes to both of these questions, this talk is for you.

Natasha Fennell The DaughterhoodNatasha Fennell and Roisin Ingle, in a discussion chaired by journalist Anna Carey for the Mountains to Sea Book Festival will discuss their new book, The Daughterhood.

Their discussion will centre on the good, the bad and the guilty of mother-daughter relationships.

The talk will take place in the Lexicon library in Dun Laoghaire, Dublin at 8pm on Friday, March 20. Tickets for the talk are only €10/€8 Concession.

Buy tickets

Five things you argue with your mother about in your…thirties

The Daughterhood - Things you argue about with your mother in your thirties

The Daughterhood - Things you argue about with your mother in your thirties1. Partners

You’re in a committed relationship or an independent woman who don’t need no man, but either way your mother still has plenty to say about your relationship status. For those of us with somebody to love, she’ll raise eyebrows over their suitability and make family gatherings awkward with questions of when they’ll make an honest woman of you. If you’re a single pringle, every visit to her will bring the question of when you’ll settle down. She can set you up with her friend’s son John (“he’s a solicitor, very handsome, kind eyes”) if you want? As for divorce, well, she’ll divorce you if you mention it.

The Daughterhood - Things you argue about with your mother in your thirties2. Kids

When are you going to give her grandkids? She had five children when she was your age and that was back in the day. When the kids do come along, she’ll be there hovering over your shoulder, not criticising, oh no, just telling you “how she would do it if she was you”. “Are you feeding them enough?” “They’re not wearing enough clothes”… she has endless parenting advice to impart and “you can either take it or leave it”.

The Daughterhood - Things you argue about with your mother in your thirties3. Money

Think the days of running to the bank of mum were left behind in your twenties? For some of you, they very well may be, but some of us still need the odd loan here and there.


The Daughterhood - Things you argue about with your mother in your thirties4. Location, location, location

When she asks “When are you moving out?” all you hear is “Why are you still here?”. Mothers of those who have already set up house in a home of their own will pace around said home on visits, pointing here and there at things that “isn’t the way” she’d have it. You’re either too far away, or your house is too big, too small, too cold, too warm, too bright, too messy. Either way, it’s never the way she’d have it.

The Daughterhood - Things you argue about with your mother in your thirties5. Taking care of yourself

“You could have run a brush through your hair before you left your house,” she’ll say, ignoring the gale force winds outside that has your hair looking the way it does in the first place. Now that you’re getting on in years, you need to take better care of yourself for which she has plenty of tips. Try some of that “yoga-lates”, eat more hummus and drink less wine. Of course, she didn’t do that when she was your age, but what does that matter?

Story of the week: I scattered notes around Paris as a tribute to my mum

The Daughterhood - I scattered notes around Paris as a tribute to my mum

“I have spent every day since she has gone thinking about her, appreciating her, writing about her and trying to leave a legacy that she truly deserves.”

The Daughterhood - I scattered notes around Paris as a tribute to my mumMy mum was the most compassionate, inspiring woman I will ever know. Don’t get me wrong – we had our moments. She used to be extremely neurotic, worrying about the most ridiculous of things, causing me to repeat over and over again, “I’m Ok. I’m safe. Everything is fine”. As the years went by that frustration faded and I realised that it was simply because her family was everything to her. 

It was from the moment I moved to London from Dorset in 2008 (when I was in my early twenties) that our bond really strengthened. That was the moment we became so much more than a mother and a daughter – we had a real friendship. We shared a love of dance and the theatre and people watching in coffee shops. We would wander along the Southbank arm-in-arm where she would offer words of wisdom about anything and I would chatter on. I told her “I love you” every time we spoke. I’m so glad I did.

When she was poorly over Christmas 2011 we didn’t know that it was bowel cancer. It was too late, she died 16 days after her diagnosis. When her heart stopped I felt like my world did. In her last few days she told me to feel whatever I feel and to use words to tell people about her. I have spent every day since she has gone thinking about her, appreciating her, writing about her and trying to leave a legacy that she truly deserves. 

Mum was such a creative soul and she passed that down to me. I absolutely had to use it to keep her memory alive. I scattered notes around Paris as a tribute and have now been lucky enough to write about my experience in a book. 

Mum isn’t gone, really. I am taking her with me every step of the way. I am so grateful to her for making me the person I am today and for giving me the strength to keep going when sometimes, to be honest, I just want to give up and run away. I will never stop trying to make her proud.

Vivienne Chadwick – I love you.

– Rachel Chadwick, London

Five things you argue with your mother about in your…twenties

The Daughterhood - arguing with your mother in your twenties

Are you in your twenties? Are you a daughter? Do you have a mother?

Everyone argues with their mother, but when you’re in your twenties, there’s certain topics that will come up more than others when things get heated.

The Daughterhood - arguing with your mother in your twenties1. Your messy room

As long as you’re under her roof, you’ll keep that room tidy. Some days, you might even arrive home to find that she’s already done it for you. And even for those of us who don’t live at home anymore, the contents of your room are still in her interests. Whether she notices it in the background of the selfies you post on Facebook, or has a snoop around on her surprise visits (She was just passing through and wanted to check that you’re still breathing), she’s still keeping tabs on the floordrobe and “just giving her advice”. After all, “what would the landlord think if he dropped in?”

The Daughterhood - Things you argue with your mother about in your twenties2. Your drinking habits

“Hungover again? It’ll catch up with you,” she’ll say in her weekly Sunday morning phone call, as you hold the phone an arms length away from your ear and search for some paracetamol.


The Daughterhood - arguing with your mother in your twenties3. Money, money, money

It’s the third month in a row you’ve had to ask her for a financial bailout and you still get a lecture, even though you always pay her back. “Maybe if you didn’t go out drinking every weekend…”


dinner4. Your diet

How many times a week are you asked “Are you feeding yourself?”,”Do you eat any vegetables at all?”, “Do you even know what fruit looks like?”


desk5. What you work as

“When are you going to get a “real” job?” “Is this what you studied for in college?” “What is it you do again?”


Five minutes with…Natasha Fennell

Natasha Fennell The Daughterhood

Each week, we ask a daughter to give us an insight into their relationship with their mother. This week, we sat down with Natasha…which was handy because she was sitting beside us in Daughterhood HQ!

Natasha Fennell The DaughterhoodList three things you do with your mother.

I love travelling with my mother. We’re lucky that since my twenties, when she came to Australia to backpack with me, we have gone on lots of trips together.
We visited my sisters who were living in Russia and Africa at the time,
and went on a trip to the Arctic last year, fulfilling a lifelong dream of hers. Our trips aren’t as numerous now as they used to be since my mother got sick.

We really enjoy cooking and we often try out new recipes together. Most of all, I love spending time with her chatting, having lunch , going for a stroll on the promenade in Salthill (Co Galway) or sitting in her back garden having a gin and tonic.

What characteristics do you share with your mother?

A love for life is definitely top of my list as we both have a sense of adventure particularly in our travels. She has a great sense of humour and we both love to laugh, which has definitely helped us to cope with her illness.

What do you wish you did more of with/for your mother?   

Time and more time! It’s a constant challenge to find enough time to spend with her as, like most of us, my life is a busy one and she lives in Galway. In the last few years, climbing stairs is a challenge for her due to her illness so staying with me like she used to isn’t an option. I miss having her over to stay with me so I try and make up for it by visiting her in Galway more often and visiting her in my sister Sorcha’s house in Maynooth (Co Kildare) where she now spends weeks at a time during the winter months.

Where do you fall down as a daughter?

Sometimes I make promises that I don’t keep. The photos we took in the Arctic over a year ago and from our last trip to Lanzarote are still sitting in my phone. I promised to print out the best ones, frame them or put them in a photo book but that still hasn’t been done.

What do you wish you were better at?

I could be better at helping my mother organise dinner parties for her friends. She loves having people over but it takes a lot out of her. Making sure the house looks the way she wants it and cooking for them comes easy to me and is something I want to do more of in 2015.

My mother makes me feel…

Good about myself and accepts me for who I am.