Photo of my mother, by the Author

Why dying of a broken heart isn’t as romantic as it sounds

Last week I put my mother’s ashes into a small plot in the town I grew up in. She died on the eighteenth of July.

The ceremony had been as good as these things can be — a non-religious ceremony that included some humourous and wicked anecdotes from my mother’s life. I managed to get through my short eulogy, with pauses to settle the lump in my throat as my voice cracked on every word.

On the first of April this year, my stepfather died, from a combination of COPD and several broken and fused vertebrae that had gone mostly undiagnosed after an industrial accident decades earlier. The vertebrae problems kept him in constant pain as the COPD robbed him of his breath. It was a long, slow demise with spells in hospital and a local hospice as well as my mother caring for him at home for years — all while holding down a part time job as an optician’s assistant.

When his legs finally gave out due to his back problems and he was no longer able to walk at all, he gave up the will to live. He’d survived several close calls with death, not least of which was the accident itself. He died on the first of April, which he would’ve enjoyed, being a man possessed of a certain, slightly dark sense of humour.

My mother was understandably devastated. They had been married for thirty years and were as close to soulmates as I’ve ever seen in a couple. Always one to enjoy a drink, she had spiralled into full blown alcoholism in the months leading up to his death — the full extent of which she’d kept from me until the day of his funeral, when it became obvious she was suffering from DT’s.

Shortly after I got a call to say she’d crashed her car while driving drunk, into a stationary vehicle. She was unhurt, but I was shaken. I remembered a conversation the night before where she’d promised me she’d never get in the car after having a drink — a promise that she came up with out of the blue. We had not previously been talking about driving.

We discussed what had happened and I got angry with her during the conversation — not just because she had done it, (although I made sure she understood that I was furious that she’d risked her life and the lives of others,) but because I couldn’t hear any remorse in her voice and she almost didn’t seem to take any responsibility at all. Most of the words were right, but they were hollow, telling me what she thought I wanted to hear. We fell out after she made a spiteful comment about me being “happy to accept (her) money though,” as if she’d expected to preemptively bribe my anger away — she’d sent me a cheque which I’d decided not to cash, unbeknownst to her. I still have the cheque. This was not my mother speaking any more, this was addiction.

Doug Stanhope says in one of his stand up shows:

“There’s no such thing as addiction; there’s just things you like doing more than life.”

I still tend to agree with him, but now I’ve seen first hand how people change when addicted.

My mother started to go to a clinic. We patched things up. She began to sound a little more like her old self and even started figuring out what she wanted to do once she was well again. She talked about getting on with her life for herself, now she was free to cater to her own whims. She told me how she wanted to lay my stepdad’s ashes to rest and I told her I’d be there when she did.

It came as a shock then, when I received the call saying she’d been found on the floor of her kitchen. It had been less than four months since my stepdad had died. She was sixty-two.

We laid them to rest together, side by side in the small plot, on the thirtieth of July. It was the day after her funeral — which was also their wedding anniversary. I had a reminder come up on my phone the day before the funeral to drive up to spend the day with her on that day so she wouldn’t be alone. I hadn’t managed to visit in a while, so it was going to be a surprise.

In the book “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, a memoir by a psychologist who had been in a concentration camp during the Second World War, Frankl relays the tale of a man who dreams of the war ending. He dreams of freedom and reuniting with his family. So real is this dream, that the man becomes convinced it is a prophecy. When the date of this prophesied peace comes and goes without liberation, he quickly drops into depression and dies shortly after:

“The prisoner who had lost faith in the future — his future — was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay. Usually this happened quite suddenly, in the form of a crisis …”
“Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man — his courage and hope, or lack of them — and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.”
“The ultimate cause of my friend’s death was that the expected liberation did not come and he was severely disappointed. This suddenly lowered his body’s resistance against the latent typhus infection. His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralyzed and his body fell victim to illness …”

And so it happened with my mother. With my stepfather gone, loneliness silently harangued her until she lost faith in the future. Her reason for living gone, she succumbed and died. Her offical cause of death is massive organ failure, which was at least in part due to her alcoholism. She did not suffer a heart attack, but it was her heart, broken beyond repair due to lack of hope, that killed her.

She leaves behind myself, two stepsons and a stepdaughter, and six grandchildren, all of whom miss her dearly.

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