Life lessons learned from my Mama's passing

At 95 years and 9 months - what was Mama's secret to health happiness and longevity?

Today I am sharing a personal story. It is one of

Having a sense of purpose – life is all about people

Unconditional love without judgment

Listening (and actually being interested)

Courage and resilience

Generosity and gratefulness

This week my grandmother passed away at a whopping 95 years and 9 months to the day.  Fortunately, I had the opportunity to see her two days before she passed, I was able to look into her beautiful clear pale blue eyes while she was still breathing.  We held hands for an hour and as I leaned over to kiss her and say goodbye she took my hand and rubbed it over her face with her eyes closed.  She was summoning up courage, she knew what was coming, and was interested in listening to those at her bedside right until the end. 

I was grateful for this experience, and grateful too that she had strength and determination (she was never short of that!) to keep awake for two more days until my aunt returned from an abruptly shortened trip to London. My aunt was the youngest of four, was the only girl, lived locally and was a nurse, so as you would expect she bore the lion’s share of caring for my grandmother. It was meant to be that she too was able to look into Mama’s eyes, the same way my father and his brothers had been able to in that last week.

Mama was the matriarch of my dad’s side of the family.  She was Mum, Mama, Gran, Great Mama, G, Great Gran and GG to 75 people, 56 of whom were related by blood.  She died with a count of 37 great children aged between 16 years and 6 months.  I’m not sure if she could have recited all their names but she had a trusty black book filled to the brim with name and dates and addresses.

What was remarkable about my Mama was that she lived for a further 18 years after my grandfather Papa died unexpectedly.  She was particularly dependent on my grandfather so at times her 18 years were peppered with moments of sadness, but with such a beautiful, engaged large family she was never lonely.  And this is the key.

A 75 year-old study was recently completed on the main contributing factors to our health, happiness and longevity. We would expect factors like diet, exercise, sunshine and whether we drank or smoke excessively to be in the top 10 or 20.  And they were.  But the top two may be surprising – number one is social interaction and number two is relationships.  My Mama would never have known about this research, but she was a living proof of its conclusion. 

At the end of our days, nothing matters more than the people we are surrounded by and those we created memories with during our life.  Mama was not only the matriarch to many, she was interested, she was engaged, she was fulfilling a role in all of our lives.  All four of her children and their partners and all 15 of her grandchildren, and many of their partners, attended her funeral.  All five daughters of the neighbours my father grew up with also attended, so it seems Mama was a wonderful and generous friend and neighbour too.  The celebrant actually had a hard task to get us seated and started!

In preparing to speak at her funeral I fossicked through my box of keepsakes – including letters and cards Mama had written me throughout my life.  These amounted to more than  100 items.  She remembered every birthday, every Christmas and sent a plethora of mementos acknowledging significant events in my life.  She baked cookies for us all – ice cream containers became currency in her world – we couldn’t eat enough ice cream to keep up with her demand for containers! 

But this wasn’t Mama being a special grandmother to me and my sisters.  I was one of 15 and it became apparent she did this for all of us.  All of the speeches delivered by my cousins at her funeral reflected the same experience.  We all shared the most generous, hard working, determined and loving Mama, or Gran. Up until two weeks before she died she was knitting beanies for new born babies at the nearby hospital … and more than 30 of her great children had received a hand quilted bedspread or cot blanket. Her hands have left a remarkable legacy of clothes, quilts and hand spun and knitted jerseys across the whole of our country! 

Another reflection I have enjoyed recently is related to Mama’s generosity.  She was generous with her unconditional love.  She wasn’t judgemental – she would simply listen and smile and ask questions about our lives, our decisions, our families.  At no point did I ever feel as if she was passing judgement about me.  Her love for her family was pure and simply unconditional. 

And her listening!  She could talk at a great rate and go off in tangents enough to make our head spin, but she listened and she paid attention, she remembered.  What a wonderful gift to have and to share – the art of listening because you are interested rather than listening to tell someone else what you think…

Mama suffered a number of health set backs during her last few years.  God knows she bounced back from some petty horrific injuries and illnesses that would have knocked anyone else of their feet! When dad talked of her parents’ journeys (her mother was an Australian outback nurse and her father a wounded Gallipoli survivor) we were reminded of the resilience Mama showed as she persisted to heal wounds and carry on – after all she had a sense of purpose, things to do!  She was so courageous to keep going, when many would have given up and taken an easy path.  Laughter erupted during her funeral as we learned that despite shingles in one eye she worked out she could still knit by closing that eye and just using the one good eye.  Resilience is something we should obviously all have more of!

I also uncovered my Dad’s eulogy for his father in which he promised his Dad that we would look after Mama. I know now that we helped keep Mama alive for those 18 years.  You see, her family, her friends, gave her a sense of purpose every day. It was her relationships with those she loved and who loved her which contributed to her health happiness and longevity, just as the research said it does.

Mama’s life and legacy is a reminder to us all to create and embrace times with our family.  This is not news to any of us.  But do we appreciate the significance of relationships on the wellbeing and length of our lives?  Do we live and breathe the value of ‘people first’ or ‘people matter’ daily?

Here are the lessons I learned from my Mama:

  1. Make your family your sense of purpose, your reason to be! They will become just that.
  2. Be grateful for your family and friends.  Hug and kiss your family daily. Deliberately and spontaneously!
  3. Listen to your children, ask them questions to learn, not to reply.
  4. Be generous with your craft – whether that be choc chip cookies or quilting or something more substantial, create a legacy by sharing your skills.
  5. Love unconditionally and allow love to be free of judgements. 
  6. Treat every goodnight as if it were goodbye.  Put aside grudges. You’ll have a better night’s sleep.
  7. Show courage and build resilience.  Don’t let something stand in the way of what you want to do, what you believe in. 
  8. Be grateful for the people in your life.  They are the only measure of our making a true difference in the world.

You may well be the matriarch or patriarch of several generations of your family one day.  Rest assured that a big funeral filled with family and friends built up over 95 years is a happy occasion, rich in shared memories, and experiences! Tears and laughter flow in equal measure.

RIP Mama.  I love you and thank you.


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