• Kasia Borowczak

Conversation with Zora from Slovakia

Kasia - You said that being present in your mum’s illness was really important to you and helped you overcome her death. What do you remember from this period and what was the most important and the most difficult for you?

Zora - For me the most important thing when someone is dying is to be with this person. It is of course horrible when someone dies due to a terminal illness but unfortunately very often you cannot change or reverse it. What you can influence and change is whether you are going to be with this person and help them to go through it. Apart from being the closest person for a dying person you are also a carer, cook, housekeeper, driver and a person who basically takes care of everything - I would call it - the last and extra full package of care, patience and love… Our mum was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer with a prognosis of about three months of life. What a shock, right? She lived for another eleven months. Till the end I was fighting, I tried alternative options as well, but with this type of cancer it is like trying to fight a monster...I remember well when one day I went with mum for a check-up and I read among many other things in the report which we received after the consultation ‘The patient is still putting lipstick on’. We both thought, as my mum read the report as well, that it was strange and so irrelevant to include this information in a medical report and we did not get this message at all. After her death I was putting some pieces together and I realised that they were surprised that despite her critical state she was still looking after herself. The most difficult for me was probably to see her so weak and so slim but on the other hand I am really happy that I could be with her, that at that time I was in the same country and did not have any other commitments.

Kasia - Last week your mum would have turned 70. Could you please tell me how you spent that day and how you felt celebrating her birthday?

Zora - So I decided to make a colorful memorial card for her and I posted it on Facebook. I wrote: ‘Dear Mom, today is your big day, we are celebrating your 70s with you in the heavenly garden’. Many people know we are from non-identical triplets, as I have two other brothers and that my mum was a very strong person because it was not easy to take care of three children at once. The message I wanted to give to my family and friends was ‘Let’s have a celebration in heaven all of us, let’s drink and enjoy because it is my mum’s big day.’. I talked to my family and friends on that day wondering how she would have looked like now being 70 and what her plans would have been because I imagine she would have already been retired spending a lot of time in our cottage. It was a lovely day and I am glad that I prepared this card for her.

Kasia - I am very pleased that you celebrated sharing that day with other people. Was it the first time you did something like that for her birthday?

Zora - Before, I used to send an email to some members of my family and friends on the day of her birthday with some pictures of hers attached. But this year I wanted to do something special because it would have been her big birthday.

Kasia - What did you learn from the experience of losing your mum and how did this loss shape your attitude towards life? You are so positive and full of energy so I am wondering whether you have always been like that.

Zora - I think I have always approached life taking into consideration all its aspects both negative and positive even before our mum’s death. But, I was really, all of us, shocked when we found out that she was diagnosed with cancer. She was a beautiful looking woman, she took care of herself and led a healthy lifestyle. So when I heard that she had cancer I took it as a fact and I decided to fight it. To be honest, I didn't think she was going to die. I thought we would win. I was very shocked one day when I was leaving the hospital after having spent a really lovely day with my mum and I received a phone call from my aunt who said: ‘I am worried about you because you are behaving like your mum is ok. My two parents died due to cancer and I don’t want you to be in shock but it looks like she may only have a few more days to live.’ When I heard this I was so angry at her and I cried a little bit.

Kasia - How many days after did she die?

Zora - I don’t remember exactly. Maybe 2 or 3 weeks after. But to be honest now I know that she meant well. She wanted to prepare me for the worst. I really appreciate when people decide to tell me the truth even when it is not comfortable. The experience of going through my mother’s illness overall was difficult but I took a lot from it. I mainly learnt how to look after a person who is dying and I became much stronger. After my mum’s death I am able to deal with crises in a much more relaxed way. At the end of the day, you can learn only through pain, grief, discomfort, and difficult times. First of all is part of life and second of all only these unpleasant, horrible and dark moments shape you and teach you to be stronger. And I am not saying now that I am OK that my mum died. What I want to emphasize is that I feel proud of myself for how I dealt with this situation and how many good things I learnt from it.

Kasia - Did you have a chance to speak to your mum about her attitudes towards dying? You mentioned that you did not believe your mum was going to die for a long time but I am wondering whether she ever wanted to talk about it.

Zora - No, we did not talk about it at all because we thought, I thought, everything was going to be fine. I don’t know why. I am getting quite emotional now.

Kasia - It is good to be emotional about these things. It means that we care.

Zora - It is interesting why I kept thinking that she was going to live. Maybe I was protecting myself in a way in order to keep carrying on for her. So it was probably a mixture of naivety and fight, but I don’t really remember all from this period. I took care of our mum for eleven months and it was my privilege to be there for her as her daughter and best friend. I think it is not the most important thing to talk about dying or death with a dying human being, but what is crucial is to be there before the time comes....

Kasia - Last week you said that today I could ask you whether you are scared of dying. Are you?

Zora - Surprisingly, I am not. If someone told me that I have only 3 months left, I would be worried about how things are going to be for my brothers, father, uncles and how they are going to sort things out after my death. Of course if I heard that I was going to die soon, I would be shocked, I would fall on my knees and cry but I am not scared of the act of dying. To be honest, I have already prepared everything in case of my death. My brother knows what to do with all organisational matters, I wrote everything down and I even asked one of my friends to help him with that. It is just better to be prepared because you never know what may happen to you. You may be young, strong and healthy and die tomorrow in an accident.

Kasia - It is so great that you are conscious about that. I also have written down a list in which I’ve explained what needs to be done if I die.

Zora - By preparing this you give people you love and who will experience your death less stress and less work. We all need to be a little bit more responsible for our things even if we are not here anymore.

Kasia - Could you tell me a little bit about your cultural, Slovak approach towards death and dying and talking about it?

Zora - To be honest, I am not sure whether I am able to answer this question. I come from Slovakia, I am Christian Protestant and my grandfather, from my mother’s side, was a priest. If you are a protestant priest you can have a wife and family. So we spent my entire childhood around him and the parish. He was a very educated man, knew many languages and was open to talk with me and my brothers about everything - life, sex, Second World War, people not eating for weeks and even dying. But maybe it was just in my family. I remember well that we were never saying that it was unfair when someone died, it was just natural for us that people die although it may sound horrible.

Kasia - Maybe for this reason your approach to death is so calm.

Zora - Maybe. Some people may say that it was unfair that my mother died. She was still young, beautiful and so good, too good sometimes but I am afraid that it is how life works. But it does not change the fact it is still my mum and of course I miss her massively. Although I accept her death, I still feel emotional about it from time to time.

Kasia - And do you feel comfortable talking about her with your friends?

Zora - Absolutely. I just tell them in advance that I can be a little bit emotional, because you know some people can be a bit stressed or don’t know how to react and what to say when your voice starts shaking or you start crying. I am one of those people who even cries after hearing some good news. Being emotional is one of the most beautiful and liberating moments one may have :).