Dying Well

My Mom would be 70 years old today. That seems old. I can only picture her as young–probably because she died at 46. In the prime of life, with a full head of thick brown waves, sparkling green eyes and a radiance that suggested she might be younger than she really was. Despite tumors lining her major organs, spine and rib cage, and after months of chemotherapy and radiation, she didn’t appear frail, ill or unattractive. Not even at the end. Oddly enough, she died looking well. God granted my siblings and I that much; a memory of her as radiant in spite of trauma.

Thinking of my Mom as she might be, a few things come to mind: Heaven, cancer and dying well.

Heaven Can’t Wait

I’ve written before about how often I wish she were still alive. Especially now that I have two children. I’d love for them to experience her love. I’d also really like to take my kids to her house and flee with my husband. To Tahiti. For a week. When you’re a mom, the next-best place for your children is in the arms of your own mom. Sometimes I get snagged by a web of if-only thoughts. Especially on big days like her birthday, Christmas, the anniversary of her death.

Last week I heard something on the radio that challenged my thinking. A man speaking on WMBI-Chicago was discussing the death of his son. As he grieved someone asked him something along these lines: “Knowing what you know about Heaven, would you still have your son come back to life on earth?” No, he decided. Heaven is much better than what we’ve got down here. When you lose someone close, the last thing you want to hear is, “She’s in a better place.” Even if it’s true. Time tempers grief, thankfully. It renders our hearts better able to absorb simple truths about complicated events. My Mom probably likes Heaven better.

I still don’t get the whole dying young bit. I expect it to remain a mystery. At least in this life. Paul said so in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:9-10, “9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.” I know some of the story, as much as God has revealed. I’m a journalist, so I’m not too comfortable having part of the scoop. But God isn’t my editor, after all. (If He moonlights as an editor, I have a sense that deadlines don’t bother Him.)

World Cancer Day

This morning I discovered that it’s World Cancer Day. How fitting, given that it’s my Mom’s birthday, and she died from complications of breast cancer. A release on WCD’s site says 7.6 million people die from cancer worldwide every year, 4 million of whom die prematurely, between 30 and 69 years old.  The Union for International Cancer Control and the International Agency for Research on Cancer say unless we raise awareness about cancer and find “practical strategies to address it,” by 2025, premature deaths from cancer will reach 6 million a year.

To help raise awareness, this June I’m participating in Chicago’s Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. In two days I’ll walk nearly 40 miles, around and through the Windy City. I’m walking in honor of my Mom, of other women who’ve lost their lives to breast cancer, and for those battling the nasty giant. You can learn more by visiting my Avon Walk page.

Dying Well

Shortly after my revelation about World Cancer Day, Midday Connection came on the air, featuring a program on Rob Moll and his book, The Art of Dying. Kind of a depressing show, I thought. I was about to switch off the radio when Moll launched into the notion of meditating on death and dying well.  Historically Christians spent time planning for death, preparing to meet God. They considered it a normal part of life, Moll explained. Nursery rhymes refer to death, as do songs like “London Bridge is Falling Down.” For centuries, Moll said, churches had rituals surrounding death. Practices where people would say “I love you” or “I forgive you.”

Today we avoid talking about death. Our technology-driven culture looks for ways to prolong life, sometimes at all costs. Western culture tends to rush the grieving process, said one of the show hosts.

How smart, those old church rituals. We’d do well to resurrect some. When my Mom was dying in the summer of 1989, a stream of friends and family came to her bedside. She prayed with them, told them she loved them. My Dad brought her flowers and gifts. He sought her forgiveness. I didn’t hear her say it, but I knew from their body language that she forgave him. Two days before she died, I called her in the middle of the night. I regretted having to leave where she was, at my Grandma’s home in the country, to get back to the city for the start of my sophomore year in high school. She wished I could’ve been there to lie with her in bed, to help her forget the pain. But she understood. She wasn’t mad. She loved me. Always.

That was the last time I talked to her. I don’t remember much else about the conversation except for those words. And I didn’t realize it then, but my Mom was smart enough to embrace her own death rituals. She was ready to meet her maker, and she died well.

My Mom, Karen, in the mid-late 1980s, Medina, Ohio

My Mom, Karen, in the mid-late 1980s, Medina, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Virginia Stebner.



  1. this is a beautiful tribute, Kristina. So beautiful! Thank you for sharing your heart and reminding us to savor our time with our loved ones. This truly honoring to your mom!

    • Thanks, Julie! Your comment reminds me of a Benjamin Franklin quote I found shortly after my Mom passed: “Lost time is never found again.” I wish I’d realized this when she was living. It took me a while to forgive myself for things like that–to realize that God wasn’t angry at me for not being a better planner. I like to think that early loss has helped me savor time with people. I still take people for granted. But I’ve made some imperfect progress, as Lysa TerKeurst calls it in her book, “Unglued.”

  2. What a lovely post. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of your mom before. She’s beautiful—just like you!

    • Thanks, Rachel! The photo above belonged to my Grandma (Mom’s mom). Her heart was broken after my Mom–her first-born–died. She kept the photo in a pink-lace frame, and studied it for hours. My Grandma lived for 17 more years, but part of her was permanently wracked with grief. This picture, then, reminds me of my Mom and my Grandma. It sits next to my desk.

  3. I’m glad that you have shared memories of your mother–a strong and loving woman. It is hard to know why we lose those dear to us so early. May God give us peace.

    Our culture does keep death at a distance. Once we knew that our son’s leukemia was terminal, I looked for a mentor. We still fought for life with one more round of chemo, but then I needed to find a way to sit at his bedside, minister to him and encourage his trust in a heavenly father.
    God brought a woman that had lost her son into my life. My other resource was the Scottish author/preacher. George MacDonald. He was a contemporary of Charles Dickens. He wrote stories about people of faith that encountered death. I learned from the characters in his books. I felt in some way that he was my pastor through that time.

    • Thanks, Carol, for sharing your heart. I’m sorry for the loss of your son. God reaches out to us in our pain, through people, doesn’t He? How lovely that He sent to you a woman who’d lost her son, and George MacDonald. Often the best balm for the grieving soul is to hear of others’ experiences. They’re never exactly the same, but knowing you’re not alone makes a difference.

  4. Beautiful writing as always Kris – and a beautiful photo of your mom too. I actually just finished reading a book last night on this very topic – What Remains. It’s a very touching story of love and loss and dealing with cancer and really helped me personally understand what both the patient and thier loved ones go through. So my thoughts are with you today and always.

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