The Dilemma of Presence and What Do We Owe the Dying?

Sivan Hermon
5 min readJun 30, 2023

On May 15th, at 11:47 am, my mom took her last breath. It was the first time in my life that I experienced the fullness of end-of-life moments, unlike simply attending a funeral. I was by her deathbed during the last week of her life, having flown in frequently over the past six months to help care for both her and my father. Losing my mother taught me that dying is not always as dramatic, painful, or beautiful as portrayed in movies. Our feelings and emotions often don’t align with those depicted on screen.

Books we read, movies we watch, and people we interact with all share a consistent message: be with your loved one on their deathbed. Ideally, express your love and forgiveness, bring closure to any unresolved issues between you and your loved one.

Sitting by her deathbed

I heard many people express regret for not spending the last days and weeks with their dying loved ones. So, I felt surprised and guilty when I realized that even though her hours were numbered, I had no desire to be there. In my professional and personal life, I strive to add value to others, setting the bar intentionally low. A simple hug or smile counts as a valuable addition in my personal life, while giving credit for ideas/work or keeping a conversation on track counts professionally.

However, as I sat by my mother’s side, occasionally holding her hand, I felt powerless. I had nothing to offer her. If I couldn’t add value to my mom, and being with her made me feel scared, anxious, and scarred, why was everyone telling me I should be there? Was I doing something wrong? Was there something I failed to see? It was a double-edged sword: whether you’re near or far from a dying loved one, you experience loss.

Photo by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash

Expressing love

Expressing love was easy for me; I loved my mother. I loved her as a child, and as an adult, I loved and worried about her. Saying “I love you” came easily, consistently bringing tears to my eyes. I believe the unconditional love a child develops for their parents is always present.

Forgiveness

I grappled with the conflict between societal expectations and my authentic emotions. Even during her last moments on Earth, knowing that time was fleeting, I couldn’t let go of the need for her to admit she could have raised me differently.

Considering the outcomes, she did a solid job! I am a (mostly 😀) functional human, capable of maintaining long-lasting relationships and being a decent parent. I successfully graduated from prestigious universities and held a job at a world-renowned company for nine years. What am I complaining about? What other expectations might a child have from their parents?

Throughout my upbringing, I often felt that I was disappointing my mother, that I wasn’t good enough, and never would be. For years, I longed for direct praise (although my mother occasionally praised her daughters on phone calls with friends), and as a young adult, I adjusted my expectations. I simply hoped she could say something like, “I did my best, and I recognize that I may have made mistakes along the way.”

I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead; all humans are flawed, and life isn’t perfect.

Their legacy lives on through us

After my mother passed away, I waited for warm memories of her to flood my mind. I hoped to hear her voice echoing in my head. Perhaps she would visit me in my dreams? None of that happened. Instead, as I sorted through her belongings, preparing my parents’ apartment for the Shiva, I kept hearing her scolding me with phrases like “Sivi, not like that” and “Sivi, let this one go.” Once again, I felt guilted by society.

Then, as I watched my eight-year-old son play a song in front of a live audience — a piano recital, his first — I was overcome with tears. I felt saddened that my mom, who believed in extracurricular education, who ensured her three daughters each played an instrument, and who attended all of my nephew’s piano recitals, would never get to witness this. And worse, she would never even know it happened.

Photo by ANIRUDH on Unsplash

That’s when I realized her ideals and values were deeply ingrained in my mind and being. It was as if she spent years imprinting her brain DNA onto mine so that I could carry forward her legacy when she was no longer here. That’s why, as a mother, I believe all children should learn to play an instrument. And since my mom would send us to after-school classes even when we could barely cover our monthly living expenses, I prioritize extracurricular education for my own children.

“Ohhhh,” I gasped, “here she is.” She lives on inside me. I can carry forth the positive aspects of her legacy. Perhaps that’s the value I offer.

My inability to forgive her is perhaps a sad manifestation of the high standards she instilled in me — expecting more from myself and others. And now, in a cruel twist of fate, her actions are measured against that high bar. I chose to experience the pain of wanting something unattainable rather than giving up on her and our connection.

As for the negative aspects of her legacy, I use them as anti-patterns (pitfalls) when raising my own children. I strive to offer them unconditional love, making them feel that they are not only good enough but often surpass my expectations and wildest dreams. And yes, I make a point to praise them, to tell them how proud and grateful I am, as well as acknowledging my own flaws.

So, what do we owe them? And what if they will never know we were there? And what about us?

They are the ones whose lives are ending, and we are the ones left behind. We will carry their memory and their end-of-life journey. We will repeatedly attempt to reconcile unfulfilled desires, striving to heal the pain of longing for something unattainable.

My advice? Give it your best effort. Find a balance between your own needs and societal expectations, taking into consideration your own future.

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Sivan Hermon

Leadership Coach, Speaker. ex-Google, Columbia MBA. Love helping humans through leadership, software and knowledge sharing. http://buymeacoffee.com/sivanhermon