West Sussex author chronicles her own mother's death

Antonia Rolls offers a tale of compassion in her new book As Mother Lay Dying .

Antonia Rolls
Antonia Rolls

Antonia, aged 60, who lives in Bognor Regis subtitles the book A Tapestry Woven Of Memories And Insights From The Bedside. It has been released through KDP Publishing at £7.99 and is available directly from Amazon.

As Antonia explains: “In 2015, I gave up my whole life, temporarily, in one afternoon on hearing that my mother had six weeks to live.

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“I went to stay with her and to be with her while she was dying. I remember being determined that she would not be alone, and also feeling afraid of what her dying would be like.

“It was sitting with her in her house, thinking of all the people in her family gone before her, and watching her as she lay in her hospital bed in the dining room that I began to write everything that I was thinking.

“At first it was a way to make sense of this strange time because there was so much silence and time spent waiting. This was my mother, with whom I had fought all my life, the person who knew me before I even knew her, and she was dying. I began to record her dying because it seemed too important not to.

“I had worked with people at the end of life for about six years then, as an end of life companion. I thought it would be easy to be with my mother and help her as she ended her life. It was not easy. This was my own mother, and I had no idea what to do or how I felt.

“It was the most important part of her life, and I was witness to it, and I felt utterly helpless. And yet, it was one of the most profound and beautiful experiences of my life.”

The book is written in three parts. Part one is The Dying; part two is The Bereavement; and part three is The Recovery.

“The Dying takes us through the long process of dying. I talk about how it looks, sounds and how I feel as the days go by and the end gets nearer. In this section too, the people both my mother and I have lost enter this story of mum’s dying.

“I remember how they did their dying, and for those who I had particularly loved, of the long and painful grief afterwards.

“In The Bereavement, I talk about how it feels for me to be without a mother, suddenly, at the age of 55. I wonder at whether I feel grief or just bereavement. This part describes how other losses mix with this experience of missing my mother, and I remember them all, and try to make sense of this new loss.

“The Recovery is written using stories and observations from my work with supporting grief, alongside my own experiences, to show how grief can manifest itself. I show examples of the different ways that people react to loss, and how it can cause some to behave completely out of character. It does not follow a set pattern, and each of us grieves in our own way. I wanted to end the book on a positive note and to show how we do get through the madness that grief seems to bring, even when we feel we will not.”

Antonia added: “As Mother Lay Dying is an honest and powerful account of what it means to care for someone we love who is dying. The book is about the mystery of endings, the reality of caring for a dying person in all its details, and the extraordinary fact that after there is a death, despite feeling as if nothing will ever be the same again, life just keeps on going. We feel as if the earth has shifted on its axis for us and that everyone else must know it too, and yet people just continue go shopping, drive to work, oblivious, and life continues despite this huge thing that has happened.

“I had already created an exhibition around death and dying, called The A Graceful Death exhibition, portraits and words from the end of life. I painted and interviewed people facing the end of their lives for this exhibition, showing it around the country from 2009 onwards.

“I added more works to it over the years, and by the time my mother fell ill in 2015, I had over fifty paintings and interviews. I had also been working in the community as a soul midwife, a holistic spiritual and emotional end of life companion and had learned a great deal about dying.

“But when the dying person was my mother, everything I thought I knew fell by the wayside, and I had to begin totally at the beginning again. The only way for me to deal with it was to be creative.

“I began this book sitting next to my mother and tapping away at the laptop. Once I asked if it disturbed her, and she said ‘No, tap, tap, tap is fine.’ My mother was the final painting I created for this exhibition. At over 55 paintings now, it is big enough and I do not paint any more for it. The exhibition is still shown regularly though and will be again when we are able to.

The book is aimed at all of us. All of us who will face loss and will have to say goodbye to someone we love. I talk about the mystery of dying, and also the boredom of long hours when nothing happens. I talk of how it feels to find resolution when there has been so much conflict in a relationship. I describe how each stage of the dying, death, bereavement and recovery afterwards looks and feels.”

“Into all this narrative is woven too, all the lives and deaths of my mother’s mother and father, her brothers and sister, and her beloved aunts; of my own losses of my brother, my partner and my husband.

“The book is about the eternal partnership between life and death. The writing of this book was hard. It was wonderful, but hard. In order to be as truthful as I could I had to acknowledge the difficulties of this journey and my own failings and uncertainties.

“I had to remember sadnesses I did not want to remember. It was strangely cathartic too. Writing this book was a total labour of love. It was hugely important to get the story right, and to tell the truth alongside honouring my mother, with all the difficulties and depressions from which she suffered terribly. Despite the very rocky relationship between us, at the end, there was only love.

“The starting point for the book was the day we settled Mother into her hospital bed in her dining room at her home in Petworth, when she had asked us to put the medicines for her final days into an antique wooden box that her mother in law had given her, and put them out of sight until they were needed. I sat in the chair we had placed next to her bed, and began to write. The opening chapter takes the story from there.

“I started this book in 2015 and did not finish it until 2020. It took this long because much of it was painful to write. But I am so glad I did write it. I feel that my mother’s story is told, and mine too, and that there is great peace now. I have begun to write another book, about the experiences and insights I have had during the dying process of many of the people I have accompanied. I hope this one won’t take five years to complete.”