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I couldn’t attend my mother’s funeral

Aug 2, 2021

Marisa Haasbroek

A red-headed woodpecker kept calling while my mother’s coffin was lowered into the ground. It seemed fitting, since my mom was a redhead herself as well as a singer, who until her death always led the worship during the morning prayer services in the retirement home where she lived.

On 5 July 2021, at about half past five the morning my time I heard that woodpecker on a TV screen in my living room in America. And thanks to a videographer I was able te see the coffin being lowered into the earth.

I didn’t attend my mother’s funeral. And my only sister, who lives in Australia, wasn’t there either.

Still, I have utmost peace of mind about the fact that not one of my widowed mother’s children were able to attend her funeral in person.

When our family moved to America seven years ago, I quickly realised that I would have to take the effort to look after my mental health. When you emigrate you easily become detached from your roots and become a drifting stranger who no longer fit in anywhere.

I quickly came to the realisation that there were two things necessary for mental health. Focus your thoughts on the right things. Manage your emotions well.

I finally qualified as a life coach, one of the best decisions of my life. Uiteindelik het ek formeel gekwalifiseer as ’n leefgids of life coach, een van die beste besluite wat ek ooit in my lewe geneem het.

With my mom’s passing I needed my life coach skills more than ever.

The last day was the worst. By then she had been in hospital for a week. And yes, it was COVID-19. Her doctor wanted to admit her to ICU but there was not any space available. By then South Africa, and specifically Gauteng, was being weighed down by a new wave of coronavirus cases.

When I woke up in America on that final morning, there was a message from my sister in Australia.

“Phone me as soon as you wake up.”

The kind of message that immediately makes your blood run cold.

If it had been very bad news, I comforted myself, my sister would have called already. She knew that I didn’t switch my phone to airplane mode during that last week.

My sister conveyed the news that the hospital where my mom was, had converted a regular ward into an intensive care ward and had moved my mother there.

On that last day, the nurse in the ICU phoned a family member at least once every half hour, never with good news.

My mom’s oxygen levels kept dropping.

She went into a coma.

Half past eleven the morning, three minutes after she died, my sister phoned me.

“She is gone,” she whispered, broken.

Thousands of kilometres apart, we cried together over the phone.

By then we have already considered time and again whether to go back to South Africa to assist my mom.

The implications for my sister were worse than for me. She would have to get special permission to leave Australia and if she succeeded, she wouldn’t have been able to return for three months. She would have been without an income for twelve weeks, far away from her husband, children and grandchildren. And always with the threat of getting COVID-19.

For me the problem was also that I could get COVID-19, not be allowed to fly back to my husband and children, and even be dependant on family in South Africa for accommodation and medical care.

Besides, I had visited South Africa a few weeks previous to this to attend my mother-in-law’s funeral. Her sudden passing had nothing to do with COVID-19. During the three week long visit, I had spent a lot of time with my own mother. Even Mother’s Day.

I had the chance to organise and arrange her room for her, take her out for a meal on several occassions, tell her I love her over and over again and talk to her for hours on end. Sweet borrowed time.

The hospital’s policy of no visitors convinced me and my sister that it wasn’t worth frantically flying to South Africa. We wouldn’t have been able to see her anyway.

After her death we had another decision to make: were we going to go to South Africa for her funeral?

A South African friend who is currently staying in the Netherlands, warned me that I would have difficulty with closure if I didn’t go. She had friends who couldn’t attend a family member’s cremation and memorial service last year. There were also some major problems with the arrangements of the service and they were still blaming themselves for it.

Upon hearing this I decided to use every single piece of life coach training to build a better relationship with myself, my sister and my family in South Africa during this time. I decided I would keep reminding myself how strong the bond with my mom had been, even though we had lived so far apart.

Thinking back on it all, there are three things that I would especially advise every emigrant to do.

Keep regular contact

Firstly: keep regular contact with your parents and preferably at an arranged time. For almost seven years I phoned my mother every Saturday morning. Those little “visits” meant the world to her. One time her cellphone stopped working and she walked almost a kilometer to buy a new one to be able to talk to me.

Always look for technology that can help

Secondly: keep in mind that there are ways in which you can use technology to maintain good relationships with your loved ones in South Africa. I did all my mom’s online banking for her from America, did payments when necessary and bought data for her phone. It was a small and effortless act of kindness that made her feel loved and cared for.

Utilise the benefit of your stronger currency

Finally, one should remember the advantage of earning money in a stronger currency.

My mom owned a flat that she was renting out and used that income to pay for her accommodation in the old-age home. She constantly had to have repairs done at the flat and was often stressed that the tenants would damage the property or disappear without paying. Or that the levies would just continue increasing.

But she was afraid of selling the flat. What if it didn’t get sold right away? Where would she get the money to pay for her accommodation?

Only after I assured her that the rent amount was small change in dollars for my husband and I, did she have the courage to put the place up for sale. It was sold within a month and she was able to invest the money and live off the interest. I am thankful for the peace of mind I was able to give her by doing this.

From afar my sister and I arranged a beautiful funeral for my mom. My sister played the largest part in this. Wonderful family members in South Africa helped us all the way. The singing red-headed woodpecker was a bonus sent by the Lord.

Of course I still feel terrible about my mother. A strong pain of loss and longing still makes me cry and grieve. But my grieving is not tainted by feelings of guilt and regret. I loved my mother unconditionally and I was able to tell her that and show her how much I loved her.

Three weeks before her death she sent me this text message:

“My dearest daughter, I just want to thank you again for EVERYTHING you’ve done for me. My room that you made so pretty, the clothes that you bought. When I open the cupboards, I see love. Marisa’s love. You went to so much trouble. All I can do is say thank you. You are a precious child. You are worth more than gold. May the LORD Jesus bless you. THANK YOU. Be blessed. Love you. I love you so much, my child. I wish you all the best.”

This is probably the most beautiful goodbye any daughter, living close by or far away, could ever receive.

ALSO READ: How do you deal with the loss of a loved one when you were not there?

Marisa Haasbroek, who lives in America, is a writer, home school coach for moms in South Africa as well as a life coach. Follow her on Instagram at @risa4coaching.

About the author

Marisa Haasbroek

Marisa Haasbroek, who lives in America, is a writer, home school coach for moms in South Africa as well as a life coach. Follow her on Instagram at @risa4coaching.

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