A Life Well Lived

This post will be maybe one of the rawest things i’ve ever written. Here’s a warning:

Death is not pretty.

It is not easy, or flowery, or anything remotely resembling anything you will ever watch on TV or a movie.

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Yesterday, October 30th, was one of the most emotionally tough days I have ever lived through.

My beautiful amazing aunt Beth died yesterday. She fought this amazing battle against uterine cancer for three years, and received her miraculous healing in heaven. And that is about where the flowery Hallmark euphemisms end. I asked my uncle for his permission to blog the happenings of yesterday as part of the story of her amazing life, and he graciously gave his permission.

And the part of the story I wanted to tell was that even in the midst of the deepest grief, there can be the brightest hope.

True confession: I have been “around” death, but I have never walked through that dark valley myself, for someone so close to me. I have been witness to the shutting down of a body as I have watched Kendall’s body ravaged by septic shock, but I have never been present with someone as their body lost the battle of life.

Cancer is a horrible killer. I could wax poetic about all the things it is not, but I will tell you what it is.

It is an up and down, back and forth battle. It is false starts and false hope and in the end, it is tumors that have overtaken the body, visible through the fluid-overloaded skin. It is pain that cannot be touched by a PCA pump of narcotics, and it is watching your loved one’s organ systems shut down, agonizingly slowly, but oh so surely. It is a catheter-drainage bag full of blood poisoned by chemotherapy and eaten through by cancer cells. It is the gray coloring of skin so sallow and sunken, the body following it’s most basic instinct to breathe in, and let it out. And breathe in, and let it out. Heart beating systolic and diastolic. These are the first functions of life at conception and these are the last functions of life at death.

And it is agonizing. I will never use that word loosely again. Agonizing. Say it slowly, let the weight of it roll around your tongue for a minute. Think of what it means, to be in AGONY.  Aunt Beth was brought home on hospice on Friday, October 23rd. And she took her last breath on Friday, October 30th. And on some level you think “only a week? that’s so quick.” And to those who were going about their lives like usual this past week, it probably was quick. But to those who are watching their loved one pass through their final days on earth, time slows to a near stop. This past week for my uncle and my two gorgeous cousins, time was agonizing. They both wanted to capture every single second here on earth with their momma, and towards the end, when her breathing had slowed and the “death rattle” had set in, they wanted her to be at peace quickly. We all did.

The real testament here is how she loved everyone around her, and how she then was surrounded by love as she left her human body behind. The house has been full all week of family, friends, neighbors, all wanting to express their love and gratefulness to Beth for the example she provided of a life well lived. I said in the last post how she loved like a hurricane, and seeing the far reaching impact this woman’s life had, I hold even more firmly to that sentiment. Those people agonized with her as her functions of life began to slowly shut down. As she was unable to any longer take in any food, and stopped being able to process her own body fluids. As her breathing became a conscious effort she had to make, and then as all the fluid in her body began to infiltrate her lungs. For five days past the time when anyone thought she would still be alive, this amazing, strong, fierce fighter held on. Calling the family in every once in a while to sing hymns over her, people filtering in and out as they needed to, to just sit with her, next to her, tell her how much she was loved and just soak up the love still emanating from her body.
My sister and I did not think she would survive til we got here –not that she needed to hang on for us. But we landed late Thursday night in Philadelphia, and went to get a few hours of sleep at the hotel before coming to the house on Friday morning. And we made it. We were able to lay on either side of her body and hold her puffy hands and tell her how much we loved her. I kissed her forehead and told her how proud I was of how hard she fought and how honored I was to know her and how very very much i loved her. I held her hand and I listened to one of the hardest noises I have ever in my life heard, the raspy, gargly breathing of a body no longer able to properly filter fluids, and as I held her hand my thumb left an indent in the boggy, slippery skin because her body was shutting down operations to its periphery and was focused solely on the vital organs of her brain and her heart. The PCA pump was slowly dripping the pain-relieving medication into her heart and this seemed to be part of what was keeping her going – the stimulation of that slow drip triggering the heart to beat and the brain to inhale and exhale, inhale, exhale…. Slow, agonizing, near torturous to watch, harder even to hear. Everyone had told her it was ok to go home, to fly to heaven. And we knew she had been seeing glimpses of the eternal glory that awaited her. She was able to form words a few days ago still and was expressing things that made us all believe she was comforted by what she was seeing. So we sang her more hymns, and we watched her turning grayer, and felt her hands and feet getting colder.
At one point late in the afternoon her breathing changed, and the hospice nurse was called in to come check on things and change out the medicine cartridge on the pump. And it was as if we all knew this was it. We gathered in the room, her daughters on either side of her laying their heads on her chest where they had lain countless other days for their whole lives, the place where they always found the most comfort and love, a place they knew was not going to be there for much longer. So the hospice nurse disconnected the pump and the second her heart was not receiving that input to keep beating, it stopped.

And the heartbreaking sounds of grief flooded the air. A husband losing the love of his life. Daughters losing their mama. A mama losing her daughter. All of us losing one of the most loving and precious people we have ever had the honor of knowing. Her absence was palpable in that room as the realization hit us that all that was left was a shell of a human and her spirit had passed into eternity. I watched those of us left behind process the sudden onset of grief in our own ways. I watched my cousinsThe Wheeler Family -15 kiss their mommy one last time before retreating to a quiet place to sob together, their loss so deep that none of us could even hope to be of comfort. I watched my uncle throw his body onto that of his beautiful bride, sobs racking his body as the emotion flowed through him. I watched the hospice nurse, a friend and neighbor of the family, shake with sorrow as she put stethoscope to chest, listening intently for any sign of heart rhythm, heard the tremor in her voice as she whispered more to herself than any of us ‘’she’s gone”. And for whatever reason, maybe respect for the body, or maybe the nurse asked us all to, we filtered out. The body was left taking “agonal breaths” – the reflex of inhale/exhale still flickering across a brain whose sole purpose in life was to stay alive, to be a mom, to be a wife. This is what death does. It is cruel and horrible. It makes a mom who labored over bringing her daughter to life and hearing that first breath, refuse to believe that that same daughter had just taken her last breath, but that that breath was not “life”.

So we all left that room, and the hospice nurse was left to clean the body, to honor the passing from this life into the next. It is methodical and clinical and i cannot imagine how hard it was to do that for a friend who has passed. Until she reached that point where she needed physical help to move the body and finish her tasks. And I watched my dad, one of the strongest men I know, the only one of us who could have possibly endured under that task, go into the room with the nurse, and deal with the horribly unspeakable things that happen to a body once it is no longer sustaining life. Then we called the funeral home so the mortician could come get the body. And we called the DME (medical equipment company) to come and get the medical equipment, and we called the church and family and everyone else who needed to know, and  somehow, real life resumed. Except it was different. She was gone, and we all felt it. It was both peaceful and sad. As Christians, we rejoiced that she was in heaven, restored to a perfect painfree existence as the amazing soul she has always been. I could almost hear her beautiful giggle as she went running into the arms of Jesus….or at least that’s how it is in my mind.

The Wheeler Family -32 The realization struck me at some point that my uncle would need to go back into that room that he has shared with his bride, and she would not be there. And the smell that death leaves in it’s wake was permeating that room. My dad was still dutifully helping walk my uncle through the steps of “now what”, numbed as he was in his utter despairing grief, but he came in, and my mom did, and my sister did, and we moved as a unit. Shutting the door and starting the task of cleaning out the death, while honoring and keeping her LIFE presence there. We stripped the bed and we took apart the mattress and we vacuumed and swept and deodorized. We moved all of the “medical stuff” to a part of the bathroom where it can be dealt with at another time, and we set to work restoring the room to what it looked like as if it was just waiting for her to come home from a trip and crawl into her side of the bed again. And it was hard. It is not something you are trained to do or prepared for in any way. But you just do it. You do it because you know there is no way you want your cousins or uncle to have to deal with it. You do it because it is the right thing to do and it is something to do, some palpable way of being helpful. But if I never have to do that in my life ever again, it will be too soon.

Death is a brutal and terrible ending of life. But it awakens you to what Life really is. And for this final lesson from Aunt Beth, I am so very grateful.
There are not enough words in my vocabulary to fully capture the depth of the feelings we are all feeling. Nor are there enough to capture the gratitude I feel for being able to be here, in these tough times, with my family. I miss my own babies, but I know they are in good hands with Ben. I am grateful for the opportunity to be here sharing our favorite memories, reliving the times we all spent laughing and making memories. Scan 1
I have cried some of the hardest, deepest tears I have ever cried in my life, and I have laughed deeply and goodly.

And now the hard part comes. We are planning a celebration of her life and the burial and all the details that go along with that. I am honored to be able to help in any way with these tasks. Your prayers are so appreciated. Not for me, but for those she leaves behind here. Her husband who is going to have to figure out how to make himself breakfast without also making a plate and a cup of coffee for his wife. For the daughters who will pick up the phone to call their mommy to share good news and realize that she cannot answer, will not answer again. For all the days between now and the time they themselves enter heaven when they will have to go on without their mommy. My heart breaks for them and I hate when I don’t have words to give to them but I can just hold them in my arms and smooth their hair back and tell them how much i love them. For the grandsons who hardly understand why their “Gam” isn’t here anymore and won’t be here ever again.

But this is how life goes on. It’s unfair and it hurts and we don’t understand why.

But we have hope that we will be reunited in heaven again someday. So we are happy that she is free from pain, that she is in her eternal Home, laughing that infectious laugh, and showering her hurricane love down on all of us in her own beautiful way.


The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations in honor of Beth Wheeler can be made to the Hope For Kendall Kendall Quinn Medical Fund at any BMO Harris Bank by requesting to make a donation/deposit into the

kendall quinn medical fund account c/o Terra Atkinson

(ph. 630.226.5330)

Checks can be mailed to:
Hope For Kendall/KQMF
1587 Manhattan St
Bolingbrook IL 60490

Or online using a debit/credit card at


Or at

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  1. Beth and I shared grandparents. Now, being one myself, I have a new found understanding of how those early memories of times spent with Grandma and Grandpa can etch themselves in your mind. Beth is in the etchings of my mind as we shared many of
    those moments together.
    I can’t thank you enough for this powerful account of the ending of her life. For us who are far away, it helps to understand, although acceptance still seems far off.
    In addition to the above, I’d like to say you are a gifted writer. You brought me into the journey.
    Cousin Wendy
    (My dad and Beth’s dad were brothers)

  2. Terra-your words never fail to evoke such emotion from me and that is never more true than right now. Even tho my mom’s passing was not exactly the same as your aunt’s, your words of the feelings watching someone close to you pass over & aftermath of what the living is left with hit my heart. It’s been almost 5 years and I still pick up the phone to call my mom. The boys still ask about grandma. It’s still hard to walk into their house & know she isn’t there.
    Thank you for eloquently saying what is in my heart every single day.
    Wishing you & your family love & peace