Cancer Death of a Parent Grief

When the Coroners Came

Written by Sara Ohlin

As I sat at the head of our long dining-room table, made from reclaimed 100-year-old Russian farmhouse wood, I studied that dark wood stretched out before me. My husband stood behind me, my father leaned against the door jamb into the kitchen by my side and two coroners stood in front of us. No one else sat. Should I have been standing? I didn’t know the rules for this situation.

One of the coroners was so tall he towered over me like a grand old oak tree. His pleated dress slacks exposed the white tube socks he wore with black loafers. Slacks with a flat front, not pleats would be better for him, I thought to myself. What stupid details I latched onto when the coroners came. I signed the check and filled out a few lines of paperwork for my mother’s cremation. Paperwork. Such a wrong word for this moment in time, paperwork did not belong here, this fraud, this intruder.

But my fingers held the pen and delivered words to the thin black lines, following the instructions as if I were writing a simple grocery list. Then the two coroners, two strangers, went into my mother’s bedroom with my father. I looked out the large picture window at the front of our house to the windowless van they drove up in. Then I turned and walked through the house out the back door to sit on the crumbling, cement step with my huge, caramel-colored dog, Dizzy. I scrunched my fingers through his fur, still puppy soft even after seven years, and I nuzzled my face into his neck to smell his warm, dried grassy scent.

What I didn’t do was look at my mother again.


I was with her when she died; it was just the two of us in her bedroom in the house I owned with my husband and two kids, the house she had lived in with us for two short years. Resting next to her sideways on the bed, I held her hand and sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” because I thought a song would soothe her, soothe us both, and it was the only song I could get past my lips in that moment, my children’s bedtime lullaby. I sang it to my mom over and over, searching for a calm in a cruel situation.

In my mind I prayed to God, a God I struggled to believe in at that moment, to take her, to finally let her rest. Because even though I was dosing her with the prescribed morphine, the sounds of her pain filled the room, and spilled out of it like an angry river flooding over its banks, leaving nothing in its path ever to be the same. Each breath a moaning, ragged struggle. Oh, how those breaths hurt me for her.

When it finally happened, I listened to her last breath. I waited for the moaning to come again, and when it didn’t, I waited even longer, suspended between wanting my mother not to be dead, and desperate for her agony to end. Then, in the quiet, I told her I loved her, let go of her hand, and woke my dad and my husband.

Afterwards, I never took another look at her. 

I never went back in to say goodbye, not before the coroners came, and not when they took her body away. Away from me forever.

Instead, I sat outside and watched the low gray clouds play tag with the sun. While the light changed, flirting in-between bright sunshine and muted cloud-covered haze, over our backyard early that morning on the last day of June, I wondered if I did the right thing, not going in to say one final goodbye. But all I could do was wonder, because I was frozen.

I was more scared to see her dead, than I was when we sat in the oncologist’s office and got her shocking diagnosis, cancer bleeding everywhere throughout her body. When she could barely walk into the hospital for her radiation and they had to get her a wheelchair. When the cancer caused excruciatingly painful and messy diarrhea and I helped clean her up. And when, so nauseous from pain killers near the end that she needed a suppository – a moment which broke me – and I, unable to give her the relief she needed, leaned on the hospice nurse to help me.

The idea of seeing her not breathing scared me more than her loud, painful moaning breaths on that last night. Imagining all her beautiful essence extinguished scared me more than any of what had come before, to the point where I couldn’t move.

And I will never know if I should have gone back in for one final goodbye.

And I will always wonder.

About the author

Sara Ohlin

Sara Ohlin is a writer living in Bangor, Maine. Her essays have appeared in, (as Sara Mitchell) Trillium Literary Journal, Feminine Collective, The Manifest Station, Mothers Always Write, the anthology, Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America, and other publications. She can often be found playing in the kitchen or garden with her two kids, or writing about life at


  • This was so comforting. My precious and beloved mother passed away in January of 2015. I took care of her during her ailment from the time she was in the hospital until her passing. The morning she died, I was pretty exhausted and overwhelmed. I was the only family member at my mother’s bedside up until about an hour and half before she passed. I had worked in long term care taking care of residents for nearly 5 years and experienced numerous family members loved ones deaths while comforting them as well. But none of my own relation such as that. My mind was prepared, but my heart wasn’t. I left my mother’s room before she took her last breath. I have never once regretted it. It was so incredibly tough seeing my mother exit this world like that, but I know that earthly sin means eternal salvation. Your story touched my heart! Thank you for sharing and God bless you.

    • Crystal, thank you so much for sharing your kind words and your own story. I love how you said, your mind was prepared, but your heart wasn’t. That is how I felt. I’m so glad my words touched you. Thank you again.

  • I am speechless. This work of writing really moved me, and even more so, I have such respect for the writer and her ability not only to capture it all in words, but to live through it. Never doubt that your love was more than enough!