In an interview with People magazine, Winfrey revealed that she knew her mom was near death and made sure her final days were “as sacred and as blessed as a passing can be.”
“I knew my mother was dying. I got a call from my sister [Patricia, who Lee gave up for adoption in 1963] that she thought it was the end,” Winfrey told the magazine.
Even though she was preparing for an interview with former first lady Michelle Obama, Winfrey jumped on a plane and headed to Milwaukee to be with her mother.
“I sat with my mother. I said, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to make it. Do you think you’re going to make it?’ She said, ‘I don’t think I am,’” Winfrey recalled. “I had a conversation with her about what that felt like, what it felt like to be near the end. I started telling all the people who cared about her that, ‘She knows it’s the end, so, if you want to say goodbye, you should come and say goodbye.’”
As the end grew closer, Winfrey said Lee was able to say goodbye to those who mattered most. She even got closure on her sometimes fraught relationship with her daughters, including Winfrey.
“I waited for a way to say what I wanted to say,” Winfrey admitted. “I couldn’t find it that day. The next morning I woke up, and I was actually praying for, ‘What is a way I can have this conversation about the end? How do I close it?’ I just thought, ‘What is the truth for me? What is it that I need to say?’”
While she searched for the right words, Winfrey decided to turn to music. She called gospel singer Wintley Phipps, who sang “Precious Lord,” then played one of Lee’s favorite songs, “How I Got Over.”
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“I could see that it opened her a little bit, because my mother’s been a very closed down person. I could see that the music gave me an opening to say what I needed to say,” Winfrey explained.
Instead of rehashing the past, Winfrey simply thanked her mother for bringing her into the world.
“What I said was, ‘Thank you. Thank you, because I know it’s been hard for you. It was hard for you as a young girl having a baby, in Mississippi. No education. No training. No skills. Seventeen, you get pregnant with this baby. Lots of people would have told you to give that baby away. Lots of people would’ve told you to abort that baby. You didn’t do that. I know that was hard. I want you to know that no matter what, I know that you always did the best you knew how to do. And look how it turned out,’” Winfrey recalled.
Winfrey’s sister, Patricia, also made peace with their mother.
“My mother’s had real problems since my sister came back from the adoption. My sister said, ‘Please forgive yourself, because I’ve forgiven you for giving me away,’” Winfrey said.
“It was just really sacred and beautiful,” she continued, before using the moment as a teachable moment for the world.
“I would say to anybody—and if you live long enough, everybody goes through it—say the things that you need to say while the people are still alive,” Winfrey advised, “so that you are not one of those people living with regret about what you would’ve, should’ve, could’ve said.”
Lee died on Thanksgiving Day at the age of 83.