Recently, I came across an article by hospice social worker, Lizzy Miles. She’s also a blogger, writer, and credited with bringing the first Death Cafe to the United States. The author challenges the widely held view that we should tell a person who is near death that “it’s OK to go.”
As a hospice volunteer for many years, I’ve often heard that advice given to family members and I know that I’ve offered it on a few occasions.
The first person I said those words to was my sister Carol. She was very near death and I was sitting at her bedside, singing softly, holding her hand, speaking quietly. “You’re safe now,” I told her over and over. “It’s OK to go.”
I was operating on instinct more than anything I remember being told. It just felt right. She’d had such a long struggle, filled with pain and near constant nausea. She was safe now, at the hospital (though she had never wanted to be there), with me by her side as she’d wanted.
And much as I never wanted to let her go, I knew it was time. All the possibilities for a cure had been exhausted. Every remedy for pain relief had been tried. It felt like it was time to let her go. I told her I loved her, that she would always be in my heart, and, hardest of all, that I would be OK. The last thing felt like the farthest thing from anything I felt. I felt like I would never be OK, that I would never get over losing her. Yet, I knew in my heart that I had to tell her I would be all right after she died. That we would all be OK. And I had to let her go.
Recently a family member asked if she should tell her mother that it was all right for her to die. She said her father had asked her to say that, believing that her mother was holding on for her. “What do you think?” she asked me. “Should I tell her?”
I had just read the article a few days before and Miles’ advice was fresh in my mind. Still I could see the daughter’s suffering and I wanted to respond.
After a long minute I said, “I think there does come a time when we need to let go. When we need to reassure the person we love that we’ll be OK, even though we don’t feel like that right now. I think they might need to hear that we’ll be OK, even though our hearts may be broken.”
I don’t know what she told her mother, though I know she seemed comforted by my words.
There is so much we can never know. We will never know the exact moment when someone will die. Unless they’ve given us explicit directions, we can’t know whether they are holding on for something or someone, or whether they’d prefer to die alone. We can watch for signs – their breathing calming when they hear our voice; a restlessness when there’s a disruption in the hall. We can let our love guide us. And trust that we’ll do our very best.