“My father’s in a coma,” a friend tells me. “He won’t even know if I’m there or not. Should I go?”
This is one of the most common questions that adult children ask when their parent is dying. For people who live far from their parents, and who have probably travelled back and forth from home many times already, it can be a difficult decision to make.
Medical experts confirm that hearing is the last sense to go when a person is dying. While your parent may seem unaware of your presence, it is likely that he can hear your voice, and perhaps be reassured by your presence. Talk to your parent, read to them, tell them you love them. If you can carry a tune (or even if you can’t), sing to them.
Does that mean that you have to be by their side? Not necessarily. It depends on what the dying person wants. In my case, my sister repeatedly told me that she wanted me to be there when she died. Even though I was afraid of what it might be like, I promised that I would be there. And I was.
In contrast, when I asked my father whether he wanted any of his daughters to be with him when he died, he said no. He just wanted to know that he wouldn’t die alone.
If you are comfortable with this, ask your parent whom they want with them at the end. While you can’t promise that all of those people can be in attendance, you can certainly let them know your parent’s wishes.
“I just left the room for a minute. Why didn’t she wait for me?”
Sons and daughters, husbands and wives sometimes express enormous regret if they’re not present for the moment of death. Sometimes it’s as simple as going to the washroom and, in that minute, the person takes their last breath.
My niece, Jennifer, was without doubt my mother’s favourite grandchild. She had helped care for her grandmother following her brain aneurysm, even taking her to Norway to visit the home of her ancestors. As she was dying, Jennifer was at her bedside, holding her Granny’s hand. Yet, when Jennifer left for a moment to use the washroom, my mother died. Jennifer was inconsolable on the phone as she told me how terrible she felt.
“I think she was trying to protect you,” I reassured her. “She knew it would be too difficult for you to watch her die.”
I have witnessed this phenomenon so many times at the hospice where I volunteer that I am convinced people can sometimes control the time of their death. I have seen countless people wait for a son or daughter or grandchild to fly into town before they breathe their final breaths. Likewise, I have seen elderly mothers wait for their child to go to Tim’s for a coffee before taking their last breath.
No matter what happens, I urge you to think about what matters most to you. How do you want to show up in these last weeks and days of your parent’s life? What do you want to say? If you live nearby, perhaps you do want to be with your parent when they die. But there is no rule. The most important thing is to spend time with your parent before they die, talking and sharing as best you can, and telling them the things you need to say.