Should I Be There When My Parent Dies?

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“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.

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About the Author

Katherine Arnup

Katherine Arnup is a writer, life coach, hospice volunteer, and retired university professor. Her latest book, “I don’t have time for this!” A Compassionate Guide to Caring for Your Parents and Yourself, provides a roadmap for people on the caregiving journey. She is the author of the award-winning book, Education for Motherhood: Advice for Mothers in Twentieth-Century Canada, editor of the first book on lesbian families in Canada (Lesbian Parenting: Living with Pride and Prejudice) and author of more than three dozen articles on marriage, motherhood, lesbian and gay families, aging, death and dying. As a life coach, Katherine provides compassionate, caring, and courageous support for people dealing with major transitions and for families and individuals dealing with aging, illness, and end of life issues. You can also read more of Katherine's writing at her blog, Hospice Volunteering. Contact:


  1. I have experience in helping individuals at their end of life stage. I was told once long ago when I missed my dear friend’s passing that I was there for the living and that was my role. We had a strong relationship and when she was diagnosed as having a terminal illness, I would go see her frequently; however I realized that I was going when I needed to see her. We made a deal that when she needed me I would be there and she promised that this would help her stay in control when she had little that she could control in her life. I received a call on a Saturday evening and flew up the next day to be by her side. She stated that she was going to die soon and she needed some things done. So that week we planned who and how everyone would be notified, who would attend the close family dinner after the funeral, and several other items, including helping her to write again because the morphine was making it difficult to concentrate. The reason for the writing was so she could leave a letter to each of the special people who touched her life. She had a bikini wax that Wed. much to my amazement! I had to get back to work so I mentioned that I could go and come back next week. She emphatically said that she would die on the weekend so it did not put anyone out. A gift from her, once again that I fully believed she had control over. Friday evening came and she said “I am done. Please write down your phone number as my Mom will be calling you soon”. I remarked that it was already on the list BUT she emphasized that her Mom would be upset and needed to see it quickly. I needed to be there for her Mom asap she stated. As I was getting a drink outside of her room, a nurse who I had never interacted with came to me and asked me to say goodbye and leave early as my friend was getting very weary and needed her strength. I received the call early Sat. morning that she had passed, and the same nurse was there to greet me and explained the concept of loved ones being there for the living and some for the passing. I was clearly assigned to be there for the living. And we did do that, especially being there during her last days. I was blessed and understood life and dying in a new way. The gift for me was to be there when she needed me, and having trust that we would be together and the energy flow would be natural and honest and caring. For anyone reading this, I am certain that her insight will continue to be passed on and answer the burning question – should I be there – just let them know that you will be present in any way that is needed for them to pass peacefully. Bless you as I was blessed…

    • Thank you so much for this. I am suffering a lot of guilt for not being there when my dad died. I wasn’t expecting him to go so quickly so I went home to sleep. When I arrived back at 7:20am he was gone. The nurses didn’t even know, they had just checked on him during their shift change at 7. I have felt enormous guilt that I wasn’t there and that he died alone.

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