“Were you with your sister when she died?” I ask Patricia.
“Well….sort of. I was at the hospital. I spent a lot of time with Juli, but it was so exhausting,” she hesitates. “I fell asleep and so at the very end, the moment she needed me most, I wasn’t actually there.”
“NO!” I said, “that’s the way it works! The dying person sometimes wants privacy, needs it, and has more control over the process than we think. We family members can “hold” the dying person here, so they will wait until you go to the restroom, or fall asleep, to actually die.”
“Really?” Patricia suddenly starts looking around for the tissues. Juli died of melanoma years ago as a very young woman.
We need to talk about these things. Truly. It can only be helpful, to all of us. Shrouding death in black bunting or stigma, instead of making it a part of life, only makes it harder for everyone. My family members have tried to educate ourselves over the last couple of years as we helped first Mama and then Alicia through their final illnesses. We did a better job helping Alicia, I think, because we knew more.
There is interest both sincere and prurient interest in the last phase of life. Witness the great success of Anna Sale’s wonderful podcast “Death, Sex, and Money--about the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more”, although even here it seems death gets short shrift.
It’s hard to compete with sex and money.
“Is it relieving to you to learn about the dying person controlling their timing?” I ask Patricia as we walk to the movies last night.
A walk or a drive as a good time to have conversations, togetherness without the requirement for eye contact.
“Juli died 28 years ago,” said Patricia, “and if you’d asked me before I’d have said I was complete with it. But that clearly brought things up. And as quickly to resolve them in a new and better way.”
Unfortunately Mama, who sat with her father for days at the end, also didn’t know about how much control the dying person can have. So when Grandpa Delbert died at 97–after days attending him, Mama had fallen asleep in the chair next to him–she called my sister Sabrina, in tears, overwhelmed with guilt. Mama was so upset at the thought that she had let her father down.
When in reality, she had let him go.