What do we do when we learn a loved one is near death? How can we make a difficult moment easier for the dying as well as for ourselves, their loved ones?
On July 15th my 96-year-old father died of cancer. The journey with him through his final days was awful and wonderful.
On June 14th he’d moved from his apartment to a retirement home as a temporary resident. The plan was he’d move to a residence near us. That plan didn’t work out.
On July 7th I accompanied my father by ambulance to the hospital. He was in excruciating pain. Cancer, once held at bay, had spread uncontrollably. He was expected to die within a month.
On July 11th we considered two choices end of life choices for my father: palliative care at the hospital, or a hospice. The hospital’s palliative care physician recommended a hospice. We agreed.
We arrived by ambulance to the unassuming red brick three-bedroom bungalow. Staff greeted us.
“This looks pretty good.” Dad smiled.
The ambulance attendants wheeled him to the green bedroom. The two other bedrooms, the yellow and the blue, were occupied.
The nurse offered my partner and I a glass of wine. She offered Dad a much-appreciated wine-soaked sponge on a stick.
Two of my cousins arrived. In February 2012, their mother, Dad’s sister, had died in the hospice’s yellow bedroom. One of my cousins took me out to the garden. Not to see the gardens, which were gorgeous, but to be sure I understood what was happening.
The conversation went something like this:
“You know he’s here to die,” she said.
“They won’t feed him or give him anything to drink unless he asks for it. And he probably won’t.”
“What?” I knew family provides residents with food. The recommendation was not to bring too much. But staff wouldn’t offer him anything? What had I agreed to? I wanted to run inside and demand they feed him. If they wouldn’t, I’d get him out of there.
“They’ll treat him like a king,” my cousin continued. “They’ll manage his pain. But he’ll soon be so drugged up on painkillers he won’t be awake much. If anyone wants to talk to him, they should do so as soon as possible. Today. Tomorrow. He’ll die peacefully. Soon. You do understand, don’t you?”
But in truth, I didn’t. How could I?
The hospice’s goal is to honour a person’s right to dignity and respect; the relief of suffering; and, the achievement of a peaceful death, free from physical, spiritual and emotional distress. A tall order. But by the end of my father’s short stay I could say with tearful joy that the order had been filled.
The hospice provided exceptional care for my father. The hospice also provided exceptional care for family and friends. We were encouraged to spend as much time in the hospice as we wanted, day or night. Space was available for family to stay overnight. The garden was a refuge. Coffee was always on. A volunteer provided delicious cookies. Our physical, spiritual and emotional needs were also attended to.
We personalized my father’s room with pictures and art. Opera music accompanied him day and night. His room became “home.”
Staff kept us up to date as to what was happening. They answered our questions. They asked for our opinion and observations.
On Friday evening children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and a great-granddaughter visited. Dad lay with his eyes closed, breathing heavily, unresponsive, as he’d been for nearly two days. So much sadness in the room. No one wanted him to suffer. No one wanted him to die.
We left at about 9:00 pm. Staff wanted to prepare Dad for the night.
“See you in the morning.” I kissed my father’s forehead.
At 3:55 in the morning the attending nurse called.
“Your father just passed away,” he said.
When we arrived, staff explained what they could about my father’s final moments. Their visit to his room at 3:45; what they heard at 3:50.
I sat in the unlit room with my father. The sky was turning from black to gray. Birds chirped. The room was so quiet.
“Come back whenever you want,” the nurse said when we left later that morning.
I already have, and I’ll return again to my father’s last home. A home of solace, peace, and dignity that allows the dying to die well. A home that allows the living to experience their loved one’s death with dignity.
Anne is the Director of Consulting Services for the Centre For Workplace Engagement, and Director of Restorative Practice Services at Shalem.