By Sue Collins
I recently witnessed the unfolding of two different deaths with family at the bedside. One daughter sat alone by her mother’s bed. Her mother was in a coma-like state with essentially no response to the bed bath she received only a few hours earlier. The daughter said prayers out loud. She positioned her chair and raised the height of the bed so she was face to face with her mother. She quietly talked to her, sang softly to her, and stroked the top of her head. A few rooms away, another mother lay motionless in bed surrounded by her husband and four children. All four children sat close to the bed and each adult child was connected and focused on a device. The husband sat alone in a corner staring at his wife in silence. Occasionally one or two of the children would walk out of the room into the hallway sometimes crying, or grabbing a cup of coffee or cookie. When they returned to their mother’s room they returned to their device.
There have been articles written about ‘unplugging’ and being mindful or present in the moment. It sounds so simple but it is not so easy, especially when sitting vigil bedside. Denial and distraction are easy to find while focused on a device.
Finding a balance between when to connect and when to disconnect can make the difference between allowing something meaningful to immerge and missing a significant moment, perhaps the last one your will share or witness with your loved one.
Being present means asking yourself: ‘Where is my mind?’ When you say ‘goodbye’ and ‘I love you’ are you truly saying goodbye or are you worrying about life without them in that moment? In other words, in order to have the best experience in the moment, you need to be aware. You don’t want to miss out on a look in your mother’s eye while looking at a screen, or miss you father’s last mouthed: I love you when he has no breath left to utter the words. The daughter who was sitting present at bedside called the staff several times asking about changes in the breathing pattern or movement of the mouth. This daughter, somewhat anxious, kept wondering “is this it?”
When the woman with the four children took her last breath it was the husband who came looking for a nurse. I went to the room with my stethoscope and confirmed there was no heart beat or respirations; the children began to cry. I asked the family the time of death because for many families that is important. So when I asked the question, one son looked at his watch and stated the current time. The husband who was the only person in the room focused on his wife stated a time four minutes earlier; He had been truly present. That is the time documented. He went on to say how peaceful her death was and how grateful he was to ‘be with her, we’ve been together for 61 years.’
When the daughter in the other room called for a nurse to confirm that her ‘mother had passed,’ she looked at me and said ‘She took a breath like this’,
as she demonstrated a shallow breath through the mouth ‘and that was it.’
I doubt the four children were aware of their mother’s last breath since it was their father who brought it to their attention. What was clear as an observer, the daughter and husband were sad but more at peace than the four ‘plugged in’ children at the time of their mother’s death. Whether it is because they missed her last breath or not I will never know. I would never ask. Perhaps they wouldn’t know even if I did. But I’ve seen over the years that being connected, truly present in the moment, however difficult, can lead to compassion, and often, a sense of peace.