I was sitting in a booth with my husband and granddaughter having breakfast when I overheard a discussion between a father and his two adult daughters in the next booth.
“Joe and the girls went to the hospital last night and said their goodbyes. They felt bad leaving him there,” said one the daughters.
“It’s not uncommon for people to die alone,” said the father.
“His birthday is only a few days away.”
“That’s not uncommon either that people die on their birthday.”
I don’t know what life experiences this man has had but he was correct in both statements. I had said almost the same thing to the daughters of two different patients I took care of during the Big Snowstorm this winter. One patient had just been transported from the hospital to the hospice center. Her daughter, who had been at the hospital, had gotten a ride back home with her young children. After settling the woman into her bed, I phoned the daughter to let her know that her mother’s condition looked guarded, though honestly, I did not think her mother would last through the night. I believe the daughter understood what I was not saying.
“I don’t drive and the snow is really coming down,” the daughter told me tearfully. “I don’t know what to do. I wished they left her in the hospital.”
I asked whether her mother was private about her personal affairs or a person who shares everything.
“Private” the daughter replied.
Sitting at the bedside 24/7 does not guarantee your loved one will not be alone at the moment of death. Why? Because regardless of how bad the American culture feels when someone dies alone, my experience as a hospice nurse has taught me that sometimes a person prefers to be alone. Many patients die only after family members leave the bedside. This seemed to resonate with the daughter.
“People die the way they live,” I told her.
“Right! She would not die in front of me,” the daughter said, clearly calming down. “Now I’m glad they moved her out of the hospital and that she is with hospice people”.
Her mother died three hours after she arrived.
The second daughter sat at her father’s bedside, struggling with her decision to leave him and go home to her family before the snow made it too difficult to drive.
“His birthday is in two days, but I don’t think he will make it,” she told me when I came in to check on them. “I feel really bad leaving him.”
He was in a deep coma like state not responding at all to her presence. To be or not to be at the bedside was the question these two daughters struggled to find an answer to that they could live with, both torn between duty to family and children or to a dying parent. In the hospice community we believe hearing is one of one of the last senses to go; we have seen evidence.
“Tell him the truth,” I suggested. “There is a blizzard starting and you need to go home.”
As she told her father his eyelids flickered as if he was trying to open his eyes. This man had not responded at all even to repositioning. Upon witnessing this I recommended to the daughter to take this as a yes response. I did not realize how tense she was until I saw her shoulders and face relax at my suggestion of his reaction to her words. The daughter returned to the center two days later in time to witness the death of her father on his birthday. And that is not uncommon either.