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Be aware of your words when a loved one's death is near

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Researchers say that the ability to hear is the last sense to surrender as a person's body goes through the death process. That statement assumes, of course, that the person has previously suffered no profound hearing loss. Most of this research has been done on people who are in a coma. However, many of us who have attended deaths of loved ones have seen for ourselves the effects of words on an otherwise non-responsive elder.

It was when my mother died that the truth of studies on hearing, as it affects those in a coma, really came home to me. My mother had been in pain for years. Once she was declared terminal and the care the nursing home staff provided couldn't cover her needs, we called in hospice. Our local hospice worked seamlessly with the nursing home staff to care for Mom.

Waiting for Death: How Long Does It Take?

I continued my daily visits. Finally, when hospice saw signs of impending death, I took time off from work.

When my father had died under hospice care five months earlier, it had been just hours from the time I was called in until he died. My sister, Beth, came to town and we sat with Dad. He rallied, as people who are dying often do, and so my sister left to tend to her dog at home, fifty miles away. She no more than got out on the highway than Dad showed signs of the end. The nurse came in to check Dad, then gently called my name. I held him and felt the life go out of him. After ten years in dementia hell, Dad was finally set free.

We thought Mom's death would be much the same. She only weighed about 85 pounds. She had been very ill for a long time and was terribly frail. Her limbs were mottled with purple and blue patches and the staff felt death was very near. Yet Mom's heart wouldn't quit beating.

A Long Death Vigil

Beth I spent three days and nights with Mom until she finally was able to let go. During this time, we talked with each other and to Mom. Other people came and went but mostly Beth and I were sitting vigil.

Mom had a roommate in the nursing home those last months since Dad's death, and the roommate, Mavis, had Alzheimer's disease. The staff tried to keep Mavis out of the room as much as possible, and we always kept the dividing curtain drawn, but Mavis would sneak around to look at Mom. That would have been okay, but when she did so, she would squawk loudly, "Is she dead yet?" Hearing this, one of us would jump up and gently guide Mavis to out of the room, as Mavis muttered, "I love her so!"

While my sister and I were worried that Mavis' crude questions would be bad for Mom, we also knew Mavis couldn't help it. All we could do is try to get her out of the room. Strangely, Mom didn't show much agitation when Mavis spoke, but it's impossible for us to know everything that registers when someone is in a pre-death state.

Beth and I kept our talk light, but we talked a lot of childhood memories. We kept an eye on Mom's comfort and the staff, knowing we were in for a long haul, kept an eye on us as well as on Mom.

Mom showed many signs of dying but her heart was steady, so I did take a few hours the second night to go to my home to shower and grab a few hours of sleep. My sister drove home for a few hours of rest and then drove back to the nursing home. Mom seemed unchanged. The days were long, but Mom was comfortable. She seemed to be waiting for something, but we didn't know what.

Sharing the Past

As we sat with Mom, Beth and I talked about Dad, actively telling Mom that Dad was waiting for her. To pass the time, we went through old photo albums we'd kept in Mom's room. I remember exclaiming, "There's Ethel! How beautiful she looks here." Ethel was Mom's long dead sister.

Then Beth saw a photo of Marion, Mom's other now dead sister. She excitedly pointed out the photo and started talking about Marion. Mom's eyelids fluttered. She seemed to tune in. We kept looking through the photo album, chatting excitedly about the family photos. They were old photos, and all of the people were long dead. After a significant time where Mom seemed to rally, we saw here sink back a bit.

She seemed peaceful as we moved to her bed. Beth and I knew we must have looked like fools to folks walking by in the hallway, but we didn't care. We became Mom's cheerleaders as she slowly faded out of this world. We kept telling her it was okay to go. We cried as we encouraged her. "Dad's waiting! Ethel's waiting! Marion's waiting!" We watched as her eyelids fluttered a bit more and she was gone.

Did Mom hear us? For that matter, did she hear Mavis? What proof do we have? None but fluttering eyelids and small movements. But as loving daughters tuned in to our mother, as well as veterans of attended deaths, we felt she could hear us. We felt good as we encouraged her to leave her broken body and painful life behind and join whatever awaits us on the other side. As with Dad's death, Mom's last breath was for us, a spiritual moment.

Did Mom Hear Us or Did We Imagine It?

Some would say Beth and I were delusional. Maybe we were. But we were grateful that, at least from her loved ones, if Mom heard at all she only heard loving words.

Our story isn't unique. I've heard many that are similar. So, when I write or talk about attended deaths, I encourage people to only talk about positive things in the presence of their loved one, no matter how out of it they seem. Be joyful, if possible. If you have issues to air with siblings or a parent, take it out of the room.

Mom had been ready to die for a long time, so while we knew we would miss her, there was a strong feeling for us that this was her time. We feel we sent her off with a message of love.