The very best last goodbye
I walked into the apartment having absolutely no idea what I was going to be presented with, or what my role was to be. There was disconnect amongst the family members, each trying to navigate her rapid decline and not feeling heard or supported by the people closest to them, which made for a very emotional, and complicated situation.
I went upstairs to her room and knew immediately she had a very short time left. As I turned to look at the family, they were each staring at me with hope in their eyes, and I knew the conversation we needed to have would be difficult. We walked downstairs and gathered together in the small living room. The room was unbearably hot, and I was wearing a mask, a gown, gloves and booties and feeling uncomfortable, claustrophobic and wishing desperately that I could rip the layers off and feel a little more present for these beautiful people who were clearly counting on me for answers and support.
I started off by telling them I did not believe she had much time left, suggesting hours, possibly days, but really focusing on the hours as that seemed more realistic to me. They were not on the same page, each processing it all differently, which made their tones harsher as they talked over one another and the tears fall harder the more frustrated they became. I put on my momma bear hat and gently reminded them that what I felt she needed most, was for them to support and respect one another, and to hear and listen to each other, despite how differently they might see things. I explained that no one deals with death the same way so they had to find a way to accept their differences and come together… for HER. I reminded them, that at least in this moment, it was not about them, that this was her experience and they had to try and find a way to come together. I felt like I was being a little harsh, but I wanted to redirect their focus so as not to waste any of the very short time they had left with her.
I encouraged them to each take time separately and privately with her, to say the things, and to say goodbye. I said something I say often, which is to assume this is her very last day and to make it the very best last day, making sure they say what they need to, avoiding any chance for regret. I told them that as a mom, her biggest worry would be that they did not take care of one another; I suggested they let her know they would, and that despite how much they will miss her, they will be okay. And in that same breath, I told them I understood they would not be “okay”, that this will be really, really hard for them, but SHE needs to know this in order for her to rest and let go.
There were several grandchildren in the family, ranging in ages from 2-12, all of whom had a strong bond with her. The question I was asked that I struggled with most, was “do we tell them the truth or keep it from them that she is dying?” As a mother and a grandmother, I pulled from what I would want and I suggested they tell the truth, be honest with them that her time was short and allow them to make the choice to sit with her, visit with her or stay away. Taking that choice away from them would be something they would never forget and if their bond was strong, I felt they deserved the chance to say, “I love you”, “I’ll miss you” and “goodbye”. I suggested the 6-year old draw a picture for her, and maybe read her a book. I emphasized the importance of allowing them the chance to say goodbye, or at the very least, allowing them to make that decision for themselves and not take it away from them.
Before I left, I went over the medications and suggested other things they could do to bring her comfort and reminded them to call if they had any questions or concerns. Knowing they probably wouldn’t call, I called them about an hour later asking how she was, and hearing moaning in the background, I suggested they give the medications we discussed. An hour later I called back, the medications had not been effective, so I suggested another dose. I called again about twenty minutes later and she was finally calmed, and I could hear her sons voice relax a little. He was able to comfort her and quiet her moans and that was huge, and I told him that. I let him know that he brought her peace, and in many ways, I think it did the same for him. He needed to know, in his heart, that he helped reduce her struggle and did everything he could for her.
About two hours later, her son called me to say that she had stopped breathing and asked if I could come. I arrived about 30 minutes later walking into the same apartment I had left a few hours before, only the energy felt differently. The family seemed at peace, they were calm, and they were comforting one another and so kind with their words. They had come together for her and my heart filled. I walked upstairs to confirm she had in fact taken her last breaths. She looked peaceful and she looked beautiful. I turned to look at them, and nodded yes, watching as their eyes filled with tears, feeling my own do the same. We talked about bathing her and changing her clothes, I suggested flowers in her hands, and playing her favorite music, which they agreed to do later, together, as a family.
When we got downstairs, they told me that after I left, they quickly reached out to all of the grandchildren, letting them know she didn’t have much time left and asked them what they wanted to do; each said they wanted to say goodbye. Every family member had a private moment with her at her bedside; her six-year old grandchild drew her a picture and read her a story and her children promised her they would take care of one another. And after all of that was done, she took a few last breaths and passed beautifully with them at her bedside.
It was the very best last goodbye.