Understanding A Loved One's Decision on When To Die

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Friday (March 28) marked the sixth month anniversary of my very last "conversation" with my mother. Earlier that week, Mom had begun to fall into a stupor in which she didn't respond to words and increasingly didn't notice movement. As I mentioned in one of my shareposts that followed her death, Mom started looking "through me and not at me" at this point, which triggered my hunch that Mom's death was quickly approaching.


    When that thought struck on Thursday afternoon of that week, I talked to my father and then called my brother, Steve, who lives in another state. By early Friday morning, my brother's airline reservations were made for late that evening. Because time appeared to be of the essence, my father and I planned to drive the necessary distance to Houston to pick up Steve so we would avoid any potential delays caused by airline connections.

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    Mid-morning of that Friday, Dad and I went to the nursing home to visit with the physical therapist about Mom's therapy. After that meeting, Dad and I went to go see Mom. I can still remember entering the room and finding her resting in a quasi-fetal position in the bed. Her head was facing the wall and her eyes were closed. We said hello to her without receiving a response. We chatted about the weather and why we were at the nursing home; again, no response.


    Sitting at the foot of her bed and holding the top of her blanket-covered foot, I managed my emotions and brightly said, "Hey, Mom, guess what? You're going to have company. Steve's coming to see you! He's coming in late tonight and will be here to see you tomorrow morning." At that moment, Mom's eyes flashed wide open for about a second and then closed. I didn't get another response from her during the rest of conversation that morning, but I knew that she had heard the important message - Steve was coming.


    Dad and I left about 45 minutes later, and I began to make preparations for my brother's spur-of-the-moment journey. My dad went back to the nursing home that afternoon and told me that he remembers getting a response from Mom at his mention of Steve's visit.


    Dad and I picked up Steve at the airport that evening and stopped for dinner at a Mexican food restaurant before we made our way back to the town where Dad and I live. I remember getting back to the house around 11 p.m. Steve and I hugged each other, and went off to our respective rooms to bed. But our restful night of slumber was short-lived. At about 2:30 a.m., the phone rang. I answered and a nurse quietly informed me that my mother had passed away peacefully after starting to spike a fever around 11 p.m.


    Numb, I went to wake up Steve and then called Dad to share the news. Steve sat quietly, soaking up the realization that he wouldn't get a chance to be with Mom one more time.


    Later on Saturday and throughout the day on Sunday, I pieced together what I believe happened. I've often heard stories about people who are dying who wait until a loved one is present before leaving this world. I firmly believe that Mom - who always claimed she "didn't want to be a burden to her children" - made the opposite decision. She loved Steve so much that she didn't want Steve to see her at the end, knowing that Steve had only two years before helped his beloved wife die after a long battle with cancer.


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    Instead, I think she wanted Steve - who as a young teenager had helped Mom with caregiving duties with my grandmother, who had undiagnosed dementia -- to begin to remember her as she was for so much of his life. But I also believe that the knowledge of Steve's trip gave her "permission" to die since she knew all of the core family members would be together in the same place to help each other through this difficult time.


    After this experience, I learned that we have no control over when the end will come in a loved one's life. I think that's a decision they often make for their own reasons. In December 2007, my friend Inez lost her father to dementia. He waited to die until Inez was in the room by his side. My mother did the opposite. The lesson I've learned is to cherish the time we have with loved ones while we have them and then to let them make choose when they leave this world. That's one last decision of theirs that we need to honor.

Published On: March 31, 2008