[Image: Thanksgiving 2014. Rev. Katie's Mom sitting in a wheelchair by her grandson while watching television together.]
Yesterday I wrote a post about how to decide if you will go home to be with your dying parent/loved one. I talked about how that post was written to focus mainly on the last few days or weeks of a person’s life and that overall if the relationship to your loved one is important to you, you will want to visit them often before it even gets to be their last days.
Then a friend posted this great quote by writer Max Lucado on Facebook today:
“When you are in your final days of life, what will you want? Will you hug that college degree in the walnut frame? Will you ask to be carried to the garage so you can sit in your car? Will you find comfort in rereading your financial statement? Of course not. What will matter then will be people. If relationships will matter most then, shouldn’t they matter most now?”
I came home a few days ago because my Mom seemed to be in her last days. As of yesterday morning, Mom had not eaten for seven days and was barely drinking anything. The little fluid she did get, we had to administer with a dropper. Then last night, Mom drank and ate a bit.
Here is the thing. My Mom is dying. She has been dying for years now. In fact, looking through old emails, there was another time she stopped eating and drinking, then only for two days, and we thought she was in her last days. That was two years ago! Depending on how much Mom starts taking nutrition when offered it, and if the cold virus she has were to clear up, she could be alive for months or years more, but still be slowly dying.
This is why the decision of whether to go home to be with someone in their last days is so difficult for many of us. There are quite a few illnesses where you cannot predict, at all, when someone will die. Technically, you will die after about 3 days of no fluids and three weeks with no food even if you are taking fluids still. At five days in, when I decided to go home, it looked like we could predict how much longer Mom had, but in reality, that was a bad assumption because no one really knows.
If you live far from your loved ones, like we do now, I have compassion for you. So many people think that you can predict within a week when someone will die and you just do what you have to do to get there. But think about what it is like for those of us with dying loved ones that have times when you really think they are in their last days, and then they are not. How do you know when to go home? How do you know if you can afford to keep coming home every time it looks like the last days are here? What if we leave Tuesday as scheduled and Mom dies a week later?
The reality is, it has to be okay with you for your loved one to die when you are not there. It can happen. At any age, it can happen, because accidents happen. It can happen even if you go home and your loved one dies when you take a restroom break. In fact, some people want to take their last breath alone and wait until family and friends are out of the room to die.
There is so much judgment on the need to be there when someone dies, not only for the person dying, but for the other family members involved. Many people see being there as an ethical and moral requirement. However, it is not a guarantee that you can get there and really, those last days are not what matter most.
I do believe that dying is a sacred transition that I want to be present for, but I do not believe you do not love your parent or loved one if you are not able to be there.
The only way to be sure that we will have the bond we want with our loved one is to spend as much time with them as we can before they die.
For people who live in different countries, this may mean a once a year or every other year visit. You can supplement in between with phone calls, Skype, FaceTime, letters, text, and even sending artwork and photos. Some people may even live just an hour away but have a job that has horrific hours and no vacation or personal days. They may risk loosing their job and home just to try and visit for a weekend. A grandchild in college may not be able to go back and fourth four times a year every time their grandparent is estimated to be in their last days, and still be able to pass their classes.
In essence, we need to be somewhat comfortable with a lack of control over life and death. We need to do the best we can, within the constraints we live in, to create bonds with our loved ones because in the end, what matters, was what was in the middle.