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What ‘Being There’ for a Dying Loved One Means

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If you’re dying, and someone tells you they’re “waiting ‘til the end” to come see you, believe them.

And then put them off as long as you can.

“Waiting ‘til the end” was something I heard for the first time — from someone who surprised me with her reluctance — when my mother was dying.

I didn’t know deferment in death (or deathbed visits) was an option. Because death doesn’t abide by schedules. It foregoes the niceties of invites and RSVPs. It’s abrupt and rude and fickle as hell.

Birth is, too, of course. But due dates give us some sense of pack-the-bag anticipation. We know, within the span of a week or so, when to show up with flowers, cameras and car seats. And, if the date comes and goes — and goes and goes too long — birth can be induced. Inducing death, though, is frowned upon.

So, to commit to “being there at the end,” seemed oddly overreaching.

First off, it’s kind of spooky they — the ones who promise a postponed visit — know when the end is. And you don’t. That means they’re God, the Grim Ripper or Miss Cleo the Psychic. Sadly, none of those options bode well for you, our dearly, nearly departed. No one can predict the inevitable end.

Your foot-dragging loved ones could simply be scared. Who could blame them? Death isn’t for the faint of heart. It is daunting, off-putting, not your first choice for a free afternoon. Sitting with those in the final stages can be alarming, especially if you haven’t seen them recently. Cancer and other terminal thieves pinch our healthy glow, our hair, energy, mobility and manners. Small talk and smiles are hard at the end. And visitors are pained to witness pain they cannot ease.

Cynically speaking, committing to “be there at the end” might just suggest a bit of narcissism, too. A desire to make an entrance, at your departure. To upstage the final act. Overshadow the shadow of death. To beatifically swoop in, waterproof mascara in place, and hold a wan hand.

They may simply hate hospitals — or their nursing homes, rehab and hospice equivalents. I heard that one a lot. “I can’t stand hospitals. I get all freaked out when I see the tubes and monitors and beeping things.” Unless you’ve been clinically diagnosed with nosocomephobia (an excessive, morbid fear of hospitals), you can’t use this as your ticket out. Aside from the kindly circle of doctors, nurses and caregivers, no one relishes a trip to the hospital, particularly those who get tagged with plastic admittance bracelets.

Let’s face it: Happy hospital visits are few and far between. From the disinfectant smell, to the medieval torture chamber-shape of beds and lifts and stretchers, to the sighs and cries and infernal beeping of machines that breathe and pump, hydrate and nourish — hospitals assault our senses. They stir unease and dread, a desire to turn tail, highjack a wheelchair and roll yourself down the gleaming corridor and out those oversized automatic doors. Despite their name, hospitals are decidedly inhospitable. From the moment you’re admitted, as patient or visitor, we count the hours and days until we can go home.

Being confronted with the death of loved ones conjures other, more ephemeral thoughts of going home. It makes us consider our own mortality. Human transience. What we’ll leave behind, what we’ll face. It’s a jarring wake-up call from the eternal ticking clock. A summons that moves us to reflection, and often, too, toward regret. So, while the outward purpose of our visit may be to make peace with a loved one, perhaps we resist because we know the encounter will prompt the opposite of peace within our souls.

It’s hard to know how we’ll react when faced with death and final visits. And our reactions will inevitably catch us off guard. We’ll want to go, then find ourselves incapable. We’ll dread a visit, and then be uplifted and grateful for the time.

Perhaps it comes down to simple semantics. When our loved ones face other, less lethal adversity — a break-up, a lost job, training for a marathon — we pledge to be with them “until the bitter end.” We commit to constancy, companionship, a “we’re in this together” offense.

Why, then, is death so lonely? And the visitation excuses so defensive? Maybe, rather than assuring we’ll “be there at the end,” we should just be there. Whenever we can, however often we care. Lifting the pressure of deadlines might just lengthen the days — and make the end a little less bitter.

Getty image by gorodenkoff

Originally published: July 9, 2021
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