Our Loved One’s Final Gift Is a Soft Parting
I’ve heard so many times from tired, sad, bewildered folk mourning the loss of a loved one: “I just stepped out for a coffee.” “I slipped home for a shower… for fresh clothes… for a few hours sleep.”
You’ve been sitting by the bed of a loved one, day after day, knowing the end is coming, knowing their next breath could be their last. You wait, and wait, and finally, inevitably, you have to take care of some mundane chore — a bathroom break, a breath of fresh air.
It’s almost as if your loved one sensed you were gone and chose that moment to quietly slip away. As if they’d been tethered to this earth by your presence and when you left their side, the tenuous connection, the slender strand binding them to you finally loosened and they were freed.
Just now, I feel surrounded by death. Oh, it is always with us, in a biblical and very real sense, but lately it seems to hover closer. A favorite client, crusty old curmudgeon that he was, has recently passed. His family, also clients and friends, miss him terribly. I mourn with them, knowing that that cantankerous but sweet-centered old man will never brighten my day again. The wife of another client is battling terminal cancer. We have long conversations, not always completely work-related.
Two friends whose writing I enjoy, and whose work and and lives I deeply respect, are each grieving the loss of a close family member.
Reading about their sorrow and their struggle to cope with the changes in their lives reminded me of my mother’s passing, years ago. And among the things that struck me as common to us all was that one phrase — “I only left for a minute… a few seconds… an hour…”
I remember watching my mother’s labored breathing as she struggled for her next breath, and her next, thinking how much kinder it would be if she would just relax her grip and let herself slip away. Praying she would do just that.
We’d traveled hundreds of mile to her bedside to say goodbye, but Mom wasn’t having it. As each of her daughters, my sisters, arrived, she rallied. Her voice would strengthen, her eyes would clear and brighten. For a short time it would seem as if the doctors were wrong and she’d go on forever. Then the inevitable slump would come, followed by the slow slide down — the gradual withdrawal, the inward-turned gaze, the lengthening silences.
Yet something held her anchored; something she wouldn’t or couldn’t articulate.
The last time we spoke was the night one sister and I had to leave, she to work, me to school. We wanted to stay, but we were near the end of our emotional resources. We’d already drained our wells supporting the rest of her family and friends, and desperately needed what little we had left.
When Mom’s husband called a few weeks later to tell us she’d passed, he sounded completely spent. “I’d just left to grab a few hours sleep before work and the hospital called.”
She wouldn’t leave while her daughters were there, and she waited until her husband left one last time before finally letting go.
My estranged husband died in his sleep. Our son went over Sunday morning to see why his dad hadn’t joined them as usual for breakfast. He and his wife walked in and found his father lying in bed as if he’d just fallen asleep. The doctor told them he’d suffered a massive heart attack.
He, too, had been unwell for some time, but insisted on being on his own. He always said he’d rather go in his sleep than live as an invalid, but it was still a terrible shock.
Why do we do that to our loved ones — slip way when they’re gone? Don’t we know how guilty they’ll feel, thinking they’ve abandoned their vigil?
In my mother’s case, and, I suspect in many others, our loved ones stubbornly cling to life to spare us the pain of seeing them breathe their last. Protecting their children to the bitter end, waiting for the child to leave, just for a moment, so the parent can quietly slip away while they’re gone.
In other cases though, like stroke victims who’ve reported hearing the voices of their loved ones and their caregivers, and sensing what’s happening around them on some level, there seems to be a similarly intimate, inborn connection, binding our dying loved one to us.
I believe those connections we are born with and which we build between us in life keep us linked even as we approach the final veil.
When the tether thins enough and the last bonds slip away, I will be free to go.
In the words of an old, old hymn, “Blest be the ties that bind…” Those invisible bonds are stronger than Western medicine or science would credit. It’s as if something deeply rooted in our DNA answers, responds to a chord, an echo in our loved one. And until we are no longer present, that chord will tether them to us.
I know I will want my family there, at my end, to pass surrounded by their love. Part of me hopes I will trust my children to be strong enough to feel their pain and say goodbye, and then leave them, with love. But I know the ties binding us are strong and fierce. So, I’m sure I will do as so many other have done before me, and will do after me.
I will wait ’til they have stepped away for a coffee, or a breath of fresh air, and then, when the tether thins enough and the last bonds slip away, I will be free to go, to give them my final gift of a softer, gentler parting.