I was chatting with some friends (all boomer moms) this morning and the conversation turned to how hard it had been for a local family to authorize "pulling the plug" on their teenage son who'd been in an auto accident and was being kept alive solely by the work of machines.
Since my dad had died two months earlier, I decided this was a good time to test out an observation. I found myself blurting out,"OK, you all probably think this is crazy. I'm kinda embarrassed to even ask, but here goes. I was lucky to be at my dad's bedside when he died, and to me, it seemed so similar to when I gave birth. I mean, it struck me that watching my dad take his last breaths was like watching my daughter when she took her first breaths. I was taken totally off guard by the similarities."
Much to my amazement, all three women gasped and simultaneously said, "I felt the same way watching my mom die." One friend added, "For me it really was like watching my baby transition into the world, but instead I was watching my mom transition out."
We all talked about how special it was for us to be there when death came. It was sad, but in another way quite beautiful. The topic of hospice came up, and we agreed it gets a bad rap because people associate it with death instead of being about helping someone, their family and friends, have the best experience possible during the final days.
I agreed wholeheartedly, adding, "The last two weeks of my dad's life were so hard for me because I have a large family (five siblings, their spouses and kids, and my mom) and we weren't on the same page at all. Since my dad, and the rest of us, thought he'd live forever, we weren't prepared for the anguish and battles that can occur when mid-life children gather to make final decisions."
In my dad's case, it all happened so quickly and unexpectedly that everyone was in shock and time seemed to have stopped. My dad worked out regularly, ate healthy and had been his usual jovial self at our family's Christmas festivities, but shortly afterwords suffered a massive stroke that landed him in Intensive Care (ICU) where he spent the last two weeks of his life. We all kept vigil as we weathered the ups and downs, hope and despair that such an ordeal brings.
My dad had selected my middle sister as his medical proxy given she is a nurse practitioner. For 25 years her job at the teaching hospital was saving life and she was well respected. The hospital staff, from doctors to nurses to administrators, were her second family. The staff consulted with my sister, she filtered the information we were given, and as a result she was often "caught in the middle" between her blood family and hospital family. Out of loyalty to my sister, it was clear the hospital was doing everything in their power, and more, to keep our dad alive.
For me, that was a problem. Having read Final Gifts months earlier, and having had a "death experience" myself thanks to a car accident while in my early 20s, I was on the opposite end of the spectrum. I saw death as a fact of life and a transition to a new existence as well as a reunion with loved ones who'd already died. I'd rather have had two lucid days with my dad comfortably at home, or in hospice, than 14 days of a heavily sedated body on machines. However, if I even broached the subject of an ICU alternative, my sister and mom looked at me as if I'd suggested killing my dad.
The family dynamics were exhausting. My mother was in shock and kept telling the medical staff, "But he's a young 86, this just can't be happening." My sister from Santa Fe used her energy healing skills and tried to keep "death energies" at bay. My oldest brother, a carbon copy of my dad in so many ways, believed death was simply not an option. If a nurse wasn't upbeat about our dad's prognosis, my brother would say, "Jeez. Does she have to be so negative? You'd think she'd focus on the positive."
My youngest brother did his best to keep the peace amongst the all the conflicting emotions and growing animosity. It was quite a challenge since, as my brother noted, we'd all not spent so much time together since 30 years earlier when I headed off to college.
So, today, talking with friends I pondered another question. Years ago, when I was born, my mom was brought to the hospital and given anesthesia, while the hospital staff handled everything. My mom "slept" and my dad was banished to the waiting room. However when my daughters were born, I saw it all and their dad was in the room. It was a time to celebrate the miracle of life.
Maybe it's time to do the same when our loved ones are dying. If we can become comfortable with seeing someone off, we can create a beautiful loving way to cherish our last moments together.
What do you think?