I had never given much thought to helping a loved one die. It was about 9pm on a freezing winter’s night, with the sound of the wind howling across the picturesque bay my Dad lived on. My children were sleeping on the other side of the house and I popped in to say goodnight to my Dad before heading to bed myself.
As I entered his room that evening and saw him lying there, I finally saw the truth I’d been avoiding. My darling Dad was dying.
I sat gently on the edge of the hospital bed that was now in his room, the air mattress that prevents bedsores quietly wheezing under my weight. Was tonight going to be the night? Should I lie down next to him and hold his hand because although I cannot walk him the whole way, I can at least go as far as I may?
He was diagnosed with cancer of the “Everything” less than twelve months before. He’d endured chemotherapy and radiation and although they said we may have up to five years together, his body had other plans.
Six weeks ago they told us it was time to go home and let this rampant beast run its course.
I packed up my kids from our Sydney home, and moved to the little remote beach in New Zealand to help my Dad through whatever it was that was coming for us; a decision that has forever changed the shape of my life and I would do again in a stolen heartbeat.
I knew not what to expect when I arrived. We did not know how long this would take, and no one dared to give us a timeline. I thought it would be only months, but I soon realised it was to be just weeks, and then days, and then suddenly we were only left with slippery moments.
The hospice care in New Zealand were amazing but all of us were racing against a tide which kept lapping at our feet. We would decide he needed a wheelie walker, but by the time it arrived he needed a wheelchair. We thought a bedpost could help him manouver in bed, but by the time it arrived he needed an electric hospital bed. It was outpacing us at every turn.
We didn’t realise the ‘lasts’ were floating by us without us seeing his vitality being stripped away with his dignity. The last excursion out of the house, the last shower, the last time he could get out of bed. What at first he found unbearable became normal in just hours.
He worried it was too much for me to bear, and he should go into a hospice or care home but my one wish in all of this is that he die surrounded by love in his own home. I knew that was his ultimate wish too, but this once strong and independent globe trotter of a man did not care to be a burden in his final days.
That night, with no one but sleeping children for comfort, I called the hospice nurses and said I thought my Dad might die this evening.
“What do I do?” I cried down the phone. “I don’t know what to do.”
Was I to call someone, was someone to come and sit with us, or did I do the all night vigil on my own?
Why was there no guidebook or phone app for this?
“Is he in pain?” they asked.
“Is he safe and comfortable in his bed?”
“Then this is what we are doing. Helping a loved one die. This is end of life care.”
Eventually, my Dad opened an eye to see me perched on the end of his bed and he insisted I go to bed, but not before he promised he would not die tonight. Multiple times that night I padded quietly down the stairs to check on my father while he slept, as perhaps he did for me once when I was just a babe.
The nurse came in the morning and she hugged my exhausted shoulders in the glare of the morning sun. She silently handed me a print out of a list entitled “The Natural Progression of the Dying Process.”
As I scanned the inventory I could see we had begun the march down the list. We had to do all of this before it was done? I didn’t know if I was equipped for this. Why had no one told me sooner?
A night nurse was recommended so I could be with the children at night and get some rest. Our beautiful Maori nurse, Steve, was a godsend. He was spiritual, he was caring, and he had done this so many times before that I knew I was in safe arms.
The thing is everybody dies. Not a single person in this world doesn’t need to see that checklist or know what needs to be done when a loved one is preparing to leave the world. We all lose people at one time or another and yet we are for the most part deeply illequipped for that process, because as a society, we don’t talk about it. It’s too weird, or sad, or grim.
But it doesn’t have to be.
When Bupa Australia contacted me about a partnership they have with LifeCircle, they suspected I would feel an affinity. I loved it so much I am writing this as a community service, not as a paid post.
Lifecircle is a free service for carers, yes, FREE, which helps people through moments like I just spoke of. When carers don’t know what is required to help a loved one die, Lifecircle guides, advises, nurtures and helps carry you through that often confusing and sad time. They are an information hub with both live and online support.
Carers can call a Lifecircle guide who has first hand experience in this process. They are not doctors, nor do they provide medical advice, it’s all about the carer and giving them support.
In Australia, many people end up in hospitals or palliative care homes because their loved ones feel they are not equipped and cannot face what is required to help a loved one die, but you don’t have to do it alone. You may not know what you need to know right now, but the right advice from the right people can shine light on that darkness.
My Dad died peacefully in his own bed three days after that night of realisation. It was still raining. My children and I sat with him and our Maori nurse chanted a farewell prayer in his native tongue. The words washed over us in the most sacred moment I’ve experienced beyond the birth of my children.
I’ve had many achievements of which I’m proud, however, this experience of helping my Dad through his dying weeks is one of the greatest honours of my life. It’s likely one day you’ll be faced with the decision of how to help someone you love in their final days.
My wish for you is you face it with courage, because it’s the greatest gift you can give someone.
If you would like to see a copy of “The Natural Progression…” email me.
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