My purpose in discussing the subjects most people don’t talk about is to bring them into the light. In past times and still in many cultures traditions are passed down through families that guide people through all phases of life, including the dying process. Not in my family and maybe not in yours.
One of the best things that happened toward the end of my husband’s life was that my lovely friend, Cathy, called me. I’ve known her for thirty years. We’re in touch about once a year now, and it’s often because she has a feeling something is up. I swear, she has an ear to the earth like animals that know when an earthquake is about to happen. She asked how I was, and I said, “not so good.” I told her how ill my husband had been. She said, “I know, that’s why I’m calling. You’ve got to let him go.” I asked her what she meant and she said he was holding onto life because he didn’t want to leave me. He was suffering more because I was not telling him I would be OK when he goes. I needed to release him from his need to be there for me.
Now I felt guilty! He was so thin and weak. She was right, I was torturing him without knowing it. I felt awful. It had been five years of gradual diminishing health. I had wondered how it was possible to hang on so long. My mother had done the same thing five years earlier when she was dying of cancer. She didn’t want to leave the people who had needed her all her life. If only I had known then, I could have helped her pass more easily.
So, how do you let someone go? Someone you love that you don’t want to lose? For Cathy it seemed simple, “Just tell him you’ll be OK.” Not so simple for me. What if he thought I didn’t care enough anymore, or that I didn’t want to go on taking care of him any longer? That would be awful.
I decided to talk to him about each of his significant relationships. He had six children, a brother, grandchildren and me about whom he might have unresolved feelings. We sat on the sofa as we often did, holding hands, and I brought the subject up by telling him I was wondering if there was anything that needed to be talked about that he hadn’t mentioned but would like to get into the open. We went through the family one by one. He was comfortable with each, he said. I asked, as delicately as I could, how it was that he was surviving, with hardly any nourishment, no strength anymore and so much discomfort. He said, “I don’t want to leave you.” My heart sank. Cathy was right.
We talked a while longer. I hope I told him all the things he needed to hear. I’ll never know. I did my best to make sure he knew how much he was loved and appreciated. That I would miss him terribly, of course. But, that I would be OK. It would be hard, but I was a survivor, he knew that. We didn’t talk about it again. That was a few weeks before he passed. I’ll never know how much the conversation had to do with his finally letting go. I’m glad I had the opportunity to hear what was going on in his mind so near his death.
I am very grateful to Cathy for being the wonderful friend that she is to me and so many others. I hope my story resonates with Caregivers who are in a similar position. My husband’s passing was the third of five I witnessed over a span of eight years and with each time I learned a little more about how to ease the process for my loved one and myself. In my next blog, Thursday, I will talk about the dying process again. This time I had more knowledge and a better feeling myself about dying.