It’s so hard to believe that June 27, 2020, will be the ninth anniversary of my father’s death. My dad endured great suffering in the final years of his life. I typically am not one to ask favors of God although I did so concerning my dad. I prayed that God would grant me the privilege of being at my dad’s side when He would call him home. Some might think the odds of that happening were next to none. After all, I lived hundreds of miles away from my parents. Those of us who believe all things are possible with God, however, know otherwise. In fact, God graciously arranged things. Not only was I there for my dad’s final moments but for three days of hospice care prior to his passing.
The experience of sending my father to his eternal rest was simultaneously the most beautiful and emotionally traumatic experience of my life. A hospice care worker gave us a little booklet, months before my dad drew his final breath. It was written to help family members of dying patients understand the process. It helped us know what to expect. For me, it brought understanding and peace to a situation that might otherwise have seemed impossible to bear.
Changes begin weeks or months ahead
If someone you love is terminally ill, you might notice changes in his or her personality weeks or months before end-of-life is imminent. From the hospice care booklet, we learned that those who are dying are slowly disconnecting from the earthly world. This process can present itself in various ways. A common sign that life’s end is drawing near is that a person will begin to give things away. This was strongly evident in my dad’s case. Every visitor to his home would leave with arms full of random “gifts” my dad would give them on the way out the door.
As a person comes to terms with his or her own mortality, it’s natural to want to talk about life memories. If you’re a caretaker or friend of someone who is dying, the greatest gift you can give is to be fully present and available to listen. Not every story will make sense. You also might hear the same story multiple times. It’s okay. Just listen. You might notice another change in a loved one who is nearing the end of life. He or she may now disregard issues that were once important as superficial. In my dad’s case, this involved his hair and clothing, which he was known for keeping impeccably groomed. As his time to return to the Father in heaven drew near, we noticed he might wear the same shirt two days in a row or neglect to comb his hair.
Final days and hours of hospice care
God made each of us in a unique and unrepeatable fashion in His own image and likeness. Because there are no two people exactly the same, no two deaths are exactly the same either. If you’re keeping watch by a loved one’s side as he or she is dying, you can expect to witness certain things. Knowing what to expect ahead of time when my father was dying gave me the strength and peace I needed to get through it all. It allowed me to focus on him — to sing to him and pray over him, and to love him with all my heart as he drew his final breaths.
Breathing changes are one of the first things you might expect to notice in a loved one whose final hours are at hand. Slowed breathing may also become laborious. You might even hear some unpleasant noises, such as a rattling or gurgling sound with every breath. Knowing that this is often a common occurrence in a person’s final hours may help you be less worried or fearful if you hear it. Your loved one might be unconscious at this time. His or her mouth or lips might appear very dry. You can use a cotton swab dipped in water to help moisten those areas.
Don’t be afraid to talk to your loved one
One of the most helpful things I learned from reading the hospice care booklet is that scientists believe hearing is the last sense a person loses when dying. This means that even if your loved one appears to be unconscious, he or she can likely still hear you. I considered this one of the greatest blessings God gave me when my dad was leaving this world. It’s an opportunity to share your heart and to say anything and everything you want your beloved family member to hear.
Bodily changes in the final moments
A person’s body shuts down in the final hours or moments of life on earth. You will undoubtedly witness numerous, visible signs of this. A dying person’s skin tone may change color. If you touch your loved one, his or her skin might feel cold. You can expect to see fingertips or toes and feet turning blue in the final moments. The area around the mouth may also appear bluish or grayish at the end. Breathing, at this point, may almost be imperceptible. However, you might witness or hear a final, drawn-out breath.
A love one passing into eternity may show a few, drastic signs that suggest the end-of-life is imminent. Hospice care workers say it’s not uncommon for a dying person to experience a final, sudden burst of apparent energy. He or she may also appear troubled, even frightened. It’s a good idea to pray and to speak words of comfort to your loved one at this time. In my dad’s case, he had been lying flat and unconscious for days. He then suddenly opened his eyes and tried to sit up. Had I not known what to expect ahead of time, I imagine such a moment would have greatly frightened me.
Learn about hospice care
The workers at the hospice care center where my father spent his last days were like angels. They treated him (and us, his family members) with such love and dignity. These selfless, wonderful people helped my dad have a beautiful, holy death. They also made themselves fully available to us to help us cope as we said goodbye to our loved one.
Death can be a scary topic for some. It helps to know what to expect and to learn as much as you can about hospice care ahead of time. I am forever grateful to God for allowing me the honor and privilege of keeping vigil by my father’s side in his final days. Saint Joseph (foster father of Jesus) is the patron saint of the dying. His intercession can help us help our loved ones (and perhaps, ourselves) have a happy, holy, comfortable passing into eternal life.