What To Expect When You’re Expecting… DEATH. Five Things You Should Know.

You’re probably heard of the “What To Expect” series of books that are pretty much the bibles on expecting a baby. The first in the series is a book considered to be one of the most influential books of the last 25 years and deservedly so as pregnancy was formerly a much not-talked-about topic. It was time to bring pregnancy out of the closet. (It was also time to do away with the godawful maternity clothes that came in one size — TENT — and in one style –BIG BOW BABY. Thankfully, that happened too in the last 25 years.) The books offered information on a topic very few people had ever been willing to discuss.

Well, I’m about to launch a similar and yet opposite end of the spectrum series. I’m considering calling it, as above, “What To Expect When You’re Expecting…DEATH.” (Can they sue me for that?)

My point is it’s time to bring death out of the darkness into the light. Those closets in which we shun the topics we don’t want discussed in polite society are way too dark. Death is not something you can avoid by simply not discussing it.

I know you can’t bear thinking about losing the ones you love. The deaths I’m suggesting we talk about are the ones we start fearing when we are very young — the deaths of our parents. If things progress naturally in our lives we will live to see our parents die. It’s sad and I’m not suggesting otherwise. I’m suggesting we can make the transitional time less sad and maybe even a bit beautiful if we know what’s ahead. Here are five things you should know about what happens once a parent’s prognosis is determined to be terminal.

1. It doesn’t have to be all bad. We knew my dad was dying of lung cancer for only a short time before he died. But since we did have a heads up we were able to make his last weeks include some fun times. We did things he could still do and enjoy. Little things meant a lot. We played cards and pored over his coin collection. We watched movies. We cooked. We enjoyed simple day to day life in the days leading up to death. What could be better?

2. It doesn’t have to be painful. I worried about how much  physical pain my loved ones would suffer. Turns out one of the best advances in medical science is that many dying patients don’t have to be in pain. Depending on their condition, they can be medicated so the pain isn’t so intense. Pain management isn’t perfect, as it does in some cases render the patient pretty out of things but it can be very helpful at the end.

3. It doesn’t have to be a forbidden topic for the person who is dying. You may think not telling your aging parent he or she is dying is a good idea. It’s not. They are adults, they have a right to know what’s ahead. They have a right to speak up and voice their own choice about their death or dying process. In fact, you don’t have the right to keep this most important piece of news from them. If you’re worried they might be upset, you’re right. But isn’t being upset about your impending death a natural reaction they have a right to have?

4. It doesn’t  have to be your responsibility to make every decision. There will be choices to be made. Choices about where to die, choices about how to die and even in some cases when to die. (Life support machines or not?) You can get help. You can speak to people who are experts in this field like doctors, lawyers or hospice personnel. Then you can talk to family members and to the dying person. Yes, you will need a point person, a Power of Attorney person who makes the ultimate decisions. But if it is you, you don’t have to decide alone. Get help. Ask for help, ask for advice. And know this too — you are stronger than you think. You can handle losing your parent, you have to survive it, your life will go on and it can be good again. You can be happy again, the sadness will pass.

5. It doesn’t matter if you are there at the moment of death. I’ve spoken to many people who regret missing the last breath their parents took. It’s a wasted regret. Be there for as many breaths as you can while your parent is still breathing. He or she will cherish those memories. They will know the legacy of love they leave behind. What matters is  how you treat your parents while they are alive. If you somehow don’t get there at the very end, but you were there for other times throughout their lives, that’s what counts. In fact some parents manage to control their moment of death specifically so that you won’t be there. I was with my father for every minute of his last 24 hours except for about the five minutes it took me to walk from his room to the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee. While I was waiting for the pot to drip through, he died. Was that a coincidence? I think not. I believe he wanted to spare me the pain of watching him take that last breath. We come into this world solo, maybe it’s okay we leave solo. It’s what happens in between that first breath and last that matters.

Consider reading the book “Being Mortal,” by Atul Gawande. It will help clarify for you issues about end of life care. It could spur a good discussion in your family. It’s a start.

Finally, if we’re lucky our parents are going to live long lives and walk toward that light knowing they lived good lives and will be remembered with love. It’s our job to help make that happen. Let’s start by shining a light on the road ahead so we are all prepared for what’s coming.

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43 thoughts on “What To Expect When You’re Expecting… DEATH. Five Things You Should Know.

  1. I agree with you Debby. I think death does need to be discussed more openly. Working in a hospital and looking after the elderly, I do unfortunately see a lot of deaths. Many of the patients do know they are dying but when they try to talk to their relatives about it, they can’t take it, and it leaves a few things unsaid. I also thing decisions about resuscitation should be discussed as we still have people in poor health in their 90s who are to be given CPR. It is not a couple of shocks and back to life, it is a lot more harrowing than that, and is not very pretty; ribs get broken, and other complications arise, on top of whatever conditions they already have might seriously impact their quality of life. It is important that patients have control over their own deaths.

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    1. Yes, it’s clear you know whereof you speak. (or write). There should be DNRs in place for people who are so close to death anyway. In those cases a swifter death is a gift for the dying and the families. Those unsaid things you mention surely need to be SAID! And, yes again, you’re right, patients deserve control. Thanks for the informed comment. I appreciate it.

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  2. I hate to admit it, but it does get easier with each loss. We have trouble bringing the subject up, and God forbid, we can’t talk about it with the person dying. That is an unhealthy attitude about death; we need to get over it. The transition after the loss would be so much better for the surviving family.

    A very thoughtful post, Debby. Many will read, but comments might be harder to come by on this one. That, alone, is a sign that the time has come to open up a bit on the subject. Thanks. Van

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    1. I didn’t think about that but I suspect you’re right about the transition afterward being made a great deal easier with better communication before. Also right about comments on this I think. Only the intrepid will enter this territory! Like you!

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      1. If taken from personal experience, I can say that no one even used the word cancer around my mom, let alone..death. She was 53, that was part of it, I think. My father passed at 74, and he knew it was coming, talked about being ready to let go. At his funeral, folks truly celebrated his life. It was easier on us all. We missed them both, of course, but released them in a very different way.

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      2. 53, wow, that’s tough. My mom was 63, I was 24 and I thought that was hard. When a funeral is truly a celebration of a life, that does help. I hope more people come around to realizing that.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks. Nope don’t need any more lawsuits. The ones my family instituted last year were enough to last me a lifetime! I think I’ve already sent the children of at least three lawyers to college. I don’t need to pay their medical school tuition too!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A thoughtful, insightful post and you are correct when you say death needs to be bought out into the open so to speak . Not an easy subject to broach but probably easier as we get older but well done 🙂

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    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this lovely comment. It’s not an easy subject and maybe you’re right that it gets easier with age but in some cases I think being closer to death just scares the crap out of people and they shy away from the subject even more. Hopefully, with more people reconsidering the topic that may improve. Thanks for reading.

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  5. Great idea Deb. The subject certainly needs some public attention. Many think things but don’t say them or act on them. I’ve been journaling for the past year on posts about death – more about stories about dealing with grief, that I planned on turning into a book in a few years. Good luck! 🙂

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  6. Thanks. The suggestion to write in advance really saved me when I had to write about my dad. I’m sure if I had waited until he died I would have been way too upset to think straight or write anything that was cogent. Will look forward to your book when it’s ready. Not your usual humor I’m guessing but still a fascinating topic and so worthwhile.

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  7. I gave the book, “Being Mortal” to my father-in-law. He is dying from lung cancer. I also purchased a copy for myself. This book has been a tremendous comfort, an affirmation that death is a normal process, one that we have a right to speak up about. It takes the fear out of discussing the inevitable and hands the dying person back his dignity. Written by a doctor, he admits that his medical training prepared him to save lives, at all costs, but teaching patients about death was not part of the training. When his father becomes terminally ill, he learns the value of the patient in their choice and course of treatment.

    This book is an absolute, must read! It brings humanity to the forefront and clinical dichotomy to the back burner. This allows the dying the dignity to make choices and decisions that mirror their needs first and foremost. And why shouldn’t we be the judge of our final days? Dr. Gawande humanizes our ending, rather than sterilizing it.

    I highly recommend this book. It will help you and it will ease so many concerns for your terminally ill loved one.

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    1. I read “Being Mortal” and agree it’s a must read. How brave of you to pass it along to your father. Not everyone can do that but it’s wonderful you could. My dad died of lung cancer too. It’s a rough way to go. He’s one of the four parents I wrote about in “Tales From the Family Crypt.” While my dad’s death was to a certain extent on his terms my sister fought it in every way and as a result she and I have no relationship since, more than 20 years. I wrote my book to help people avoid the pitfalls my family fell into and I agree that if more people talked about the issues the whole end of life era would change. I wish you and your father peace in his passing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Such beautiful and kind words. Thank you so much.
        I’m sorry about the rift between your sister and you. We do our best, but sometimes ties must be severed in order that we keep our health in check. Only we can know how we feel. Respect your feelings and honor them,

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  8. What a well written, positive post, and much overdue in my humble opinion, I work in the realm of End Of Life Care, yes it is a heartbreaking situation, yet out of which can triumph dignity, unity, and courage, as I work with geriatrics generally my patients are ‘ready’ to leave, knowing life as come full circle, yet within their families it remains a taboo subject – but only by bringing it into the open can fears be addressed, it’s not the moment of death that should be feared but every missed opportunity prior that moment.

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    1. Given your blog name I can see why you find it compelling. Thanks so much for taking the time to consider the topic. I’m looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts and I’m off to check out your blog.

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      1. Debby,
        Are you planning on writing a book or was this post what you were referring to? I think that the easiest way to sum this up is to use a phrase that can be applied to almost any situation, “Love is a product of communication”. That being said, after 37 years in this field, (and 32 years as a firefighter/EMT) am constantly reminded that people are different and have different needs. I would welcome the opportunity for ongoing discussion.

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      2. I did write a book. My blog, Tales From The Family Crypt is the same name as my book. I wrote about the end of life experiences of each of my parents and of my husband’s parents. The interactions of our siblings around those four deaths were horrendous, resulting in the total destruction of both families. Your love and communication phrase is spot on. I am, through this blog and my book strongly urging improving communication among family members, particularly surrounding end of life. You’re also right about different needs for different people. Ongoing discussion will follow, I hope. Thanks for reading and writing.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s more than okay, it’s fabulous. Sorry you’ve gone through this too. Perhaps if more people start these conversations, fewer will have enough material to write a book! While I like to write and am happy with the way my book turned out, if I had my way I’d choose less crazy family and give up the author title! Thanks so much for the reblog!

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      1. I really relate to what you say, the deaths were my daddy 2001, and maternal gmaw & pop pop 2001/1991. All very much hands on & with Hospice. Death like birth, is a labor (unless sudden) many physical as well as emotional stages, changes, etc. It may sound morose but I’ve definitely grown from those experiences. I grieve, but I love & I treasure/remember & carry my loved ones, therefore preserve their honor. Thanks again. *sorry for the looongg,,, comment.

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      2. No apology necessary. I love the loooong comment. I especially like your “I grieve but I love and I treasure/remember” sentence. Beautifully put and so true. I’m hoping more people will learn that and aim for it. Also you’re very smart about the “labor” analogy and it can be a labor of love if we are prepared. Thanks and feel free to comment long and often whenever the muse hits you.

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  9. I loved the “being mortal” book. It pointed out that no matter how healthy a life you live, there are certain things you can’t escape. Like clogged arteries which harden as our bones leach calcium. I never knew that before. The mistake we’ve made in Western Culture is to allow death to become a Medical Event instead of a life event.

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    1. Medical event instead of a life event. Brilliantly stated. We need more and more people to start talking about death as a natural part of life, not as a horror waiting to happen for all of us.

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