My father was in a coma for three days before he died, and he had been unwell for many years before that. A coma is a strange place of limbo, where one is still alive, but unable to respond. We knew that he didn’t have long to live, so we were in a suspended state of keeping a vigil around the clock at his bedside.
What I hadn’t reckoned on was that my immediate family wouldn’t be the only ones who wanted to say goodbye to him. This was an unexpected challenge, as I found that I wanted the experience to go a certain way. In fact my first response was to protect him from being “disturbed”, as he had been sick for such a long time that this had become kind of second nature. As the visitors started to pour into his hospital room, I quickly realized a couple of things. First, everyone says goodbye in his or her own way. One of our closest family friends was unable to go into the room to see my father, as she didn’t think she could bear to see him that way. Instead, she brought gorgeous homemade food for my mother and me as we sat vigil, her offerings carried in a handmade basket with linen napkins and fresh flowers. Another friend came and sat holding his hand for an hour or more. No spoken words, just calm comfort and a gentle loving touch. Others came and perched awkwardly, as it can be so hard to find something to say at such a time.
The other big revelation was that it wasn’t up to me to try to control how people said goodbye or whether or not they should be allowed to parade through. After all, I wasn’t the only one who loved him and I wasn’t the only one who wanted to say goodbye. He had many, many, many relationships separate from me, and I realized that each person had a right to bid him farewell. Initially I bristled when one family came and sang for him for quite a long time, as it seemed that they had kind of co-opted his dying. But I soon understood that this was something that they wanted and needed to do. They had “sung out” other loved ones and this was the way that they felt best about helping someone to cross over. Others came and said Christian prayers. This alarmed me at first, as my father was not a practicing Christian. Again, I realized that this was what they needed to do and it was not up to me to interfere.
Dying is about letting go on so many levels-- releasing the one we love, as well as letting go of the sense that we can control any of it.
Joan comments: Huge learnings, Anonymous. Letting go of the father you dearly loved, letting go of controlling how others behave, letting go of keeping them away while your father was dying. Clearly this was enormously challenging for you, and understandably so. It does seem that a person’s wife and daughter should be “in charge” while that person is dying, keeping non-family members in line, so to speak. Your story speaks not only of your own growth and strength but also of the urgent need others have to say “Farewell” in the way that works for them. My guess is if you had tried to stop them, there probably would have been a ruckus in your father’s hospital room and hard feelings between them and you for a long time after. As it happened, you let others come and do their thing and then leave, thus maintaining the basic peace in your father’s room. A wise and compassionate choice on your part for all concerned, and a useful lesson for us all. Thanks for sharing.