Don’t Tell Dad He’s Dying

I once had a patient’s daughter pull me aside after her father had been admitted to the hospice care center.  “Don’t tell my dad he’s dying. He is too high anxiety, he won’t be able to take it. Seriously, it would kill him.” When I mentioned that my name tag had hospice written on it, she asked me to take it off, which I declined doing. “Well, please don’t bring it up then.” Would you be surprised if I told you that that was not an unusual request, or the first time I had been asked? Her father had been admitted due to increased difficulty with his breathing. Any exertion on his part made his breathing labored, and understandably, made him anxious about catching his breath. He was very frail for a 65 year old man, and had at this point been living with end stage COPD for awhile. His wife had died years earlier and this was his only child who, luckily, lived close by with her own family. His daughter would stop in every morning on her way to work bringing two cups of coffee to share with her dad, and return after work to help him with his dinner. Each night she would come out to the nurse’s station and let me know that his appetite was returning and that he was getting stronger, and to please remember not  to mention to him the fact that he was dying.

What his daughter was not aware of, was the fact that each night after she left, I would help her dad into his wheelchair and take him out on to the screened porch where he would sit with his coffee and sometimes have a smoke. I often took some time to sit there with him as he would share memories of his life. He told me about his wife, and how devastated he was when she had died. He told me about his childhood growing up in the North, his time in the service, and his eventual settling down here in the South, ‘because my wife loved the beach and the warmer weather.’ He told me how much his two grandchildren had helped him past the grieving of his wife, and how much he worried for his daughter when it would be his time to die.

“She worries so much about me, she can’t even bring herself to admit that I am dying.” He shared that he was tired of being sick, and tired of it all dragging on. “I am ready to go.”

“Does your daughter know all this?” I asked, “Because she’s under the impression that you are not fully aware of your situation.”

He laughed and said, “Look at me, believe me, I think I know better than anyone, what’s happening here.”

“Do you want me to talk to her?” I asked, ” It would be a shame if you two never could say what you really wanted to, to each other.”

“Let me think about it. ” he said, and later, as I helped him into bed, he looked up at me and said “Yes, I think it’s time.”

When she came in the next morning carrying her usual two cups of Duncan coffee, I was walking out from the end of my shift. I stopped her in the hall and brought her to a couch in one of our private sitting areas. “There is something your dad wants me to tell you…”

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jake Owensby says:

    Another great story! I sometimes encountered a reluctance to talk about death when I served as a parish priest, too. And just like you described, it was frequently family members who were struggling, not the dying person. What a wonderful gift you were to this family and to many others!

  2. meKathy says:

    That is the zig zag line we walk, isn’t it? Trying to meet everyone where they are at? Thanks again for the kind words.

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