Why Hasn’t He Died Yet?

Why hasn’t he died yet?

The doctor said she’d die days ago.

Mom is ready for heaven; why is she still here?

I love my husband, but hate that his suffering continues.

Hundreds of versions of the statements above are muttered and shouted by the hundreds of lovers, friends, family members, and caregivers that—right now—sit vigil with a dying loved one.

And “sit vigil” may seem too polite a phrase for those waiting-waiting-waiting for a long overdue death. Pacing a room, sleeplessness, exhaustion, short tempers, frayed nerves, and constantly postponing work and family obligations were never anticipated when a beloved’s dying became an unwanted, unbidden part of your future.

The person we love, who we once wished would never die, is now lingering. Before, we made every effort not to think about death. Death was too morbid. Death happened to someone else. Death was a game with colleagues wagering that if one “celebrity” has died, then more high-profile deaths would soon happen (“They always come in threes!”). Death was the rabbi or priest or imam or pastor’s sermon about an ancient saint or sinner. Death wasn’t so bad in a movie with a soundtrack that prompted tears while munching popcorn. Death was horrific because of a car accident, a malicious bullet, or a soul-numbing suicide . . . but it was all over quickly and terribly.

But your loved one lingers.

Why? Why? Why?

I suppose hospice has done this to itself. From the beginnings of contemporary hospice care, there has been a predetermined time limit for a dying person: six months or less to live.

Now you can set your clock and mark your calendar? Oh how we may complain or curse (or even consider a lawsuit) when a loved one dies in less than the predicted time frame.

But your loved one lingers.

I suppose modern medicine has done this to itself. Aren’t most soon-to-be parents informed about the due date of their child? Those requiring a C-section already have a convenient (and specific) appointment with the doctor. Patients are given survival rates for surgeries that have such reassuring statistics. We take medications and physical therapy for precise periods of time. If one treatment doesn’t work, try another . . . and another. Soon, you will be better.

But your loved one lingers.

Is your beloved in pain? Sometimes it seems so, and her or his continued pain causes anguish for the whole family. Sometimes there’s no obvious discomfort, and they keep breathing . . . and breathing. The compassionate care you provided weeks or months ago festers into resentment.

The faithful may say God isn’t ready for them yet. That satisfies several in the waiting family, but for others it could mean the smidgen of optimism once felt about religion and heaven and eternal life have now become a joke without anyone laughing. Perhaps your loved one openly prays for God to “take them,” but nothing has changed! How useless God seems.

The hospice physician and hospice social worker, with different training and perspectives, both say the exact, frustrating thing: we don’t know why he or she is still alive.

How can the experts not know!

But your loved one lingers.

Kind and logical, or kind and illogical, reasons are suggested . . .

  • The dying must be waiting for that one family member to arrive.
  • The spouse still hasn’t given them “permission” to die.
  • The new grandchild hasn’t been born yet.
  • They wanted to die (before, after, on) her or his (birthday, anniversary, Mother’s Day).

All reasons make sense . . . except when they don’t. Except when you are camped by a rented hospital bed praying for death, and all that’s heard after the “Amen” is the seemingly ceaseless breathing of your beloved.

My elderly mother lingered. Doctors said cancer had rapidly destroyed much of her body, but she was strong. How could I, her loving son, beside her bed in a dimly lit room in a care facility, momentarily question all those years striding around the neighborhood on her daily walks? The cancer didn’t care how many miles Mom had logged on the suburban sidewalks. Would she have died sooner and therefore suffered less if she hadn’t been in such “good shape?” How could I think that? But as the hours became days and days became next week, how could I not think that?

In the end, especially when it feels like there’s no end, all of the reasons given by kind nurses or well-educated doctors or empathetic social workers or comforting clergy will seem as believable as convincing the presidential candidates to keep their responses simple and honest.

I wish I had the perfect answer to the soul-wrenching why-are-they-lingering question.

I wish I had even some barely adequate words for a partial answer.

I don’t.

Sometimes the dying linger. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason.

But I pray you still cling to enough of the positive to focus on today. You may despise the absence of a logical answer, and you are probably exhausted beyond description, but I also pray that you understand this is not your fault. And it’s not your loved one’s fault.

Dying, like the best and worst of our living, has its own schedule.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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Comments

  1. Why don’t more states allow euthanasia in cases like this? Lingering is not in the best interest of anyone, the dying, the family….

    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Stanley. Your question is one that many ask. But there are also many who’d strongly resist “legalizing” any version of euthanasia. It’s one of those emotional, divisive issues.

      • Without commenting on euthanasia specifically, I’m not sure that we can know with certainty how suffering benefits anyone in this world. Each individual will take (or not take) some meaning from it. I understand that not everyone believes in an eternal life, but I do. Perhaps we will not understand the reason for suffering here until we pass from this life. I trust that the maker and judge of all the earth will do right by his creation. I write this as my 94 year old mother lies in a bed, unable to take care of even her most basic needs, and is totally reliant on the support of caregivers and family. She has little desire to eat and has difficulty drinking any fluids. She just wants to have her pains eased. Who is benefiting from that? Since I cannot know now, my only choice is to trust the One who I believe made all creation. I believe that we ask the question about what is apparently needless suffering not only because of empathy, but also because it causes deep emotional pain for us to see others in pain.

        • Bill –

          Thanks for reading and responding. So glad you are taking care of your mother at this difficult time. You are pondering questions–about suffering, about faith, end of life decisions–that challenge all of us. I’m also glad that your own strong faith is helping you as you give support to your Mom. Take care . . .

  2. When the lingering goes on for years!!! Two years ago my mom was given a few hours. My brother rushed in from another state-through dangerous blizzard conditions. Then two weeks. Then two-eight months. Then a few days. Next a few months again. Then “you’ll be dead in two weeks if you don’t swap to the new TKI” said the cancer specialists. Months passed again. Then back to the cancer specialist who was shocked to see her alive. Then…finally the “we don’t know why you’re alive-this has never happened before.” She’s still here. Lingering. Each day the last for two years while she pulls us into the grave with her. Her boney fingers covered by crepe paper thin skin caress and cling to us while we cringe in horror and guilt. She refuses to “stop treatment ” so we cannot get help from hospice. Yet she’s lingers outside of death’s door. Looking in, accessing the furniture, trying to decide if feeling nothing is better than feeling terror. She rages. She cries. We yo yo between rage and resentment. Whatever love we once felt for her buried deep beneath the layers of tortured time sitting near her, listening to her body empty itself of fluid time and time again. Smelling death, then becoming unable to smell death as the fragrance fades to a background scent that cannot be discerned from from either the sweet scents of a summer garden to the stench of the rotted garbage long festering in the back of a freezer. Frozen in time. The world carries on without her, or us. As we die with her.

    • With humbleness, thanks for sharing this. It must have been hard to write (and I imagine has been anguished to live through), but maybe expressing it “helps” in some small, insignificant way.

      I have no helpful words of response. I do know that this sometimes happens. It is costly at every level for each member of the family and for the entire family.

      And I just tried to send you a response through email . . . but (no surprise, given your “anonymous” email address) it’s not a working email.

    • So saddened to read your compelling and well written famliy story. I have been working in Home Health and Hospice for 25 years and have sadly seen this played out many times. Have you looked into finding palliative care for your Mother? This care helps s person and family deal with a life altering illness or condition. Peace be with you.

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