Can You Hear Me Now?

Williams and Damon

Near death, is hearing our last form of active connection with others?

I’ve witnessed doctors urging adult children to continue sharing essential information with a comatose parent. And I’ve also witnessed nurses warning friends or family members to be careful with all conversations during a hospital visit. Even a patient that seems “out of it” may hear arguments. The patient may comprehend that one sibling is berating another for not “pulling the plug.” I’ve been in rooms when individuals have joked about trivial things, completely ignoring their friend or family member. I’ve also been with people who stood on opposite sides of a hospital bed while debating money, cremation vs. burial, or where they’d have dinner later that night.

  • What is the last thing you want your loved one to hear?
  • Will you refer to him in the third person, as if he was not present in the room?
  • What if she overhears criticism or gossip about a family member, or about her?
  • Why are you grousing about colleagues at work or whining about incompetent teachers at your kid’s school?

Talk to your loved one, not over them.

Talk with them, not about them.

Be kind. Be gentle. Be honest. Be hopeful. Be present.

Do we know with 100% certainty that people hear in life’s final stages? No, and we can’t do post-death interviews. Furthermore, I’ve read enough research to understand that thoughtful professionals will contradict each other’s views on hearing acuity and the dying. Let the experts keep debating. For me, I’ll always encourage friends and family to assume their loved ones can hear what they say and how they say it.

And currently, with this pandemic’s shelter-in-place requirements, with some families unable to personally visit a dying loved one, hearing (with a phone, Facetime, Zoom, etc.) may be all that can happen.

What will you say? How will you say it?

What will be heard? Or will any spoken words be too late?

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Is hearing also one of the first of our senses to “fail?”

I don’t mean the dying and their hearing. Instead, how about the living, breathing loved ones that are nearby? Or those that avoid being present? Or that social-distancing doesn’t allow to be in the home or building, let alone the room?

Actually, I’m not referring to hearing as much as listening.

Will you listen to the doctors?

It is difficult for anyone to hear a white-lab-coated physician announce that you, or a loved one, has six months or less to live. Will you want a second opinion! Please, get it! But try to pay attention to everything said, even by physicians that explained a diagnosis you didn’t want to have and offered choices that you didn’t want to make. Ask the hard questions to help you better understand if certain treatments provide a slightly longer span of life, but that the quality of that life will be compromised. It requires an immense effort to listen when a devastating illness means your life will be counted in days or weeks rather than years or decades.

Will you listen in spite of your fears?

No one wants to take morphine. It is addictive. It can make you dopey. When a hospice nurse asks about your loved one’s pain level, or your pain level, what do you hear when asked? Do you think the nurse just wants to “knock you out” so you can’t talk to the kids or grandkids? Do you fear you’re close to death and that this rotten drug will “kill you quicker?” Used properly, morphine—and other serious narcotics—is for your benefit. Morphine does not kill you. The disease is “killing you,” and many diseases are accompanied by ever-increasing, relentless pain.

When a hospice nurse says he wants to help you, he does.

When a hospice nurse asks about your pain level, tell her the truth.

Our lack of listening is more than about drugs, but is nearly always about 1) things we are afraid of, 2) ignorant about, or simply 3) don’t want to discuss. When a loved one is dying, there should be no debate about discussion. Talk early. Talk often. Talk now. And, yes, listen! Learn!

Will you listen to the person you love so much?

I love food, whether fine cuisine or junk food. What about something to drink? If it’s darn hot outside, a glass or three of lemonade will be swell! With a nice meal—say, grilled salmon accompanied by my friend Juanita’s always-perfect pilaf—pour me a glass of nice red wine!

However, many hospice patients arrive at a point in the disease process when they have no interest in food or liquid. As a grim, unfair illness impacts a body, nutrition frequently no longer matters. That doesn’t stop some families from demanding that an IV is attached to deliver nutrients.

Please, have more chicken soup. Please, eat a cracker or sip water. Please . . . anything!

This is difficult. But in the final stages of most cancers—and certainly other illnesses—the dying becomes even worse if “nutrition” is forced on them. (Yes, I intentionally used “forced.”) When a nurse or doctor explains that nutrients will do more harm than good to a dying patient, listen to their information. Please try to understand that your loved one’s current needs have changed as they near death.

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I hope you choose to be careful with what you say around a dying loved one. Hearing may be the last of the senses that we have when dying.

I hope you try to be careful with how you listen as a loved one faces death. Hearing, too often, is one of the first of the senses to be ignored by the living.

(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.)

Why use a Good Will Hunting image?

The scenes in 1997’s Good Will Hunting with Robin Williams’ therapist can be understood in various ways. Honest sharing is one of them. Honestly listen to yourself; honestly listen to the other. At a key point, Williams’ Sean Maguire says he has no interest in helping Will “unless you want to talk about you.” If only people would spend more effort truly revealing themselves.

Of course, when considering hospice care, it may be too late to change our “bad” hearing habits.

Or, maybe not . . .

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  1. Two deaths this past year changed my life. For five years I had been the only caregiver to my best friend. In the beginning I was Florence Nightingale. Then, as the days turned into weeks, months and years it was not the movie version I had dreamed. It became difficult. It became tedious. It became a burden. Oh, yes, I am ashamed of how I responded sometimes when she didn’t know my name. When something awful would happen with an elder or a parishioner I cried for her to understand. Only a strange smile would cross her lips.
    But the night she died, I didn’t realize she was dying but I took her hands and held them. I told her how sorry I was for being a bitch at times. BUT, I quickly added, “I kept you out of a nursing home!”
    I was angry, though, because she was leaving. Still, I knew this was a sacred time and I walked her to a door I couldn’t go through. Through tears I said, “See you later!”

    The second death came 8 months later. I walked into the hospital room of my friend, my teaching colleague from my first years as a teacher. I couldn’t believe it. The room was filled with all kinds of people. It was noisy and chaotic. I stood there stunned. My friend was in a coma. I missed saying good-bye. Intuitively, I knelt beside her bed, took her hand and started to whisper to her. I was astonished as her breathing slowed. I kissed her forehead. Said good-bye and left.

    • Pat:

      Thanks so much for sharing these moments (and years) in your life. As we support those who are dying, our loved ones, we witness their changes. Some of those changes are also taking place within us . . . and continue to as we live into the next days.

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