Tormented by a Quick Death

I recently talked to a man who received a call from his eldest brother. Of course, it was late at night . . .

I recently talked to a man who received a call from his eldest brother. Of course, it was late at night . . .

A number of months ago, I wrote about deaths that linger.

What about a loved one who dies quickly? Is that different?

I don’t mean sudden, traumatic deaths such as fatal accidents, natural disasters like the recent earthquake in Italy, or from bullets in war zones (and sadly in places like San Bernardino or Orlando or . . .). What about the 30% of deaths in hospice that occur within seven days? And within those national averages, some are in hospice for barely 24 hours. Being with a hospice for a week or less is unsettling. But when the care—and the death—all occur before the next day’s sunset, the unsettledness can become a hurricane of raw emotions, abrupt decisions, and instant regrets.

Hospice professionals know that when a loved one dies that quickly, most of the staff assigned to the patient and family won’t meet them. No one, other than nurses scrambling to manage the most urgent needs, had time to physically be with the patient who went from dying to dead in a handful of hours. A few days later, a chaplain or social worker will call to offer condolences . . . but she or he seems a stranger. More hospice staff will support you during your time of grief, but (again) they will be voices on a phone or letters in the mail.

Hospice professionals also know that many sudden deaths can be explained because of the inevitable, cruel progression of particular illnesses. But some can’t be explained.

I’ve heard of a patient eating her usual breakfast of oatmeal and buttered toast in the morning, and then dying before lunch. Sure, she had cancer or a weak heart, but she was a “survivor.” Or the granddad that walked the five blocks to the local diner for lunch with his retired army buddies every Tuesday for decades. One week, he’s ordering ham and cheese on rye with extra mustard . . . and the next week his family is planning a funeral. There are endless variations of these stories.

I recently talked to a man who received a call from his eldest brother. Of course, it was late at night. Of course, it was after a weary day of work with more of the same tomorrow. But after the phone call there was only one thing on his calendar: returning to his childhood home to be with his father.


According to his brother, the doctors said their father would die in two weeks.

One late night phone call and the whole world shifted.

The son talked in hushed tones as I listened to him on my west coast phone, several weeks after the death. He was in his office on the east coast.

His father had been fine and chatty when this son did his usual weekly call on a Sunday morning earlier in the month. His father had been fine when the family gathered to celebrate his seventy-something birthday two months before. He’d danced a jig with his youngest granddaughter at the birthday bash and had second helpings of ice cream. His father was also fine last Thanksgiving, even though he fell asleep at the table when his middle son—the rabbi—prayed a prayer of gratitude that everybody joked was too long anyway. All of these recent memories tumbled out of the son as he recalled when he father was . . . just fine.

After the late night call, the son organized the flights necessary to get him across the country as quickly as he could. Death was quicker. His father died while the son was 25,000 feet over the Rocky Mountains. The doctors’ “less than two weeks” had been reduced to hours.

The son was a successful professional. As best as I could tell his father was proud of him and of his accomplishments. The son, even with his busy schedule, had always made the weekly calls and had taken red-eye flights to every family function over the years.

He told me he was tormented by his father’s death. Why hadn’t be been with his dad in the last moments? Why hadn’t he anticipated what was happening? Had his father kept “secret” any new symptoms?

I think talking helped him. I think he knew he was being too hard on himself. He reassured me he had good support from his wife and kids and colleagues. Still, that word lingered: tormented.

There is simply no explaining some deaths that are literally breathtakingly quick.

Following a quick death, spouses and children and friends have honestly said they felt relief. Who wants a loved one to suffer? But in the next sentence many have also expressed guilt over saying they were relieved. How can they have both—and conflicting—feelings? But how can they not have those unsettled, contradictory reactions?

Even a quick death that ends suffering, and that may eventually be explained by doctors, and rationally understood by the surviving friends and family, will still cause . . .





What comfort can be said to those who have experienced a “quick death” and now have a churning of feelings that are never quickly over?


Except to keep talking with others who love you. How simple that sounds. It’s never simple, though.

It requires work. It requires admitting to some of the vulnerable emotions that most prefer to mask or bury. It requires spending time with feelings that make us feel out of control. It requires accepting that some questions that must be asked won’t have any answers.

The son I talked with on the other side of the country will have moments in the future where he remembers the jolt and jangle of a midnight call. He will recall the helpless torment he felt by arriving “too late.” But I believe if he continues sharing and reminiscing about his father dozing at a brother’s prayer or his dad cheering him when he got his diploma, those terrible feelings about a quick death will recede as treasured memories heal some of his soul.

(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.)

Image from here.

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  1. With the recent passing of a dear one that was sudden, like you so eloquently wrote about, I agree that the family also is left with so many unanswered questions. My dear one was a private person who’d lived fiercely independent for many years. We shared monthly meals and long phone calls to stay connected. It did not enter my mind that in a 10 day span we’d go from ‘fine’ to planning for a wake. And then it hit us that we knew nothing about the day to day living. Finding papers, accounts and making calls that made us feel like acquaintances instead of family. The breadcrumbs left behind have led us on some merry chases and I remember your posts on planning but the suddenness has left us/me feeling sad, inadequate and plain bad. In fairness, it is unlikely we would have gotten anywhere if we’d asked but every phone call has been another link in the chain of a life we thought we knew.

    • Thanks for sharing. I am confident you are correct: even if you would have asked your friend for “normal” details about those papers and accounts, this private person would’ve found a way to avoid giving much information. Whether for privacy or procrastination, many things are left undone, unsaid, and for “tomorrow.” And so we try to support them in the ways they allow us to, and then later search for the breadcrumbs. I’m glad this person had you as a friend!

  2. Dear Larry – What a beautifully written piece and I love your website and all the resources – thank you for compiling! (just discovered you).

    In terms of this article: Twelve years ago, I agonized over leaving my dear sister in the hospital in California. She had been battling cancer for six years, and they had just told the family it had spread throughout her body and she would have about 3 months to live. I had just spent the last three weeks caring for her, but finally had to go home to care for my young daughter and family back east – figuring I would return in a few weeks.

    I no sooner gotten home than I got the call that she had gone into a sort of coma as soon as I had left, and was now on life support. I had to fly back across country the next day, and she died in my arms within hours of returning to her bedside.

    That experience is what set me on the path to study deeply about ‘conscious and dying’. I eventually got certified to become a funeral life celebrant (just for friends and family so far, though that will change soon) and I just accepted a position as a hospice volunteer coordinator (about to leave my high flying corporate marketing job – and ‘big bucks’ – behind, to pursue this calling).

    There is no question in my mind that my sister would have benefited greatly from hospice care. I knew that she was dying, but everyone around her – her doctors, her caregivers, and the rest of my family, were in denial. They kept saying she was fine and would be able to battle this as a long-term disease.

    Who knows? Maybe they really felt like that was a possibility – but I now realize that all the signs were there, and she suffered immensely in those last few months, weeks and days of her life. How different things would have been if we could have known what was really happening to her, and we all could have helped her go on her journey with more grace and ease.

    When my father died last year (essentially of old age, at 94), I knew so much more about the dying process and was able to accept it completely as nature’s way. There was no agonizing, no guilt, no remorse. It was actually one of the most meaningful and spiritual experiences of my life. I made sure we had home hospice care, along with a wonderful home health aide, and many friends and loved ones by our side. I was also incredibly fortunate to use the services of a death midwife (who has since become a dear friend and mentor). My father’s transition to ‘the next station’ (as we called it), was filled with peace, love and serenity. And I was further comforted when I received many, powerful signs from my father after he died (and continue to receive to this day).

    It has become my passion to help others have more of THIS kind of experience whenever possible. Thank you for all that you are doing to further this conversation, and to bring death – and talk of death – out of shadows.

    • Carol . . . wow! Thanks for sharing your experiences. And I wish you the best with your new adventures! I suspect you did well at your “high flying” marketing job, but it certainly sounds like you’ve found your true calling as you enter into others’ lives to comfort and support them.

      Take care . . . and again, thanks for your lovely comments!

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