End-of-Life Discussions: When is the right time?

Michelle Anderson

After she had experienced a few stays in the intensive care unit, I spoke with Sharon, a family member, about her preferences for care at the end-of-life. If she was ill again and things did not go as we'd hoped, what would she want? If the doctors aren't able to wean her off the ventilator, what should we do? She responded by saying "You made the right decision last time."

Several years passed by and fortunately Sharon was in good health. My husband and I recently saw Sharon at Thanksgiving along with our extended family, including Aunt Jean, who was feeling slightly under the weather with a cough. Thinking that it was nothing but a cold, my husband and I gave our ritual hugs and said goodbye. As we left, we smiled when we thought of her cheerful personality and the spunky glitter hat she was wearing, which fit her to a T.

Unexpectedly, a few weeks later, Aunt Jean's condition worsened and she was admitted to the ICU. On New Year's Eve, life support was removed while she was surrounded by friends and family. My husband and I weren't able to attend Aunt Jean's funeral, so I called Sharon to see how the family was doing. As we spoke about living and dying, Sharon shared stories of her early experiences with death. As a 17 year-old, she forgot to let her mom know she had an afterschool meeting. She called her mom to tell her she would be a few hours late but there was no answer; she figured that she would explain once she arrived home. As Sharon opened the front door, she found her mom no longer breathing. Unfortunately, there was nothing she could do.

Sharon always wondered, what if? What if I just didn't go to that meeting? What if I was able to do something? For 40 years, Sharon never talked about death and dying with others. As she continued to share her story, I could hear the distress in her voice, even after all this time. Now I understood.

As our conversation came to a close, I asked Sharon the same question I asked her a few years earlier. What would she want for herself? This time, we spoke for a while. She opened up about her vision and wishes.

The message from Closure is people should discuss end-of-life options and let loved ones know how they would like to be cared for as they approach death. But what if they would prefer not to talk? What should you do?

As a well-known song based on verses from the Bible says, "To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven." The time is not always ripe for conversation, and even when we ask the opening question, we might be shut down. But we can plant the seed and help our loved ones to ponder, even if only momentarily, these difficult decisions. Our questions can also give our loved ones assurance that we are available and willing to discuss end-of-life care. In the end there may never be a season, but you won't know unless you ask.

Written by robots= on March 9th, 2012 at
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