“A watched pot never boils…and patients never die while someone sits vigil.” There are exceptions, though. This morning, just to prove to myself what I’d seen, I watched a pot come to a boil. But still, the adage is well-founded. It’s not something I would do very often.
The fact is, patients do most frequently die when alone. Some will hold on for that one last special visit. Some seem to remain long enough to hear the conclusion of a particularly interesting conversation. But it is in the little breaks in a vigil, when everyone leaves the bedside to see the new grandbaby, or the primary caregiver needs just one quick cigarette, or when a loved one comes away to the desk to escort the next shift’s visitor to the room…
Saturday, 2:00 p.m. – I was the one to find that he’d gone. The long-term care facility’s nurse had directed me to the room and said she’d be along in just a moment. She’d been sitting, reading to him, watching his breathing grow slower over the past half hour.Saturday, 9:00 a.m. – Some of the family had gathered at our favorite breakfast place. On our way out – “Would you mind stopping by to check on Dad? He’s not doing too well, and I know he’d love to see you.” I promised I would go after the funeral. After all, the request was made by a son just hours before his mother’s funeral. His mother and father had long-since divorced and remarried others. I’d buried the step-father some months earlier. So, that afternoon, I left the widow’s funeral for the local long-term care facility where I entered her ex-husband’s room to find that he’d died.
Saturday, 3:00 p.m. – Because I’ve trained for, served extensively at, and taught others in making an appropriate death notification, I was asked (and it seemed only right for me) to handle this one. I made a couple of phone calls to determine where the family had gathered before dispersing to their distant homes. As I drove to the hotel restaurant at which they’d gathered, I prayed that I would be able to gather the four men in order to break the news all at once. But the potential of one being in his hotel room, another in the bar, one at a table in the restaurant, and perhaps the fourth standing outside saying goodbye to friends or relatives…I imagined they might make assumptions about the purpose for my visit. I was prepared for a less-than-optimal situation.
But when I walked in, the four brothers were standing together, engaged in conversation with one another, with everyone else in rapt discussions around various tables, seemingly oblivious to my presence. The second youngest saw me, welcomed me, and asked if I had stopped off to see his dad. With just the four brothers, I was able to explain that I’d stopped by, that the nurse directed me to his current room, but when I spoke to him he was unresponsive and, in fact, I had called the nurse into the room to confirm my suspicions. “She did, and apparently in the couple of minutes he was alone, he had died.” (I try to, and train others to break the process down into seven gradually leading elements. Given the circumstances, I was very glad to come up with even six steps.)
Shortly thereafter I found myself in the center of the hotel bar, joined hand-in-hand with a circle of thirty-some family and friends, praying with them. Having gathered to mourn and reminisce together, a new grief, anticipated but still shocking in its timing, was introduced. One of the daughters-in-law asked afterward, “Has anything like this ever happened to you before?” We were in good humor at that point, so I responded, “You mean, have I ever done a mother’s funeral, then left to visit the father, her ex-husband, been the one to find the body, come to the post-funeral family dinner and break the news of the second death to the family? No, I’m not sure that’s ever happened to anyone before.”
But this morning, I stood in my kitchen and watched a pot come to a boil. It’s not something I would do very often. But I’ll tell you why in part two.