Did I do the right thing in Grandpa's final hours?

Deathana asked...

Have I done the right thing? My beloved grandpa had just passed away. I am 25, his closest grandchild. Grandpa had stroke 6 months ago, and was not able to talk, eat, sit, walk, etc. Our only ways of communication throughout that half a year was by me talking and he would nod or shake his head. He seemed depressed since the stroke, he couldn't tell us of course, but I could see sadness in his eyes when he was awake. But I'd often try to cheer him up by telling stories of my childhood and also those that he always told me when I was younger, about his cats and all - those that he could still remember because he has memory problems since a few years back. He would smile and nod, that was my aim.

During his last days, he had a bad pneumonia (for the 3rd time since the stroke). When he was in ICU, he kept coughing and would frown. I told him I'm also coughing, everybody is. It's flu season. He would open his eyes like saying "Oh really?" and then he would nod. I told him he'll be alright. And when the time came when the doctor told us we might need to be prepared because he's old and the heart is weak. His blood pressure has gotten so low, the doctor gave us options of using the life support machine (or some other machinery), but our family opted for him to go naturally. It broke my heart, but I knew that was the option he himself would choose if Grandpa could still talk.

When they wheeled him out of the ICU to a normal ward, I told Grandpa, with a smile, they're taking him out of the ICU, and that he could rest and get his own single room ward. I wanted him to feel like he's getting better. I didn't want him to feel like we've given up on him and only waiting for his time. I spent the night with him there, telling him I loved him and telling him it's alright to cough, I'm coughing too because of the flu. He would nod. And the next morning I told him if he's not sleepy why doesn't he open his eyes and look around. "We're all here," I said. After a few moments I saw him struggled to open his eyelids, like they're so heavy with magnets or glue to each lid. He tried for half an hour, I couldn't take it to see him that way, and I didn't want him to panic. I told him it's okay if he's too weak to open his eyes, he should rest then. It's the fever. (He was really having a fever at that time). He nodded and stopped trying. All the while I refrain from crying, I talked to him with a cheerful voice and with smiles, as if everything's okay. I didn't want him to see me sad.

In the evening, he lost consciousness and only his heart was beating and his breathing told us he's still alive. He looked so peaceful, like sleeping. After a few hours as the breathing declined, I whispered to him and said everything's going to be fine, don't be scared because we are all here. And then I heard my grandmother whisper to him "it's okay to go". The others will take care of her, so do not worry about her. My uncle also told him it's okay, they will take care of Grandma and everything will be taken care of. My grandpa's breathing stopped and he passed away soon after that.

Now I'm back in university because I have my final exams to attend too. This is my first time experiencing death in the family. I kept crying and thinking about what I have done... lying to him about his health all this while, so that he wouldn't worry. Have I done the right thing? Or I could have prepared him better for his death?

Expert Answer

Audrey Wuerl, RN, BSN, PHN, is education coordinator for Hospice of San Joaquin in California. She is also a geriatric trainer for the End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium (ELNEC), which promotes education in geriatric nursing and end-of-life care.

From your account of how your grandfather died, I think you did wonderfully. It is not easy to know the "right" things to say to someone who is dying--especially someone we love deeply.

The very fact that you were present, that you spent the last night with him, that you told him you loved him, are all very important to the person as he/she prepares for death. The very idea of presence, being physically and emotionally present, is perhaps the greatest gift you gave your grandfather. Don't worry if you didn't give him "the total truth". He probably knew that. And he no doubt worried more about you and your feelings then him own.

Now, as you return to university, you will reflect on what has transpired and feel sadness and a great loss. This is normal, and will help you come to terms with your grandfather's death. Take comfort in knowing you did all that was humanly possible, and just like your grandmother saying "it's O.K.to go", you gave him that permission through your love.