When Someone You Love Becomes Ill or Is Dying: Stay or Go?

It is the cusp of a new, unfamiliar year after a fall and winter in which I learned many important things. About illness. About choices. About love.

In “Right-Sized Emotions,” September, 2007, I wrote about my dog Druid not being well and about his uncertain future. Druid rallied–generously and with exquisite precision–just at the time my father became ill.

Druid accompanied me through my father’s illness, through the difficult decision to remove my father from life support, and through his subsequent death. Then, six weeks later, as if on cue, Druid’s rally ended and within a few weeks, he died, too, his parting gift lovingly given and gratefully received.

Stay or go? When a loved one becomes ill or is dying, there is a simple yet possibly difficult and profound question to answer: Do you stay where you are, or go to the loved one? The question is especially difficult when the person is geographically distant, and when you are not the primary caregiver. You may or may not be able, or want, to be physically present. Geography, timing, your emotions, the state of your relationship all play a part. There is no one hard and fast right answer.

When my father first became ill and was hospitalized, we were concerned but not overly so–we were hopeful, expecting recovery. Yet, some part of me longed to go to him.

I hesitated and heard myself telling Pat, a wise friend, about it, and about the business consequences of taking the time to travel to him. That he seemed okay, and that there were other family members around him, and that everything was okay, and on and on.

Pat, who had had a similar experience, said simply but emphatically:

“You will never regret the time you spend with him.”

It was enough to send me on my way… not once but for multiple trips and thousands of miles of travel.

Revisiting Your Decision Is Normal

I revisited my decision to go or stay each and every trip. Did I have to? Absolutely. In part, this was reasonable–there is daily work to do, overhead to cover, normal commitments to fulfill.

But as things took a turn for the worse, this rechecking was an attempt to defer what was coming sooner or later: his death. Did I worry about my business commitments, particularly where the relationships were new? Absolutely. When I was candid about the life circumstances with my clients or associates, however, I experienced understanding, flexibility, and in fact, a strengthening of the relationship.

Unexpected Gifts: A Single Tear Revealed He Heard Me

With every trip I made, I received an unexpected gift–gifts for a lifetime.

Like the one I received my first trip, when Dad’s emotions cleared a path through the prolonged after-effects of anesthesia, and he asked me, “Do you know how much I love you?”

And the one I received during my third or fourth visit. I went straight to the hospital after five hours of driving. My father lay in his bed, the soft, rhythmic sounds of the ventilator off to his side. According to his nurse, my father was unconscious. I said, “Dad, it’s Beth. I’m here.” A moment passed; I looked at his face. Then, a single, large, unmistakable tear rolled down my father’s right cheek. I know he knew I was there, I know he heard me. I touched the wet and kissed his forehead, tenderly whispering to him. It was an exchange rich and complete.

Stay or go? Either Choice Requires Courage

Stay or go? Going and being with my father was my path. It may or may not be yours. One family member, after careful consideration, decided to stay–which was the right choice for her. Either choice requires courage.

Piercing the Veil of Indecision

If you are faced with such a choice, allow yourself to sort through the decision-making criteria and the thoughts of trusted others who have had to make similar decisions. If your loved one were to die, would you be okay with your choice, whatever that may be? Believe me, there will and should be a lot of back and forth mentally and emotionally. Most likely, however, something a trusted other says or that you read will resonate deeply in your heart, piercing the veil of indecision.

Trust it and whatever it is, it will be right for you and for the one you love.

U.S. Library of Congress ISSN 2164-7240

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