Read an Excerpt From "Peaceful Passages": Till Death Do Us Part

Although I hadn't received a death notification from our office, I guessed that Mason had passed away, and I said to her, "What time did the death occur?"

Katie answered, "We don't know exactly. We just found her when we arrived this morning."

Her? Katie saw my questioning look and said, "Mom. She died during the night. Dad was lying on his side with his arms around her, and this morning she was gone." I could hardly believe what Katie was saying, until she told me this: "Mom sat us down last night and said to us, 'Girls, you know that I won't be able to live one single day on this earth without your dad, don't you? Please remember that.'" Katie described what else had transpired: this morning, they had moved Mason to another room so that the funeral director could take Margaret's body, but the family didn't know how to tell Mason that his beloved wife had died. Seeing Katie's distress, I volunteered for the task, wondering how I would ever find the words.

Mason was reclining in a chair, his breathing as labored as ever, and he was very pale. It was difficult to rouse him and for him to maintain an alert state for even a few minutes, so I knew that he was getting closer to his death. I took his hands in mine and gently said, "Mason, I have some sad news to tell you. Margaret passed away during the night."

His expression didn't change, and he said softly, "I know. I could feel it when she left. She's waiting for me." I gave a lot of thought to Mason's words, and I wondered at the strong soul connection between two people who were so bonded that one life couldn't go on without the other.

Mason stayed calm and quiet, slowly getting closer to the end of his journey. Throughout the day, Mason could be heard chuckling and talking to Margaret. "Where are you now?" he'd ask. "What's it like there?" He would be silent for a few moments and appear to be listening to the answer. Finally he said, "I'm coming."

Mason's daughters and sons-in-law needed to go to the funeral home to make funeral plans for Margaret and pre-funeral plans for Mason. I offered to stay at Mason's side until they came home. It often happens that dying patients seem to need, or want, to die alone. The evidence is that families or spouses often hold a vigil at the bedside, for days or even weeks, while a patient's death is imminent. When one person gets up from the chair, another sits down, and so someone is always present. The patient often lingers and lingers, with one foot in heaven and one foot on earth, getting no closer to finishing their journey. However, if even a brief period is left open when no one is in the room—a bathroom break, or leaving the room to answer the phone—the patient will often take this opportunity quietly to slip away.

Also, very frequently the person who has the closest relationship to the dying person is not the person who is present at the time of death. I have come to think of a patient as having an emotional umbilical cord to the people he or she loves and who also love him or her. When the cords are strong, as when the loved ones are in the room, the dying person sometimes finds it difficult to leave. When there is peace, quiet, and the focus of being alone, or of not being held to their physical body by bonds of love, they seem to be more easily able to drift away. For this reason, we often tell families and loved ones to offer the patient choices: give them some time with you and some time alone, so that they can choose the way they need it to be for the most peaceful passing.

In view of the quiet and surprisingly quick way that Margaret had left her body earlier in the day, I mentioned to Mason's family that they might want to say goodbye to him, even if they were only going to be gone a short time. Each daughter and each son-in-law came to Mason's side, hugged and kissed him, and said goodbye, adding the most important message that the dying need to hear: "We know you need to leave, daddy, and it's okay."

The family wasn't gone for fifteen minutes when Mason's breathing changed to a Cheyne-Stokes pattern, meaning that there were twenty to forty seconds between breaths, a sign that death can occur soon. I stayed at his side for the next five minutes, praying for an easy passing, and then Mason was gone. I called Katie at the funeral home to tell her the news, and she told me she knew when the phone rang what the message would be.

A double funeral was held two days later, and Mason and Margaret were buried the way they had been since they met sixty-five years earlier: together, side by side.

10/1/2015 4:00:00 AM