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Minding Our Elders: Family members may feel guilty about missing the passing

Photograph of author Carol Bursack of Minding Our Elders by Ann Arbor Miller, annarbormiller.com. Photograph was taken on Jan. 18, 2011, in Fargo, N.D.

Dear Carol: My dad had been fighting cancer for years. Eventually, there was no more hope for a cure, so we agreed to ask for hospice care to keep Dad comfortable during his last weeks of life. He surprised us by doing well under hospice care, living beyond the doctor's expectation, but he eventually died.

What bothers me is that I wasn't with him at the moment he passed. He was in a nursing home, and the staff was wonderful. They called the family together when Dad was close to the end. My siblings and I sat with Dad for two days around the clock. We brought in food at first but as the wait stretched out we took turns going to my nearby home to shower and nap. Dad died during my nap. I still feel devastated and guilty that I wasn't there when he passed. I go to hospice grief counseling and that is helping, but I'm wondering if you have any words of comfort to offer? Rhonda

Dear Rhonda: I'm sad for you that, after all of your devotion, your wish to be with your dad at his moment of passing didn't work out. It's good that you are taking advantage of the hospice grief counseling, and I feel that if you continue to attend you will eventually feel better.

Meanwhile, remind yourself that you did what was important. You were there with your dad when he was ill. You were with him as much as you could be. You even sat vigil for days at his bedside. There was no more that you could do.

As important to you as it was to be with him at the very moment when he passed, that isn't what mattered to your dad. What mattered was that you were there for the long haul.

When I was writing Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stores, I interviewed several caregivers who mentioned that their parent seemed to wait for permission from their adult children or spouse to let go. Others said that parent seemed to want to be alone in death.

In one case, the whole family sat for days with their father who was at death's door. Finally, they all decided to go across the street to eat together, something that they'd been doing in shifts. During the short time that the family was gone, their father passed away. Naturally, they were all wracked with guilt when they returned and found that their dad had apparently chosen that time to let go. A wise nurse told them all that this frequently happens though we may never know why.

Those interviews were eye-openers for me and they helped me immensely, later, as I sat vigil with several elders through their last weeks on earth. During some of those times, I was blessed to see and feel the powerful moment when their spirits moved on.

Yet, I've missed the last moments of several beloved elders, as well. I, too, had to dismiss feelings of guilt over missing the moment, but I know that I did my best. That's all any of us can do.

It's time for you to absorb the fact that your dad knew that your spirit was there the whole time. The fact that you weren't physically in the room when he passed doesn't matter. Keep going to grief support meetings. You'll find your way.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carolbursack@msn.com.

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