Teach Us

And so the question of the week is, Why do they die when we leave the room?

What is the deal with the timing of death? How is it that, after days of vigilance, hours spent bedside, it’s often when everyone has left the room that the dying make their final escape?

I have no idea. Maybe the airways are less crowded with fewer people around and less noise. Maybe the dying are trying to be respectful, to save friends and family from the shock of the last breath. A final screw you? A practical joke? A reminder that we are in control of nothing in this life?

The mysteries that accompany dying and death are fated to remain just that: mysterious. As far as I know no one has come back with explanations. Why does dying take so long (sometimes)? What’s with the talk of travel? Recently a woman I was visiting in hospice care, while she was moving in and out of consciousness, said, “I don’t think I’ll be back; it’s too crowded, too noisy.” Maybe she was talking about wherever the dead go. Maybe it’s like spring break in Ft. Lauderdale there! If she was talking about this world, she’s right. Except the room was very quiet and it was just us. She had a glimpse of something I couldn’t see or hear. What?

Wouldn’t we like to know, us reason-oriented people, wanting answers to everything, wanting everything to make sense.

If there’s one thing that doesn’t make sense, it’s death. When it happens, how it happens, why it happens. I heard that Tony Horwitz dropped dead in DC the other day, in the middle of his book tour. He and his wife, also a writer, lived on Martha’s Vineyard—not that I knew him or ever met him there, but I knew his work; he was of the George Plimpton school of writers—he immersed himself in the worlds he wrote about and I love that so much. He was 60 and looked fit, looked healthy and happy. At the top of his game, so it seemed.

Sheesh. Why?

Spend time perusing a deep enough selection of obituaries and what you get is a brow-furrowing puzzle. Why did the healthy sailor skier dad photographer contract the disease that killed him at 56? Why did the vibrant mother of three real estate salesperson deliverer of Meals on Wheels in her spare time get brain cancer and die at 42? Why did funny smart stir the pot question everything religious writer Rachel Evans Held die at 37? It felt like she had so much work left to do. Horwitz, too. He had just spent two years traveling through the south with his reporter’s notebook, talking with people, building bridges, inviting conversations, for his book, “Spying on the South: an Odyssey across the American Divide.” Reminding us that that’s how it’s done; that sitting at a keyboard and throwing words at the other guys doesn’t solve any problems, doesn’t make anything better. Thank you, Tony. I wish you hadn’t died, we needed you here.

Still the vexer du jour: Why do the dying wait to die until everyone leaves the room? One friend’s mom, in hospice care, made her way out of here this past week, in the middle of the night, when all was quiet. My friend was pretty upset about this, but I assured her it happens all the time. Once I arrived to offer respite for a woman whose mother had been in dying for days. This lovely and gentle woman had stayed with her mom in that quiet room, day and night and when I got there she went out to her car to get something. A minute later Mom inhaled for the very last time. I’ve been visiting someone in hospice who is being tenderly, vigilantly attended by her two daughters, everyone watching her breathe with great concentration. Will this be the last? Will this be the last?


If you think about it, it’s a funny thing, wanting to be there for the final moment. Because the truth is that when someone we love is dying, especially if they’ve been around for several decades or more, we’ve had the chance to be present for billions of breaths. And though death feels and looks very final for us here on earth, I have a hunch it isn’t. I have a hunch that the dead have only shed their mortal coil, as it’s been called, and once free from their cumbersome flesh and discomforting disease, float freely. Probably not breathing, but still very much present.

So let’s not do this to ourselves. Let’s not agonize over the details of the final breath … the walk to the kitchen to get a drink, the sleep in the night to get some rest, the step outside for a breath of fresh air moment when Mom decides to go. Let’s instead let death teach us to pay attention, better attention, more attention, to every single breath that leads up to that final intake. We weren’t there! should not be the lamentation over one’s final seconds on earth; it should be reserved for true agony—that we may not have really been there for the living days; that we didn’t show up enough when the person we love who is now dead wasn’t dead.

Let’s let death teach us to love life, to want to be around for the breathing of the people we care about here and now. And let’s let death teach us to be curious, to tune in to what happens when the body is abandoned and breath becomes flight or wind or a sunset or peace. OK? Let’s do that.