Dear Barbara, I have recently lost my Father. I have heard people talk about their experiences with dying and say that a person can wait for so and so to arrive or they waited until we left the room and then they passed. Is there some truth to this? The reason I ask is my Dad was in his 11th hour and it happened to be my birthday. I was mixed on how I would feel if it happened on that day. In talking with the hospice nurse she matter of fact told me he won’t die on my birthday. My Dad died the very next day. Does the patient have any control of when they want it to happen? Also, his death was not peaceful to me. I can only hope the images of those final moments were not something he physically felt.
I do believe that people have limited control over the time that they die. People will often wait until a holiday is over or a birthday has passed. Often they wait until their own birthday has passed. Protective parents will wait until their child (no matter the age) leaves the room as a way of shielding them. Others will wait until a family member is in the room. All of this depends on family and personal dynamics.
My guess is the hospice nurse knew about this dynamic and that is why she was so sure your father would not die on your birthday. She would also have been monitoring his dying progress and probably assessed he was not far enough along in the dying process to die just then.
About how your dad looked and acted in the last moments of his life, unfortunately we don't die like they do in the movies--peacefully, alert one minute and dead the next, or beautiful and groomed, and with our color good. In real life we work to get out of our bodies much like a chick works to get out of its shell. Our work shows as labored, start and stop breathing, or not breathing for a minute or so and then starting again. Our labor shows in the sounds we make, moans, rattling, puffing. Our labor shows in our random hand movements and our restlessness. Often during the very last breaths we take there are facial expressions that are agonizing to see. All of this is how we die. It is how we release our hold of our body. I call it labor because on many levels we are working. It doesn't just happen.
I also know that while this is going on we, the watchers, are often frightened and upset. Know that the person who is dying is not experiencing the same physical sensations that someone does when they are not dying. I think our consciousness, who we are, is distanced from what is occurring.
Something More About I Don't Want Dad To Die On My Birthday... I write more extensively about the labor of dying and what it looks like during the dying process in my book, THE ELEVENTH HOUR, A Caring Guideline for the Hours to Minutes Before Death. It is an essential book for those who will be with a loved one/friend/patient through the dying process.