One Perfect Thing to Say to Someone who Knows they are Dying.

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The first time I went to pick up my dad at the independent living center he was standing out front in his Navy Blue sport coat and tie waiting for me.

As time went by, he would be waiting out front leaning on a cane and then, as more time passed, he’d be leaning on his walker.

The cane somehow lent a dapper look to his demeanor, but the walker? Not so much. In fact, it was the walker that made me realize that next he’d be waiting for me in a wheelchair.

How could it have happened so fast? 

How could he age 20 years in the two years since he moved from his home in Phoenix to be closer to one of his children?

“I’m dying, Melanie,” he’d say. “I can feel it.”

I never knew how to respond. I didn’t know why he was telling me or what he wanted from me when he said it.

“You’re not dying, Dad,” was mostly what I ended up saying. But even as the words came out of my mouth I felt like I didn’t believe them.

After all, I was taking care of him now. He wasn’t living alone in a tiny townhouse in a tiny town a couple hundred miles away. He wasn’t relying on some kind of a, “How are you doing this morning, Mr. Siani, this is your well check call?” from a stranger to make sure he was still breathing.

He had me, the daughter who used to work in a hospital, the daughter who “knew the system,” the daughter who could make all the medical decisions that would surely make him better after all.

I just knew that the treatments I chose would work. It was simple, all that I had to do was find the right treatment and the right diagnosis and I would wake up one morning and drive to the care center to pick him up and he’d be standing there again in his navy blue sport coat looking just as good as he did that first time.

No, he would be looking better. 

Still—ignoring my super-powers—he’d say “I’m dying, Melanie.”

Sad to say, but the next thing I knew, he was right.

“If only I’d had more time,” I screamed inside. “If only my will was stronger than his body’s desire to jump into that stupid wheelchair to oblivion and never come back.”

Once some things start on their trajectory, there is no stopping them, and a headlong fall into death is certainly one of them.

Then there was the time that I was able to finally figure out what to say when my father uttered his ominous words.

We were getting into in my van outside my house and he was having a hard time negotiating the whole thing. He was out of breath; the shoes on his swollen feet were so tight he had to leave them untied and he didn’t have the strength in his legs to pull himself up into the passenger seat.

I’d gone around to his side to help him and he put his hand out, stopped me from my efforts, and looked straight at me.

“I’m dying, Melanie.”

It took me all the time from closing his car door to walking around the back of the car to getting into the drivers’ seat, putting the seat belt on and putting the key in the ignition to finally say what needed to be said.

“I know, Dad.”

I looked straight back at him exactly the way he had looked at me a moment before.

“I know you’re dying.”

“Good,” he said.

And I pulled away.

My dad would tell me several times over the period of my life that pretending was for the movies.

“Real life requires the truth,” he’d say, adding that, “it’s always easier to handle.”

When I think of how many times in those few short years before my father died that he’d told me he was dying, and how many times I’d “pretended” that he wasn’t, I understand why he kept saying it.

It’s not that he wanted something back from me that that would make him feel better. It was that he didn’t want to leave me while I was pretending.

He wanted me to admit the truth. It would be easier for me to handle.





Author: Carmelene Siani

Image: Flickr/Dianne Lacourciere

Editor: Travis May

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Carmelene Siani

Carmelene is a 77-year-old freelance writer who has been published at Elephant Journal, Better after 50, Huffington Post, The Reader, and Broad Magazine among others. Her stories are personal narratives on grief, family, food, and late-life love. Her aim is to help others see the ways that life is constantly opening to reveal its own lessons. She lives by the dictum of Muriel Rukeyser that “the universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

Follow her on Facebook, on her blog and at Twitter.

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mary youmans Nov 30, 2018 8:51am

Thank you. Sure wish I could figure out how to get your blog

Heather Massey Nov 30, 2018 7:42am

Thank you. Absolutely the truth. ❤️

khkleinmaier Nov 30, 2018 7:24am

I recently moved my father closer to me to an assisted living place. We did not have a good relationship and that has added to the complexity of the situation for me. But there was no one else that would step up to do it. I will remember your words around speaking the truth as I move through this with him. Thank you!!! Wonderful writing!.

Vicky Boggs Snyder Jul 7, 2017 7:01pm

Tears. Oh, how I miss my daddy. Watching him die for 14 months after a stroke, unable to speak was excruciatingly painful for this daddy's girl. �

Laura Bockowski Feb 15, 2017 7:05pm

Great article. �

Lee Carter Feb 13, 2017 5:50pm

we are all matter the age....but the old saying.....get busy living or get busy dying.....its a a full life every minute precious or get overly concerned about death, which is a waste of time and energy...

Rosemary Nichols Feb 12, 2017 9:24pm

Just found you for the first time. Wonderful! I need more!

Caren Lynn Feb 12, 2017 2:21pm

My mom had a steady decline for 12 years, I moved back home to help and care for her for the last 10 years of her life, in that time I had a daughter, that alone gave my mom a new lease on life and she fought hard to be a part of the next day and the the day after. However the last 3 years we had many trips to and stays in the hospital, my mom would tell me she wasn't going to be here forever, and that one day we would make the final trip to hospital, but my response was always, "but today is not that day mom". I knew we were always on borrowed time, I always felt I would know , my mom had so much fight, but I knew she was getting tired. Mom's last two days were spent together as always talking when she could about our life together, and she asked how long would it be like this, she didn't want the end dragged out? Her final night she would call out for me or my daughter, and say "let's go, let's go". I held her hand and responded "ok mom, lets go, it's ok, it's time". I knew that it was today, she had prepared us and although we are never really ready for it, i knew it was easier for her knowing nothing was left unsaid, there was nothing more that could be done, and the love was still never ending. I miss her every day, she was so smazing, strong and such a realist, I am thankful she shared that the strength, fortitude, life and love with us.�

Lynn Shattuck Dec 16, 2016 4:14pm

Beautiful. Thank you.

Rachel Kelly-Hall Dec 15, 2016 12:09am

Thanks for the article. At the end of the day people just want to be heard�

Judy Reeve Underwood Dec 12, 2016 3:04am

Love to YOU, love to You, sweet one. Bunches of LOVE. Are you okay? �

Mary Knapp Parlange Dec 11, 2016 9:18pm

Lovely article. I work in hospice, and this is the way I respond to patients who tell me they are there to die. I tell them I know. I can see the relief on their faces.

Todd Baxter Dec 11, 2016 1:07pm

Good stuff thank you.

Cat Simmons Dec 11, 2016 11:58am

<3 Thank you. xx

Lori Laney Van Nostrand Dec 11, 2016 4:01am

Lori from Rotterdam .N.Y I need some LOVE.

Cynthia Hansen Dec 11, 2016 1:00am

from Norfolk Va