How important are friends as we lay dying? What happens to friendships at end of life? As I have been spending the last three months focused on friends and friendships, the natural progression is to wonder about friendship as our life comes to its natural ending in death.
I understand this is kinda creepy. Who wants to hear it? Why dwell on the macabre? Socrates would say, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Charlie Brown (or some would credit Lucy) would say, “Who cares about tomorrow. Let’s play ball!”
I’m having a Socrates moment.
My mom died at 91. She had many friends in the small community where she had made her life for 70 years. I wondered about her friendships when I observed her in the nursing home, the last months of her life. My sister from California and I alternated going back a week or two at a time to relieve our siblings and help care for her and to make sure she was not alone. My siblings who lived near her did more than their fair share of tending to her needs. Mom was lucky to have had eight children, six still around to care for and comfort her.
Mom stayed cognitively sharp until pretty much the very end. It was just her body that was wearing out. The one physical breakdown that affected her friendships and communication skills the most was the loss of her hearing.
I am a big advocate of hearing aids. If you are having hearing loss, GO GET HEARING AIDS!! (did you hear that?) There is no shame in helping your ears hear. No one thinks twice about getting glasses. Why do we hesitate to get hearing aids?
What I saw when my mom started losing her hearing was a slow but steady regression to isolation. She would be at the kitchen table looking at us as the conversation swirled around her, but just out of her reach. She got hearing aids, and they slowed the progression. Early on she looked engaged, but slowly quit contributing. Later, the hearing aids weren’t enough, and she withdrew.
The incident that surprised me was at the nursing home. One of her good friends from church and quilt club was also at the home. I thought, Good! She and Mrs. Beary can eat together and visit. She has a friend!
What I didn’t understand was that she could no longer carry on a conversation. One reason was it was hard for her to hear and follow a conversation. The other was the energy that it took to engage. She slept a lot. And third was likely lack of interest. Like, what’s the point?
Alas, she and Mrs. Beary were like infants in parallel play. Both there, but in their own little worlds–No animosity but no warmth of remembrance, either.
That doesn’t mean friends aren’t important at end of life, but there’s an intimacy in death, and we don’t share our most intimate moments with just anyone.
And yet there’s a dichotomy here. At the end of our lives, we may want our children and their children at our sides. We may want our partner or best friend. And if we are lucky, that’s who will be there with us. But if we can’t have that, I also believe the touch of a stranger in our hour of need is also comforting and releasing.
I remember going into a surgery and as I was being rolled into the operating room a nurse held my hand. I can still feel the warmth of her fingers, the dry feel of her skin in my damp, nervous, sweating palm. It calmed me, and I could feel her strength flow into me through our fingers. She told me it was going to be all right. She told me I was doing the right thing. I never knew her name. I’m not sure she knew mine. But it was the reassurance and touch I needed at just the right moment.
And if we can’t have our children, our best friend, or our spouse at our side; if that nurse or aid isn’t there to hold our hand; in those last moments of consciousness, as our life flashes before us, it will be those friends, lovers, family, husbands, wives, dogs, cats and gerbils that will fill our hearts with wonder as we travel that solitary road towards the light.