This is part of a regular series of posts about bearing witness to death in the ICU after the withdrawal for mechanical ventilation. For more background information, read this first. As always, names and identifying information have been changed.
When I meet with a family before a ventilator is removed, I encourage them to use this window of time as an opportunity to say goodbye.
I also offer a few other suggestions:
- I tell people that there is no right or wrong way to enter into this space and invite them to follow whatever their hearts are leading them to say or do.
- I reassure them that if they find they can’t stay in the room, leaving is ok.
- I explain what my role is, namely to offer support and help guide them through the process.
If I sense it would be welcome, I’ll offer to pray.*** This is something I approach delicately and with great discretion. Having been in this situation many times and knowing the variety of peoples’ spiritual experiences, I rely on a developed sense of intuition as to whether or not prayer might be welcome. I offer around 50% of the time, maybe less.
When I had this conversation with Barry’s family in the waiting room they were adamant that there would be no praying– not in the waiting room, not in Barry’s room – they were not interested! Slightly humbled, I silently vowed to re-examine my intuition that I thought had served me well. When I got a nod from the nurse, I walked Barry’s brother, sister and brother-in-law back into his room, after his breathing tube had been removed.
His brother sat at his right hand and his sister and her husband at his left and I kneeled at the foot of his bed. Barry’s sister thanked him for looking out for her when she was younger and apologized for not being around more often in the last few years. Barry’s brother told him that they would miss him, but it was his time and he should head toward the light.
And then everyone was quiet.
After a few minutes his sister suddenly broke the silence saying “Our Father, who art in Heaven..” and the others quickly joined in. They repeated that prayer over and over again.
There was a brief pause during which the brother repeated a prayer mantra of his own. “We love you Barry”he declared in varying speeds and tones.
The Hail Mary was then said as well as the Gloria Patri. I was asked to say an extemporaneous prayer, an offer which I of course obliged, and attempted to hide my confusion. A few more moments of silence passed before they started the Lord’s Prayer again, during which Barry drew his final breath.
As I escorted Barry’s family to the elevators, my curiosity got the better of me and I asked his sister, what led her to pray?
She told me they had initially resisted because they were more spiritual than religious. But as she was sitting there in the room, she remembered when she and Barry heard of their mother’s death and the first thing Barry did was say the “Our Father.”
“I thought that’s what Barry might want, and then after the first time we said it, I realized it’s what I needed.”