HomeArticlesHow a better death starts long before we're dying

How a better death starts long before we’re dying

When one man was on his deathbed, his family knew how he wanted to die and could respect that.


Then the nurse called Gonda aside. 

“Your dad didn’t have a good night. I see that the archbishop came to visit him yesterday. You seem to be good Catholics. I suggest you call a priest.” 

It was only then that Gonda looked at her father’s chart; it looked like Pa had a heart attack during the night and they had to resuscitate him. She called her siblings in Cape Town to tell them and then phoned her father’s priest. His children arrived, all of them surrounding his bed. When the priest, Father David, started the prayers, he placed Gonda’s father’s hands on his mouth, part of the ritual of the last rites. 

After the last rites, all her father wanted was to get out of the intensive care unit (ICU). His children tried to persuade him otherwise. But he insisted. After a family discussion, they all agreed to support his request to move to a general ward, where it was more comfortable, with less noise. 

The doctor protested: “Your father needs to be in ICU.” 

When the family, united, insisted, the doctor repeated: “You realise that he is very ill.”

“Yes. But our father requests to be moved to a ward and doesn’t want to be resuscitated again.” 

After Pa was moved to a general ward that Monday, he became so much brighter, happier and calmer with all his children around him. Suddenly, he asked Maria and Gonda for help to use the toilet — he didn’t want the bedpan, he insisted on the toilet. Everyone else left to give him privacy. The nurses came to help and, as they brought back him out of the bathroom, he slumped and lost consciousness. 

“Maria!” Gonda said. ”Look at Daddy, he’s going.”

Maria quickly scooped him up in her arms and carried him to his bed. The nurses put the oxygen mask on and resuscitated him. Maria acted like the nurse she was trained to be; it was too difficult for her to act otherwise, but she also started crying and praying out loud, and the whole family poured in when they heard the commotion. The children also started crying while Jackie, Maria and John prayed loudly. Pa started breathing again.

That night, Gonda stayed with him; Pa talked and dozed, speaking throughout the night to Gonda. “You’ve been very good to me. I thank you for all you have done.” “Ag, Daddy, why do you keep saying these things?”

“I have to say it.”

At another point in the night, he spoke but she couldn’t make out the words. “Daddy, what are you saying?” she asked.

“I’m not saying anything, I’m praying.”

“What are you praying for?”

“I’m praying for the courage to die with dignity.”

Pa wanted some Marie biscuits but he couldn’t swallow the pieces; Gonda fed him that morning, gave him tea with a teaspoon, trying to get some biscuits into him. Then sometime in the early afternoon he sat up and drank tea by himself. He joked and laughed with his old friend Mrs Henry. “Ooohh, I like your rooi lippe” — her red lips, because she was wearing red lipstick.

As Gonda watched him laughing, she thought: “He’s turned the corner, he’s going to be fine.”

Pa asked Gonda to arrange to bring all the children. She agreed because she thought the children would cheer him up. He greeted them with joy when they arrived and he gave each of them a special message.

When visiting time ended, everyone left except for Gonda and her sister, Jackie. Gonda lowered his bed and arranged his blankets, and kissed him on his forehead.

He smiled and said: “Bye bye.” 

“I’m going to be right here,” Gonda said.

He didn’t reply, he just smiled. Not even 10 minutes passed before Gonda said: “He’s not breathing anymore.”

Jackie said: “Call the nurse! Call the nurse!”

“Just leave him. This is what he wanted. Just leave him,” Gonda said as calmly and firmly as possible.

And then Pa was gone. Saturday, Sunday, Monday and on Tuesday he died.

“You know, part of why Gonda said she found it easy to make a decision about her dad and his resuscitation was because of her mother. She had looked after two old aunts. One of them, Edie, who was blind and incontinent, got very ill with pneumonia. Gonda’s mother had told the doctor: ‘Please don’t give her antibiotics. Her quality of life is not good anymore. Please allow her to go quietly.’

“When it came to my mother, in her ninth year of Alzheimer’s, my father did something similar. He had told us: ‘Look, there is a point when you stop'”, Gonda remembered.

“When she went into renal failure, he said: ‘We are not going to treat renal failure. It’s enough now. You have to allow her to go.’

“Pa was very happy to die. He went peacefully. He wasn’t fighting it. He told me, ‘I’m ready to meet my maker.’”

This is an excerpt from Helena Dolny’s book Before Forever After: When Conversations About Living Meet Questions About Dying.