Losing a family member to death leaves a significant empty space for those left behind. The death of a parent summons feelings of vulnerability and a sense of one’s own mortality. Even when death is an end to suffering, there is a certain finality to it that brings sadness. However, even in the darkness of these times, there is plenty of humor that always accompanies the human comedy, and the recent death of my father is no exception.
I wrote last week about “the call” I received from the nursing home informing me that my father had passed away. The words spoken by the facility’s representative reminded me of other testimonies I have heard from people who have received “the call.” A couple of weeks before he died, my father had suffered from an infected lymph gland in his neck that was very inflamed and painful. He was on some very strong antibiotics that zapped what little energy he had left at age 94, but it appeared that he was getting better and was strong enough to get out of bed. His nurse told me that he had actually eaten dinner only an hour or so before he died. So the representative who called had the unpleasant task of giving me news that by no means was a surprise but was nevertheless not altogether expected either.
Herein lies the comedy. You have to wonder how nursing home personnel are trained to deliver such bad news to loved ones. In this case, the voice on the other end of the phone said, “Mr. ————? I was calling to let you know there’s been a change in your father’s condition,” to which I replied, “Okay.” And then she handed it to me: “He passed away this evening.” Now, at this point, I began asking the predictable questions about how he was found, how he died, what time it happened, etc. What I really wanted to say was, “Why yes, I would say that is a fairly significant change in his condition.” It would be hard to immediately come up with a better example of the understatement of the year.
My wife has told many people the story of “the call” she received about her mother’s death, which occurred while she was in a rehab center only a day or so after my wife had been with her. The nurse who called and delivered the message told my wife that her mother had “expired.” Really? Expired? I realize now that this is a technical term used in the geriatric healthcare industry, but I can’t imagine why you would use that term when talking to the daughter of the deceased. Expired? Can we renew her? Did we not put down a large enough deposit? It makes the deceased sound more like a library card or a driver’s license.
The truth is that there is no easy way to tell a person that someone they love has died. It’s bitter and heartbreaking. It is so precise and final. It defies couching or masking. There is no sufficient euphemism, although we certainly do our best with words like “passed” or “passed away” or “crossed over.” I don’t envy those who are charged with the duty of bearing the saddest news of all, but I can’t help but find the humor in delivery methods like these. Expired? Really?