Mystery Upon Mystery


The names are made up, but the story is common.

David’s father, Ralph, was seriously ill. Ralph had a constellation of physical problems and he had been hospitalized for at least two weeks this time, growing weaker by the day. It seemed to everyone that this would probably be his last stay.

Ralph certainly did not lack for family and friends who visited him and expressed their love and care in important ways. David, however, for multiple reasons seemed to have risen to the top as the caretaker number one. Others recognized that, and it was weighing on David. The hospital staff had moved a relatively comfortable cot into Ralph’s room and David was spending the night there.

Sometimes he would eat the leftover food brought to his father; otherwise, he would visit the hospital vending machines on a lower floor or even make a run to the hospital cafeteria during the serving hours. As happens in a facility, day and night had begun to blend for both Ralph and David.

Ralph had not lost much of his mental faculties and one evening he and David were talking softly together. The hospital was beginning to quiet about suppertime and David felt hunger pangs. He told his father that he was going quickly to the cafeteria to get some food and would bring it back to the room. When David returned ten minutes later, Ralph had died.

Because of Ralph’s prolonged illnesses and hospitalizations, the details following his passing unfolded smoothly because of past preparations. However, although David had emotionally prepared for the loss of his father, he had not prepared for it to occur when he was not there. His grief, therefore, was complicated by guilt that he had “abandoned” his father at the moment of his death. David was swept into a sea of “what ifs?”

This is not a unique situation. In facilities and homes in every city are ill people who are loved by others who do not stay by the bedside 24 hours a day. They are in jeopardy of falling into this same mysterious guilt. It is certainly not the only mystery associated with death, but it is a common addition to the entire sequence.

As a biologist, I have always been fascinated by the events at the beginning and end of life. As an undergraduate college student, I took an embryology course that was my first introduction to the wonder of an egg and sperm getting together and the subsequent elegant development of the embryo. I felt then and still feel the mystery of it all.

One could make a case that life begins in mystery and ends in mystery. We can chronicle what happens biologically during an individual’s death, but moving past simple description of events to explanations of why eludes us; it remains a mystery with many facets.

Understanding that others sometimes do not take advice any better than I do, if I had the chance, I would try to say some of the following to David.

There are a few experiences in life that we do not get to practice; losing your father is one of them. This is not a time to second-guess your actions. You did the best you could with the information and resources available to you at the time. It is perfectly reasonable to say to yourself, “I am sad and sorry this happened.” It is not helpful to say, “I should not have left.”

Author Parker Palmer has suggested that there is much in life that is “triple-wrapped” in mystery. Despite our assumption that, before death, patients may appear “unresponsive,” I am in favor of continuing to speak to them, touching them, and letting them know we are in the room. Does the patient still have free will? Who knows what is really occurring?

An internet writer identified only as Gabby has suggested:

“Sometimes people will take their last breath after you’ve left the room to shower, eat, or just take a moment to breathe. You didn’t abandon them. I truly believe that some people do not want an audience, or they don’t want that to be the last thing you see. They don’t take with them who was there at the last breath . . . They take with them who was there all along.”

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

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