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If you weren’t there when they died and feel like you should have been….

A few weeks ago I wrote this blog and by the end of it I was a bit concerned that I might have given the impression that it’s always the right thing to have been by your mum or dad’s side when they passed away.  I wrote at the time that I’d blog about why that isn’t the case, so here it is.

If you weren’t there when they died and feel like you should have been…..


I think sometimes we have a bit of a straight-out-of-the-movies idea what it should be like someone dies.  Very, very old, at home in their own bed or favourite chair, quietly, calmly, with loved ones by their side holding their hands.  But endings can be as unpredictable as beginnings.  This is not how it always happens and this is certainly not the way it should always go.

In case you weren’t there and are thinking you should have been here are two things to think about that you probably haven’t considered:

It might not have been right for you to be there


I spoke in that blog that I felt it was an honour to be sitting alongside my friend near the close of his life, but that is by no means to say that it is that way for everyone all the time.  I am far more comfortable around this sort of thing than most and I know I was a calming influence on him and his daughters.  But that’s me – and maybe that’s not you.

I worked with a client last week who felt guilty as she hadn’t been there by her father’s side when he died.  She felt like she should have been and that he would have wanted her to be there.  She felt she had let him down and she was upset to think he was by himself when it happened.  These are all assumptions and if she wasn’t there then I would suggest she wasn’t meant to me.

It isn’t always a matter of you sitting there beside them and chatting to them as they eventually close their eyes peacefully.  Sometimes the body will do strange or disturbing things at the moment/s of death.  I have been at a family member’s bedside when they died and believe me, it can be an unsettling and distressing experience, depending on how the body reacts and how you are feeling.  This is not to say that they are struggling or in pain necessarily or even still fighting.  I am a firm believer that on some level people choose their time to go….so if they pass away at this point then they have chosen this time – this exact time.  But the spirit is separating from the body..…or however you might like to put it……and in those last seconds some odd or scary things can happen to them physically and it might just be too upsetting or just too much in general for you to be there to see it.  Death, like birth, is a natural process – but that doesn’t mean it happens sweetly, easily, and prettily.  (So all of my friends with kids tell me.  And my mum).  But if it doesn’t happen  sweetly and easily that isn’t to say that it was awful for them.  But maybe it would have been awful for you.

Or maybe they did go calmly and quietly but maybe still being present at that moment wasn’t something you were ready for.

And let me ask you something and please, please think very carefully about this– if you weren’t there, did you REALLY want to be?  Or did you just think you should have been?  It’s ok not to have wanted to be there.  This is not an experience that would be comfortable or ok for everyone and it might be one that would have pushed you further than you could handle.

Were there responsibilities and things you had to take care of that required you holding yourself together…which might not have been a possibility if you were present at their death?  (I ask because this was exactly my experience).

Would it have upset you too much?

Would you have panicked or freaked out and brought the anxiety levels in the room (of your parent or other people there) waaay up?

And in case you are thinking “ok, ok I don’t think it would’ve been good for me to be there, BUT of course they would have wanted me there” let’s have a closer look at that, because this isn’t just about you.

It’s not always right for them to have you there

Despite the fact that they loved you, sometimes because of this, it might not have been right for them to have you at their side.

I mentioned before about freaking out.  I have sat with someone who was very ill and very anxious and seen the instant difference in the energy of the room when someone else frightened and anxious walked in.  That can create even more anxiety and panic.  Could you have stayed calm and relaxed?  Or would you have added to the stress?  Maybe it was a much more calming environment with someone else there instead of you, or trained doctors and nurses, or no-one at all.

Another reason it might have been better for them is that they may have preferred to protect you from going through that experience. This is someone you love we are talking about – no matter what your relationship, deep down they would have wanted to protect you from the most painful things life can dish up, and maybe this would have been one of yours.  It may have been far more important to them to save you from this rather than have you there and risk putting you through something that may have been, in some way, traumatic for you.

And this last bit is pretty important but we don’t often think about it.  Are you assuming that they wanted you or someone there with them? We don’t always want people with us in life.  Sometimes we want to do things alone.  Sometimes even the really hard things.  Have you ever been going through something tough or a big change and wanted to figure it out yourself or take that next step without anyone holding your hand?  Is it so very hard to believe that your parent might have wanted this too?  There are things in life that we just need to do alone and maybe this was one of them for them.  One of my clients identified exactly this – she felt that her dad had needed to do that last bit by himself, without his family beside him.  That this was the right thing for him.

If you have been thinking that it would have been better for you to be there with them then have another look at it.  Think about why it was better for you not to be.  Think about why it was better for them for you not to be.

Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences below if you want, or email them to me. And if there is any aspect of the death of someone close to you that you’d like to read about then let me know and I’ll do my best to write about it soon.

Much love,



P.S. If you are struggling, and need a little bit of help and support right now…then I have designed this gentle little course  just for you.


Mary December 4, 2011 at 10:16 pm

Thank you for creating this blog. I’m struggling at the moment with the thoughts that preceded my father’s death. My father had a massive stroke on November 14th, which would have left him unable to eat on his own ever again. He was completely paralyzed on his left side. The blessing was that he was able to understand and communicate, but with great difficulty understanding him. The day before he died, he was able to respond to “I love you Dad”, with an “I love you.” My 3 sisters and I, as well as my mother, hardly left his side. My father passed on November the 19th. What I struggle with is the events that led up to his death 🙁 It was torture to watch my father die. It got so bad the night before he passed, that I prayed he would pass throughout the night so I wouldn’t have to go through anymore of it. The hospital didn’t do a very good job of keeping him comfortable. There was times that he had horrible pains in his head. We would keep a cold cloth on his head and he would guide our hand to rub it for him, or put pressure on his head. At one point I could tell he was actually crying…and now that’s all I hear and it breaks my heart. His mouth was open the entire time, which is how he was breathing. The smell was horrendous 🙁 but it was my father, so we were there for him. We massaged him and held his hand. We told him what a wonderful father he was and that we would take care of our mother. We told him it was okay for him to leave us, that we didn’t want him to suffer anymore. His breathing was also torturous. We thought he was close the day after his stroke but everyday it just kept getting worse, even when we thought it was impossible to be any worse…it was!!! 🙁 Finally the day he passed we decided as a family that we needed to leave him alone for awhile. We sensed that he wasn’t going to go with us in his presence. We even felt that the day before he tried to pull each of our hands up to his mouths, when we were heading home to sleep. It was as if he was trying to say goodbye one last time. I think now he was saying, it’s okay you I don’t want you to watch me suffer any longer 🙁 My sisters, Mom and I went to the waiting room for 40 minutes. My mother couldn’t stay away any longer so she went to sit with him quietly holding his hand. My sisters took turns checking in on them and would return saying it’s very close, his breathes are getting farther apart. Within 1 hour of us leaving him, he had taken his final breath. My oldest sister came running for us. It was heart breaking but I can honestly say the atmosphere in the room had changed completely. There was finally peace and he was no longer suffering. Oh my dear father….I miss him so much!!!! As a family it was an experience that has brought us so much closer and connected on a entirely different level. For that I have no regrets BUT if someone asked me if I would do it over again and if I believe in my heart of hearts that my father would have wanted us to witness that. I would have to say “NO WAY”!!! Knowing what I know now, I would have said my goodbyes to my father the day after his stroke, and taken those last precious moments we had together as my final thoughts of him. Today I shared these events with my husband and he cried for me because he at one time was a tow truck driver, and witnessed some horrible events. He has always said that if he was dying that he didn’t want any intervention and now he is saying that he does not want his children to witness what I just witnessed with my father. He explained he understands why we stayed but says that he knows my father would never have wanted us to go through that with him. I get that now 🙁 In the end it was the guilt of thinking that maybe our father would feel we abandoned him in his hour of need, that kept us going back. Makes me so sad that he had to suffer so much in the end and I just thank God that he now has no recollection of the events prior to his death. I hope this testimony will help someone else going through something similar. God bless you in your hour of need!

Kristie West December 5, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Hi Mary,

thank you so much for sharing here with all of us. I am sure others will be able to relate or learn from your experience. Most people have that fantasy that we must be there for them, even though, as you say, it’s not always the best thing. And they don’t always want us there at the time – as your dad demonstrated.

Obviously it’s been a really tough time for you all and I am glad you’ve been able to recognise the closeness it’s brought into your family. It’s probably a closeness that few other things could have brought to you.

I would love to talk to you about your experience as the thing now is that you are stuck with what feels like horrible memories of this last period of his life – and it can mean that your lasting memories of him are of these last few days and of pain and suffering, which makes it hard to remember him. Feel free to get in touch directly if you would like to.


Victoria Noe February 26, 2012 at 2:58 pm

This is so important – from the point of view of the parent and the child. The day my Dad died, both my sister and I and all 4 grandchildren were with him at various times. I was afraid he was close, but the day before the hospice nurse said his heart was strong. My husband joined us late that night, and my daughter and I left him with my parents. Not 30 minutes later, my Dad was gone. We knew immediately what had happened: he got to see us all one last time, he honored my mother’s wish that she be with him when he died, and he waited until my husband got there so my Mom wouldn’t be alone. It was the way he wanted it, and none of us have ever questioned it. It soothed my long-held fear of not being there when “it” happens.

Kristie West February 27, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Hi Viki,
Thanks for sharing your experience.
I can’t tell you how many stories like this I hear. One of the clearest was where a woman who was dying had all her family in the room. The sound of her laboured breathing became so tough and everyone became so tired that one by one they went to sit in the visitors room, until only two were left sitting with her. One fell asleep and eventually the other needed to go to the bathroom and popped out quickly. While she was gone the woman died.
We often imagine they always want us with them…when sometimes it is so clear they wanted to be alone.

Mark May 22, 2013 at 11:14 am

Kristie (and Anne & Victoria),

Thank you for sharing your stories and perspectives. Brought tears to my eyes – and I’m at work! Had to be discreet with those tissues…

My mum died nearly three years ago. She was a strong and stubborn woman, and had managed to check herself out of hospital when she should have stayed in. Paramedics were called when a neighbour found her in a “pretty grim” state. She was brought round in resus, and then transferred to an empty ward. An empty ward. I should have guessed.

I kissed her on the head, and she opened her eyes. This was our last encounter:
“Where am I?”
“You’re in hospital”
“You’ve had more trouble with your breathing”
“And they are going to get the Bi-Pap machine to help clear your lungs”
“How bad is it??”
(Nurse) – “Come on now, let’s get you sorted. You’ll be ok.”
“Mom, I’m going to go home now, but I will take the day off work tomorrow and come straight here.

“That’s lovely, Mark, Lovely.”

I left the room — the nurse encouraged me to stay, but I left, burst into tears, and drove home. I didn’t realise that she only had hours to live. There was hope in the doctors voice.

Oh why didn’t they just say – “Stay with her! She’ll be gone by morning”.

Why must I dream of those final moments again and again and question my decision?


Kristie West May 28, 2013 at 10:43 am

Hi Mark,
You dream of those final moments and wish it to be another way because you haven’t (yet) seen the beauty in it just as it was. Ask yourself why it was better for your mum not to have you there. Asks and answer this again and again until you see that it was. And then ask why it was better for you not to be there. Asks and answer again and again until you really get it. If you want to change the way you feel then putting effort and energy into these questions will shift this for you.

Cici November 28, 2013 at 8:23 pm

I lost my father five months ago to cancer. My family and I had been taking care of him at home as best we could until it became necessary for him to be in the hospital. I had in the past four years watched my mom,my brother,my grandmother and my husbands mom,his aunt and grandfather all lose their battles too. I was there holding my moms hand,my brothers hand and my grandmothers hand when they all passed. I swore that I couldn’t do it again when my Dad passed. I told him I loved him on Saturday and left. It was only the second time in my life I remember my father telling me he loved me too. My husband and one sister took turns staying with him around the clock so that he wouldn’t be alone. Tuesday night my husband came home and said he wasn’t going back because my fathers eyes were grey and he knew that his spirit was gone. Wednesday morning my sister called from the hospital and said Dad was going to be gone soon. Still I did not go to see him. I was so sure at the time that I couldn’t handle being there when it happened. Now,five months later, I find out this morning that a long time family friend is in the last stages of life. I have watched her children care for her these last few months and have seen the love they have for each other. I know they will all be there for her when it is her time to go. For the last five months I have questioned whether or not I made the right decision in staying away when I knew it was getting close to my dads time. All of my siblings were with my mom when she passed. Only one of five were there when my dad passed. I am feeling so guilty and so sad that I couldn’t see past my own grief to be there for my dad when he passed. I really have to wonder now if I did the right thing by not being there. My father as well as a couple of my siblings felt he would get better and he would never talk about or even consider that this could be the end. My father was in denial about it up until the last week of his life. The he would look at me like he just wished I could make them all stop with the getting better business and just confront what was going to happen. I didn’t though and that makes me feel bad too. I wish I had told them all to just stop and let him go in peace. I knew my one sister would want to be there when he passed and I didn’t think I could handle my grief if she was there with me. She was there with me when our brother died and it was too hard. I know everyone has their own way of dealing with it,but in my family,they just didn’t talk about it. Maybe if they didn’t talk about it,then it wouldn’t happen. But it did. It felt almost like my husband and I were the only ones who were being realistic about the outcome. So anyway, I really feel like I made a mistake in not being there when he passed. And now I have all this guilt because of it. I know I did the best I could for my dad while he was here. I just wish now I had gone to see him that one last time. It doesn’t feel like the hurt will ever go away. It’s been four years since my mom,my brother and grandmother all passed within months of each other and my mom in law just a few months before that. I feel like I handled their deaths better than my dads. I’m just so sad. I have a young son and him and my husband are the only reasons get through each day. I just wish there were some way to know that I did the right thing by not being there. I feel like I let my dad down. I like to think of all the people he would have wanted there,it would have been me. We were extremely close after my mom died. And I wasn’t there for him. Will I ever stop second guessing myself? Will the pain ever go away? Will the guilt ever go away? I guess I will figure it out in time. I don’t really request a response to this. It just makes me feel a little better to get my thoughts out in the open. I have kept the grief bottled up inside me for so long. I miss my loved ones so much. And with today being Thanksgiving(and the first holiday without my dad) I am just feeling overwhelmed and alone. Thanks for letting me vent.

Mike December 2, 2013 at 7:35 am

Hi Kristie
My father passed last week. He was home alone when he passed. When we found him, his mouth and eyes wer open. He was sort of laying on the couch on his back, with his head slightly elevated by the arm of the couch. His back seemed arched to. He was not found for about 36 hours after passing (based on his cell phone use). Paramedics assume heart attack. My questions……
Did he suffer?
What does it mean when mouth and eyes are wide open?
What about the arched back?
To see him laying there, back arched, and mouth and eyes open, he looked like he had flexed his body in pain.
Anything you can offer to explain these things?


Kristie West December 4, 2013 at 7:07 am

Hi Mike,
I’m glad you got in touch.
Actually when a person dies the mouth and eyes do naturally open and stay that way. This is what happens as the muscles of the body completely relax, as I understand it. This can be a surprise as it never looks like this in the movies…but this is exactly what happens and funeral directors/undertakers have special things they do to ensure the eyes and mouth of a body stay closed after they have ‘prepared’ a body for burial or cremation, which the body doesn’t do naturally.
Your dad may or may not have been in some pain at the end but the arched back could also be a process of the body after death. If it was something that happened in the process of dying again this is not unusual. Our bodies can react in very different, strange, and to some, disturbing, ways as the life leaves us. This is totally normal but unfortunately TV and movies show everyone just sighing closing their eyes, and rolling their head to the side as their eyes close…..which is very often NOT how it happens at all.
What you saw is perfectly natural.

Vivian Smith December 27, 2013 at 2:40 am

I lost my best friend,my father on December 5 2013. I had left the previous afternoon for a four day vacation to Disney world with my daughter and granddaughter.I said goodbye to him,that I would see him Saturday.little did I know that that Thursday my husband would be calling me saying he had found my father passed on the floor . I just cannot get past the guilt of not being there.why did he wait until I left? By the time I got home he had already Ben taken away. All my siblings and spouses got to say goodbye to him and I could not,because I wasn’t there. What if I hadn’t gone on vacation,maybe I could have found him to help him.its just unbearable now.he lived with us and just being in the house is do I get past this,no matter what everyone says to me,I just don’t hear them.I miss him so much,why did he have to leave me?

Kristie West January 4, 2014 at 10:41 am

Hi Vivian,

People often get very stuck and very hurt thinking they should have been there, or why didn’t the person wait for me, etc….without realising that usually this is exactly what needed to happen.
If you are open to feeling different to this, and not being stuck with the pain of it, then the question to ask yourself is ‘why was it right for your dad to not have you there for his death?’ and ‘why was it right for you not to be there?’. It’s easy to think it would have been better to be there….but when people take an honest realistic look at what that what have really been like they often realise that it worked much better the way it was.
Ask yourself those questions…and answer them….honestly and again and again until you can see the other side of this and it will not hurt that you weren’t there anymore.
This takes dedication and work – a lot of it…but it is so worth it.
If you want help to work through this, or to heal your grief completely so your dad isn’t a source of pain, I am here to help.


Anne Smith January 21, 2014 at 5:25 am

My grandmother died yesterday evening. She had a long fight with cancer and, in the end she was getting doses of morphine so she feels less pain.

Three months ago I moved to another country in search for a better life than the one I had in my home country. A week or two before she died I was almost completely broke and I couldn’t afford to buy cell phone credits to call her. I had to keep my last money in order that I can provide food for myself. I thought I’d be back in my home country soon anyway, because I wasn’t able to situate myself here, so I’d be able to see her and be with her again.

And I wasn’t. She died without hearing from me and without me being there. Although I did tell her I loved her when we heard from each other last time, I feel incredibly guilty. And more so because my grandfather tells me that she called for me during night. My mother tells me that she said all sorts of things and that she was mainly hallucinating, but still. She called me and I wasn’t there. Which means that the thing you said that maybe the dying person doesn’t want you there wasn’t really the case here. And it wasn’t the case that it wouldn’t be good for me if I wasn’t there because I really wanted to be there for her. Set aside the fact that I think that I’m not the one that’s important in that scenario.

I don’t really know what’s the point of this post of mine here. Nothing can change what happened. I guess I just needed a vent and I want for someone to tell me that there was no way I could have been there and that she knew that and that she knew I love her.

And what’s also bad is the fact that I can’t even go to a funeral because I don’t have a plane that would arrive on time. But I don’t feel guilty for that that much because there isn’t anything I can do for her anymore. The only reason I wanted to be there for is because I know that she would’ve wanted her funeral to be beautiful and presentable. And it’s not presentable if your granddaughter is not there. But that’s how she was like.

I myself don’t believe there’s anything after this life and that is the reason why the funeral doesn’t bother me that much. But the fact that I wasn’t there when she clearly wanted me to be there is what bothers me.

So.. that’s it. Just glad I could write this somewhere. Thanks for the article.

Kim March 13, 2014 at 11:01 pm

Thank you for sharing your insight. Made me reflect…

I’ve lived in Europe for 25 years but I’m from the US. My mom had senility, broke her hip and had 2x operations. She wasn’t doing too well after the second operation so I was anxious about should I go to the US or not “right now”. I work so just taking off to the US and not knowing when I might come back would have been an issue at my job. Shortly my stepdad emailed me saying suddenly my mom had become very lucid and happy. I had read a long time ago that people are like this a day or two before they die. I didn’t comment on this to my stepdad, immediately booked a flight, called him to say I was coming the very next day and …. when he answered, he had just arrived home from the hospital. My mom had died less than an hour before. My mom, my best friend and one of the biggest loves of my life. Reading your article I realize that perhaps it was not right for me to have been there. Maybe I couldn’t have gone on very well after being present by her side at the moment she died. It seems too much of a coincidence that she died right when I was so desperately trying to get a flight for the next morning (it was night in Europe). Yet, I have a daughter now, my mom never met her, and I really want my daughter by my side when I die, at least I think I do so I feel that my mom would have wanted me by her side.

Going back two months prior to my mom’s death, the other most important woman in my life, my grandmommy (95), died. My Dad called and said she was not doing well at all and would pass very soon. (Again, all of this at night in Europe). My Dad said no need to come as she was in a coma. Bah. I took off at 06:30 for the US the next morning and arrived to see my grandmommy. I was one of her favorite people and in fact everyone said she was waiting for me! I felt that she knew I was there in the hospital but perhaps the mind plays tricks but I would swear she lightly flickered and squeezed my hand.

So in two months I lost the two most important women in my life to that date (now I have a daughter 😉 and I feel good about having been there with my grandmommy but I feel bad about not having been with my mom. I arrived for my mom’s funeral. Dressed her. Did her make-up and hair. Creepy to some. The funeral place suggested it and I was like “What?” “Eh?” but the more they talked, well, I some how saw it as something therapeutic and finally as something that I wanted to do. The curious thing is that I can’t remember doing it, I just know that I did. One of the reasons I did is that I always painted my grandmommy’s nails when I would go and visit her. My cousin was surprised that I hadn’t secretly painted her nails when I went to her coffin. Admittedly, as I looked at her, I had actually thought about it as I had noticed her nails weren’t painted but felt it was creepy to touch a dead person and really didn’t think painting fingernails was allowed. Now, I wish I had asked someone if I could have painted my grandmommy’s nails. She took such delight in the manicures that I gave her.

All of this crazy stuff when someone is about to die and once they are dead..

I am glad I gave two-whistles to the wind about my job to go see my grandmommy. It was so sudden, I just simply left. I should have painted her nails and said FY to anyone who said anything. I should have given two-whistles to the wind to go see my mom as my stomach told me that things weren’t good but I convinced myself that there was “time” plus I had just gone a little over a month before for a week to “see off” my grandma …

Our “stomach” tells us what we should do but we often don’t listen to it.

Leanne Young April 16, 2014 at 7:29 pm

Thank you for writing this. I lost my husband to a sudden heart attack 5 months ago. He had the heart attack when I was out of the house. We talked briefly when I returned and then as they were putting him in the ambulance he passed out. I freaked out and they managed to resuscitate him. I was able to talk to him again and tell him I loved him. He noddded three times to me which I take to mean “I love you”. I hope this is what he was saying. I was so confused. He was taken away in the ambulance and we travelled in the car. He died somewhere on the way to the hospital. I believe he came back to show me he loved me and then left me later so save me more pain. I am in so much pain now and can’t imagine what it would have been like to see him go.

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