I was in my late teens, likely nearing 20 years old, when I had my first life experience watching someone go through the stages of dying.
He was a family friend and neighbor, Harry. He was a kind and hard-working farmer who spent many days on the back of a hay wagon with me, working harder than me despite the fact that he was 50 or 60 years older than I was.
To see him, bedridden in a hospital bed in the dining room of his farmhouse, was unreal. Here was a man who had never taken a day off, yet here he was at his most vulnerable, needing help from an aide.
The day I visited I put on my best face and entered. Typically I’m a softie and I cry easily in these situations, but I wanted to be strong for Harry. He didn’t need my pity. But what do you say to someone who can no longer respond? So, I just started talking like we used to when we worked on the hay wagons together. I told him that I was going to “pick rocks” later that day (that’s likely a task only farmers understand) and I told him he wouldn’t have to help this time. Then I said something about being lonely on the hay wagon without him and that it wasn’t as much fun when he’s not there.
I basically just kept talking, somewhat out of nervousness and the fact that the room was otherwise silent. He was unresponsive. According to my family members, he was no longer communicating.
To my surprise as I continued my one-sided conversation, he turned his head to look at me. Then he winked. He winked!
The one mode of communication he could control was a wink. He had heard me. All of my ramblings, he heard them. I couldn’t believe it. Here was a man who was living out his last days, could not talk, was bed-confined and, I’ll be darned, he could hear me and he communicated with me the only way he had left, he winked!
That was a powerful day for me. Never had I experienced the power of a wink in this way. I realized that hearing is truly the last sense to leave us as we go through the stages of dying.
My non-scientific theory was recently confirmed in a July 2020 study at the University of British Columbia and published in Scientific Reports. The summary of the results indicated that “hearing is widely thought to be the last sense to go in the dying process."
"Now, the first study to investigate hearing in palliative care patients who are close to death provides evidence that some may still be able to hear while in an unresponsive state," the summary continued. "Electroencephalography (EEG) was used to measure the dying brain's response to sound. The findings may help family and friends bring comfort to a person in their final moments.”
Now, 25 years after that experience, and working in the geriatric field, I remind people that it’s important to talk to your loved ones as if they can hear you, even if they appear to be unresponsive.
While it may feel awkward or strange to talk to someone who can’t respond, give it a try. Share a memory. Tell a story. Let them know how much they are loved. They can hear you and you never know, you too might get a wink.