I’ve seen a lot of patients die. And by a lot, I mean too many to count. Some deaths I remember clearly, perhaps because the patient was alone or had a large number of family and friends at the bedside, perhaps because he or she was close to my age, or perhaps because of religious traditions that took place during or after the death. It’s odd then, that when I think back to last words of patients before they died, I am at a loss. 

It could be because many of our patients followed a similar pattern prior to their death. Many were on mechanical ventilation which was withdrawn after many days, weeks, or months of progresses and setbacks. Most were unresponsive, either due to sedation or their disease process. They may have spoken their last words in my presence, but at the time I may not have realized that they were the last words they would ever speak. 

I do remember the last words of one patient in our unit. She was my grandmother. After a fall with a resultant hip fracture, she was transferred to us several weeks after surgical repair of her hip. Her oxygen requirements were increasing and she was becoming more and more agitated. In our unit she was treated for aspiration pneumonia, given anxiolytics, and supported with more and more supplemental oxygen each day.

We, her family, knew her wishes – she didn’t want to be intubated – and we respected that. I was working night shift, not as her nurse, but would stay much of the morning to help with her am care and to be there for rounds. On one particular morning, she was coughing and vomited. She had a hard time catching her breath. I called out for her nurse to suction her, when my grandmother grabbed my hand and said “No more.” We spoke of what that meant; it was a pretty intense conversation for a young nurse to have with her own grandmother. Then I called the rest of the family to explain our conversation and ask that they come to be with us. 

Everyone arrived throughout the day and we did what we could to keep her comfortable. We all spent time holding her hand and chatting with her when she was able. At one point, my grandmother asked for a grape soda. I found one for her and as she sipped it through a straw, she said to me “Lisa, I won’t be at your wedding.” “I know,” I said, “Grandmom, but you will always be with me.” Her response was “Yes… and grandpop knows what to give you.”

And those were her last words to me. I knew that she was referring to a wedding gift, and I laugh now when I think about it, because that was typical of my grandmother. She was an incredibly generous woman…always fighting over the check at dinner and pushing to pay at any cash register. These final words make me smile and think of who she was, not laying on that hospital bed, but as my grandmother.

What made me think of this was a recent book I just completed. In Looking for Alaska by John Green, the main character has a fascination with last words. He reads countless biographies and has memorized last words, even making it his mission to discover the “Great Perhaps” mentioned in the last words of François Rabelais. It was a good read, definitely thought-provoking, and I thank my niece for recommending it to me.

As nurses, some of us work with dying patients on a daily basis, while others, only rarely or sometimes. Regardless of your experience, do any last words stand out in your memory?