Devastating deathbed declarations
November 28, 2009 5:02 AM   Subscribe

How common is it for someone to make a devastating deathbed declaration, like "I never really loved you," or "I'm not really your father?"
posted by quidividi to Human Relations (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
How would you even compute a number in order to answer this question?
posted by dfriedman at 5:05 AM on November 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

Not common at all...most people die in a bad condition, and or in their sleep, or suddenly, and for the few who might utter such things, how and who would preserve and announce them?
posted by Postroad at 5:08 AM on November 28, 2009

Do you really want to know a percentage, or are you looking for something else? "How common ... ?" implies that you're looking for a number. If so, the answer is for us to explain why there's no way to have a number. If this isn't what you're looking for, you might want to clarify. As it stands, your question is sort of unanswerable.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:17 AM on November 28, 2009

I flagged it, beacuse it is unanswerable.
posted by fixedgear at 5:36 AM on November 28, 2009

I think that most of the time when this happens, it only seems to involve attractive but tragically flawed individuals in well lit places when a Director and camera crew are in the immediate vicinity.
posted by chillmost at 5:36 AM on November 28, 2009 [12 favorites]

What postroad said. The few times I've been present when someone has died (or has been dying), the person has been largely incoherent, if vocal at all.
posted by jquinby at 5:47 AM on November 28, 2009

I suspect OP is asking for anecdotes, not numbers.
posted by BrokenEnglish at 5:48 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I doubt a study has been done on this question, and the closest you're going to get to an answer is if someone who frequently deals with families of the recently deceased as part of their profession, like a minister or a funeral director, weighs in with their non-generalizable experiences.

As a minister, I can say that I have yet to encounter that kind of deathbed declaration. What I have seen a couple of times is a family where one generation all knew some secret about the deceased person that they had never passed to the younger generation, and someone finally feels free to talk about it after he or she dies.

I think people who take secrets all the way to their deathbed normally go ahead and take it to the grave.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:53 AM on November 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

Anecdotally, my mother-in-law's death had moments that could have been the stuff of Renaissance portraits, so I'd say not altogether uncommon. I believe that the common archetype is actually a caricaturization or lampoon of the deathbed process.

My own analysis: The moment of death is always left out of such equations, as if the dead body doesn't continue on its own biologic adventure after the machinery and mind of the thing that drove it were no longer resident, so anecdoally discount that idea as a literal thing. Did all those famusly quoted have Last Words at the exact the moment before their death or did in many cases they linger on like our no-longer-as-venerated dying people? I believe people tend to grab that one great dyring moment before the lights go out forever rather than to gargle or fart or do something else horrific in the moment after: one's body doesn't immediately disappear in a pile of glitter after that, you know?

Every great deathbead quotist will lose control of their bowels soon thereafter, so take words for what you will. Things are edited out. Executed prisoners are the only persons afforded the luxury of a few last words to be known by. Mostly the eloquence in those speeches are in contrition, especially to elements of spiritual dimension. Still, the most varnished of those often end with "Warden, I Am Ready", which is not exactly "This is the last of earth! I am content." Procedure trumps wisdom, here.

I've seen a number of old people see death coming and go about resolving their affairs. By common legend I know at least one guy's whose mother had to go about that business in a month and all provided a number of excellent moments-in-dying.

At the end I think everyone tends to go kind of anonymously these days. One's body can be kept going after one's will to live and spirit have gone out. It's hard to croak 'Rosebud...' and make Socratic pronouncements when you're full of tubes.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 5:57 AM on November 28, 2009 [8 favorites]

I have worked on hospital units where many people do their dying. I have never heard any good stories, or even boring stories, about deathbed confessions. Considering how much people who work at hospitals like to tell stories (with identifying patient information removed, of course, and quickly exaggerated into legend) I assume this indicates it is a quite rare occurrence.
posted by little e at 6:18 AM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Well, if OP is just trolling for anecdotes: an aquaintance was at the deathbed of a woman suffering from a fatal brain tumor. The tumor made her ragey and hateful (like a non-violent Phineas Gage) and she had choice words for everyone towards the end (not, "She's finally free to speak the truth" stuff, but "lashing out indiscriminately"). Dementia could do the same.
posted by availablelight at 6:21 AM on November 28, 2009

I believe the question is answerable, but the question is broad so the answer must be accordingly broad.

a) It is common for people that are dying in severe pain to say really nasty things that they may or may not mean. Hospice workers advise families on the kind of things to expect during the dying process, and they warn you about this sometimes.

b) It is relatively uncommon for people to admit shocking things like murder or paternity issues, partially because these things happen relatively uncommonly in the first place.

If you are really interested because of a personal experience, I would talk to some hospice care professionals.
posted by SantosLHalper at 6:22 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

The only specific one I remember from reading is in the biography of George Simenon, the very prolific writer, who is supposed to have leaned over his mother on her death bed and she muttered: " I never did care for you." there are of course a number of sites on the net that record "famous last words," but you seem to want a certain type of final farewells.
posted by Postroad at 6:25 AM on November 28, 2009

If you were to divide "a" by "b", with "a" being the amount this sort of thing actually happens in real life, and "b" being that amount this happens in soap operas, you would find that the result is rapidly approaching zero.
posted by fermezporte at 6:52 AM on November 28, 2009

Well, I'm only familiar with two:

Joan Crawford
Peter Griffin's father.

So you have 2.
posted by stormpooper at 7:09 AM on November 28, 2009

Neither me nor any family member or friend of mine, including two ER nurses, has ever reported witnessing something like this. I imagine the associated Harpers Index item for your question would align closely with the one a few years back that went something like this:

Percentage of automobile collisions that resulted in explosion: .4%

Percentage of automobile collisions on television that resulted in explosion: 67%

posted by applemeat at 7:33 AM on November 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

My mother's last words to my husband and me (she became incoherent and died a day later) were "You guys look bored -- go have some fun." Not exactly Bartlett's Quotations caliber, but oddly fitting.

On the other hand, after she died, my dad found a file on her computer of notes between her and a "pen pal" from England. Even though her pen pal later got married and they lost track of each other, she kept the correspondence. The correspondence could charitably be denoted "courtly love" (he was almost half her age and it was a lot of romantic "let me write a song for you" stuff) or less charitably "an emotional affair". Needless to say, Dad felt betrayed.

She could have spilled it on her deathbed. She didn't.
posted by lleachie at 8:00 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's difficult enough to arrive at the deathbed of someone you love in time. I would guess that the kind of people who would be assy enough to reveal some hurtful secret on their deathbed probably also have strained relationships with the people they're keeping those secrets from. (I would also guess that, in relationships with devastating secrets, the relationship and/or secret does not last until death.)

The dying person would not only need to be coherent, but also aware that he is actually dying, and even then the secret would probably have to be heavier on his mind than the realization that he is going to die right now.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:15 AM on November 28, 2009

I tend to think of "death row" for this question. I think they probably make the most "declarations". I'm guessing for multiple reasons, but also because they are given a chance prior execution.
posted by 6:1 at 9:46 AM on November 28, 2009

In his book Veil - The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981 to 1987, Bob Woodward write in the closing pages that William Casey, Ronald Reagan's CIA director, made a deathbed confession of global, geopolitical importance.

However the journalistic methods he employed for this particular account are highly questionable, and his "revelation" was highly controversial. Most people in Washington circles think Woodward was either bullshitting or reaching, and as a result his previously stellar reputation suffered quite a bit.
posted by randomstriker at 10:09 AM on November 28, 2009

There's this book of suicide notes: To Be or Not to Be, a collection of suicide notes by Marc Etkind that has a section about confessions and some ill will towards those left behind.

Anecdotal: I'm around people that die a lot for work and it's usually like what Postroad says: in their sleep, suddenly, out of it. Once a guy was yelling "throw me the ball!" over and over - disoriented obviously, but the family was glad he was probably playing an awesome game of football in his head as he died in his hospital bed.
posted by dog food sugar at 10:21 AM on November 28, 2009

There's this book of suicide notes...

But wouldn’t suicide victims be the ultimate self-selecting group for a study on deathbed "ill will?" Of course there are peaceful and contented suicides, but I'd imagine that many people who commit suicide (as opposed to dying of old age or illness) might be 1) more likely to feel encumbered by significant inter-personal conflicts or grievances, and/or 2) more inclined to express these feelings.
posted by applemeat at 10:40 AM on November 28, 2009

Ogre Lawless: "Executed prisoners are the only persons afforded the luxury of a few last words to be known by. Mostly the eloquence in those speeches are in contrition, especially to elements of spiritual dimension. Still, the most varnished of those often end with "Warden, I Am Ready", which is not exactly "This is the last of earth! I am content." Procedure trumps wisdom, here."

Good observation. If OP doesn't mind restricting their deathbed anecdotes to a specific class of people, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice maintains a public database of executed prisoners that includes their last recorded words. See these accompanying Mefi posts for more discussion: one, two, three.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:18 PM on November 28, 2009

Thanks for the link, Rhaomi. Some really powerful/heavy stuff there.

I am sorry, I never wanted to kill your family. I never wanted to kill your family or these people. I am sorry for the way I talk in English. I did it to myself. I was forced to do it. I was a gang member. I never wanted to kill your brother. I was forced to do this. I blame myself. I am not going to blame nobody. I got my mother and my family too. I was forced. I tell you from my heart. I am sorry with all my heart. That's the reality of life, I am sorry. I got to pay for it. To my family, I love you, be strong. They have family too; the way they suffer is the way I am suffering. I am asking you to go and give them hugs. Please accept their hugs. Be strong in the Lord. I love you sister. I love you all, please go and try and talk to the family. I love my family. I understand why I am paying this price. Do not have any excuses for not extending your love. I am ready Warden, I am sorry everybody, I did it. Thank you brother, don't hate nobody, I feel good. I love my family, I love you Jesus. Be strong mama, I love you sister. I love Jesus. Warden I am ready.
posted by threeants at 4:24 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older Bait-and-Switch or ineptitude?... WTF Travelocity!...   |   Whats with this poster? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.