Chapter 4: At the bedside

Can they hear me?

The expert says
Description to come(3:22)Video transcript

I kept speaking to her, right up to the last moment.

It is not realistic to expect those who are near death to be able to participate in conversation. Family members may wish for a final meaningful connection and regret not having that opportunity. However, even if the dying person is not conscious, family or friends who would like to say something should be encouraged to speak to the person, perhaps asking others to leave the room to allow some private time.

There is no way to know how much can be heard and processed by the brain when death is near, but we do know that hearing is quite a strong function. Studies have shown that, even when a dying person has lost all ability to move or communicate, they may still be able to hear and understand their surroundings.

When people are given an anaesthetic for operations, often the last thing they are aware of as they drift into unconsciousness is the clatter and noise in the operating room.

It is very unusual for people to lose their hearing from conditions that affect just the brain, such as a stroke or a localized tumour. The sense of hearing is well supported in different parts of the brain, making it resistant to loss.

Sometimes we hear of people who have come out of a coma due to a temporary problem such as a head injury, who seem able to recall some things that were said while they were thought to be comatose.

Speaking to a dying person can be very meaningful, regardless of whether the dying person seems alert enough to respond. A final goodbye might be all that is wanted, and this should be encouraged.

Sometimes it seems as though the dying person needs permission to "let go" – to hear from loved ones that they will be able to carry on, and that it is okay to leave them.