I laughed as my dad took his last breath – I can't forgive myself

In October 2014, aged 37, I sat with my father for three days and three nights as he died from a massive brain haemorrhage. 

My mum, sister and I held vigil in an airless three-by-four hospital room, desperately searching doctors’ faces for a change of heart, yearning to be told they’d made a mistake, but it never came. 

We took turns to hold his hand, stroke his head and curse the bleed that lay under it. We cried as the ground beneath us tilted. 

On day three, when the relentless lump in our throats felt like an extra organ and our spines had started to mould into the soft foam of the hospital chairs, his breath finally started to shallow. The nurses, now familiar with our tight-knit dynamic, slipped out, closed doors, and told each other, ‘Leave them’. 

Now we knew he was dying; he was taking smaller breaths, his eyes had stopped weeping, his face felt colder. 

It felt like hours, it possibly was, and when he finally took what we thought was his last breath we all held ours. 

We cried at what we had just lost.  

And then he took another gasp.  

Despite the devastation, the love, the grief, and the shock – I let out a quiet but extremely audible laugh. 

Momentarily forgetting the sadness I found it funny, as if he was playing one final joke on us. That through this second breath he was saying, ‘I’ll have the last laugh, thank you very much!’ 

My sister stared at me, but by then her grief was so raw she had no expression other than trauma fixed on her face. My mum might have heard me, but she was so engulfed in the loss of the man she had married at 19 that she paid me no attention. 

When he did eventually die, I was so guilt ridden that I don’t know if I was even aware of the moment. 

I laughed as my dad died. It was a nervous, trauma-induced, exhausted, heartbroken laugh. 

And perhaps it was the last thing he heard. 

What if he didn’t know we were there for all that time, not wanting to let go? What if all he took with him was the sound of my laugh – which, over time and with an incredible amount of self-loathing, has changed in my memory from a gentle giggle to a pantomime villain’s wicked ‘Mwahahaha’? As if losing him was ever funny? 

I have since spent eight years trying to forgive myself and I have read a lot of palliative care research to try to atone for what I know I cannot erase. 

And yes, there has been a reasonable amount of research into using humour as a coping mechanism both before and after someone dies, but sadly I’m yet to read that it’s normal to laugh during. 

I’ve spoken to contradicting medical professionals. Some say hearing is the last thing to go, others say he could have lost all his sensory functions soon after his brain bled. 

My sister says he would have known it was anguish, not hilarity. My mum says he was as deaf as a post anyway. My best friend, a therapist, insisted that he would have almost certainly found it funny too. I believe they are all right, and I feel relief that they don’t think I’m a monster, it just doesn’t efface the guilt that I carry; it was my ghastliest moment and I will never be at peace with it.  

A study by British Columbia University provides evidence, carried out on humans in an unresponsive state at the very end of life that suggests we may be able to still hear, right up until the very end. 

This revelation has, no doubt, provided comfort to many, and I am no different. 

I hope my dad heard me tell him that I loved him, that I was thankful for a happy childhood and a father who polished my school shoes on a Sunday night and made my packed lunches. 

I’m certain he heard my mum’s voice; when she took a moment of quiet, he became subtly distressed until she spoke again. 

But I often think of that moment of laughter and shudder. I just hope that when the atmosphere in the room changed, it meant he had gone, and those final breaths were just arbitrary. 

I tell myself it doesn’t matter, that I know there was nothing funny about losing my dad, but it’s a hard pill to swallow. 

The laughter is not indicative of the loss I felt, that I continue to feel, nor is it a negative testament to his role as my father and I feel a huge sense of injustice that he might have thought it was. 

I’m an atheist, as was my dad, and I see him in the moon and the stars and the earth, but there is a massive part of me that hopes I’m wrong, so that when it’s my time I can find him and say, ‘You heard that? Listen, let me explain…’ 

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