I have always had an interest in death. Ever since I was little. My little cousin, Vickie, tragically, unexpectedly died at the age of 2 when I was very young. It was my first experience with human death. I remember not really feeling sad, not understanding what was really going on… but starting to cry because everyone around me was crying. They were so unbelievably sad. I felt their pain more than my own. I didn’t know it back then but have come to understand that I feel what other people feel. Even when they don’t know what they are feeling, I feel it. Even when they fake it or try to hide what they are feeling, I feel it. Some people call this empathy or would call me an “Empath.” I don’t know if that’s what I am or not. I just know how I feel. At a tender young age I felt the deep sadness of so many people at once. It was the most pain I had ever been in, in my young life. I still recall it today.
I recall going to the funeral. I saw my cousin Vickie wave at me. I saw her hand waving as clear as day. I wasn’t afraid at all. I went to my father and sat on his lap. My dad is a strong man. I’m not sure how else to describe him. He is not one to cry. He is strict and stubborn. He was not very affectionate, in the typical sense, as I was growing up. But that day, he was soft. I sat on his lap and cuddled up to him. I asked him why Vickie was waving to me- because Mom said it was like she was sleeping but she wouldn’t wake up anymore. It didn’t make sense to me because she was awake, and waving. Dad said “Maybe she is waving goodbye.” I’m pretty sure that was one of those pivotal moments in my life. You know, those moments that you know will stay with you, and maybe are a sign to lead you to where you need to be? But maybe I just feel that too?
Many years later I became a wife and mom. More years passed and I became a nurse. Fast forward about 10 more years and I ended up in hospice. That’s where I have been for the past 8 years. I am pursuing other career options but in my heart of hearts I will alway be a hospice nurse.
Between the day Vickie died and today I have had many experiences with death. Some were personal to me (family members) while most were with someone else’s family member.
I have many wonderful moments and stories that I keep dear to my heart from those experiences. One thing I wanted to share with anyone who may be going through the hospice experience, whether it is a family member or friend who is passing, is this…
No matter what someone’s race, religion, occupation, status in life is, rich or poor, mean or kind, everyone experiences death the same…true, some deaths are quick and tragic while some linger on. Some folks seem to linger and tend to struggle (or get complicated for one reason or another) while others are more accepting of the dying process from the start. But basically, it is the same. Kind of like birth- each one is unique but the process is “basically” the same. Death is as natural as birth. The body knows what to do.
Once death becomes inevitable, layers start falling away. This goes fast or slow, depending on the person. People start letting go of things. Their job, their co-workers and aquaintences, their money, their house and belongings, their friends and eventually family. It’s like they go inward.
So many people want to “do” something for their loved ones who are dying. I have often had to ask the dying person to allow their family to do what they want because it is more for them then the dying person.
If you want to do something for your loved one who is dying, forgive them for any mistakes they may have made, ask for forgiveness if you’ve hurt them, love them, allow them to be the one driving the bus. This is their journey. Don’t put your own beliefs or assumptions about death on them. Continue to talk to them. Open the curtains and make the room pleasant. Keep it soft and light in their room. Don’t bring your baggage into their space. Sit with them. Just being there is nice. If you have a partner that you fall asleep with in bed at night, you will understand this next bit. Or if you are a parent. You know how you sleep better when your partner is lying beside you? Or when you know the whole family is home? Even though you’re asleep you can feel that they are there? I am sure that’s what it is like for someone who is unconscious. The presence is felt. And that’s comforting for some. And when I say that the dying person is driving the bus, I mean for everything. Sometimes they need to be left alone too. Don’t hover. Don’t bombard them with too much stimulation. I know everyone wants to say their goodbyes but, again, don’t allow everyone in there at once bringing their own baggage. That’s not comforting. Go in pairs and bring your positive, loving thoughts. At least do your best to try that. You’re better off not going if that’s all it is going to do is cause pain for you and that person. If you can’t forgive then don’t go see them. Because what’s done is done and they can’t do anything else about it now. Now it is about them.
I am all about pain relief and I understand that some people have a lot of pain that needs to be managed. But when the moment of death comes, 99.99999% of the time, the comfort medications are more for the family than the person who is dying. What appears to be struggling is not struggling when the person is unconscious.
I had an experience myself (twice) when I lost consciousness due to car accidents. One was a major car accident in which I almost went through a windshield and required plastic surgery twice. I was 15 years old. It wasn’t a near death experience in which my heart stopped. I didn’t see a light or anything like that (though I’ve heard many stories and have witnessed, in my career, people seeing and speaking to people who are not visible to anyone but them as they approached death). But what I experienced is this:
When the car accident happened I was awake but in shock. I saw the truck approaching us head on and coming fast. I knew we would be hit. I wasn’t afraid. The next thing I remember is coming to consciousness while lying on the road. I was told I crawled out but don’t remember that part. I remember my lip feeling funny (it was swollen and torn off at one end) and liquid going down my throat which was choking me since I was on my back (blood). I remember trying to pull my lip off (not knowing what it was- it just felt like it was in the way and the cause of the fluid). There were people looking down on me saying “Don’t move her. Don’t touch her.” I remember the paramedic telling the ambulance driver to hurry to the hospital. He seemed panicked. I remember that he held my hand. While at the hospital I was still in a daze. Nothing hurt. I did not care whether I lived or died. Nothing mattered. They transferred me, were taking x-rays, cutting off my clothes, talking to each other and making a plan. The first of my relatives to arrive was my brother. When he saw me he started to cry- a lot. He was saying “Oh my God” and “I love you, Chrissie.” I could tell then that I didn’t look too well. It wasn’t until later that I learned my face was full of glass chips from the windshield that shattered, my lip and nose were torn off on one side and my face was swollen and full of blood. That was another pivotal point. It was then that I realized that what we see (when a person is dying for example) is not necessarily what the person is experiencing. I have often told family members that story in hospice and it seems to help a lot of people. Inside, I was at peace. Truly. I had no pain until the following day, after surgery.
So when all those layers slip away, what is left? A deep knowing that this life is ending. A slipping away from all of our possessions and our relationships too. I believe there is contentment. Peace. A final closing of the eyes as if in sleep. When we go to sleep each night, we don’t worry about whether we are going to wake up or not. I think that’s how it is. People just go to sleep. Like my mom said a long time ago. The body goes to sleep but just doesn’t wake up anymore. I think right before a person dies they feel tired. Like they are just ready to close their eyes down. It is my opinion that when we shed our bodies, we truly wake up. Refreshed from this long life which was but a dream.
May you be happy and well and have many more days and years ahead. May you accept what comes your way holding on only to the thought that you have done you’re very best this lifetime. May you be able to let go when the time comes and thank this life for what it was.