I know this isn’t a ‘normal’ J. Marie blog. But, today, I thought I’d share my thoughts and some of my experiences with death.
I have been fortunate enough to be present at both the beginning and at the end of life. I have been in the operating room when a newborn infant takes its first wailing breath. I have seen a tiny life in the balance and have also seen that tiny life come back stronger for it. Most recently, I was present during the attempted resuscitation of a 90 year old man who’s family was in the room asking, “Is he dead?” as we thumped on his chest and placed a breathing tube in his throat.
I have seen people –young and old- fight for their lives until their dying breath. I have held hands and watched the light leave the eyes of men, women, and children as they’ve taken their last breath. I’ve been there when family wasn’t able to make it in time to say ‘goodbye, I love you’. I have comforted grief-stricken loved ones, their bodies wracked with sobs. I have experienced grief, both my own and others. I am a nurse.
I’ve seen some pretty amazing things in my 30 years of life and am honored to have experienced every single one of them. Please understand that I do not take death lightly. However, as a nurse, you try to distance yourself from it.
My mindset with the death of a patient is, Be there for the family, but do not add to their grief. So, when someone dies, I automatically go into comfort mode. I listen. I make eye contact. I touch and lend a shoulder to cry on. I’m a rock. With every death that I’ve experienced in my career, if I let every single one affect me I would truly become a basket case.
However, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel anything, I do. I take a little piece from every experience and hold it gently within my heart. Let me share something with you …
I was fifteen years old when I experienced my first death. I was working as a nursing assistant in a nursing home and had become quite attached to many of the residents I cared for. But, there was one man that I’ll remember forever.
Everyday at 3:15, I would knock on his door with his towels draped over my arm. He was always ready and waiting with his contagious smile spread across his face; that smile truly lit up the room. He’d say the same thing to me every day, “Hey smiley! C’mon in!”
I’d smile back and say, “Hey Gil!” I’d set his towels in his bathroom and walk back out into his room.
He’d motion to the chair at his bedside and say, “How’re things today?”
I’d sit down and we’d talk. Through pursed lips, Gil talked about his life, his experiences. That man gave some pretty amazing advice that I hold near and dear to my heart to this day. I’d leave his room a half hour later, thankful that I took the time to sit with him.
My talks with Gil were a bright spot in my day. He didn’t have many visitors, so I’d like to think that I helped brighten his days as well.
It was devastating when Gil became so confused, he didn’t remember his own sister’s name. Even with the confusion, every day at 3:15, I’d still get the same greeting, “Hey smiley! C’mon in!” We’d still have our talks, but much of the conversation became repetitive and there were long thoughtful silences. He’d get tearful and upset when his memory failed him. I’d just hold his hand and listen as best as I could.
We all knew that Gil was nearing the end of his life. He was young, only 57 years old, and he had the devastating diagnosis of end-stage COPD.
At 3:15 on a beautiful sunny June day, I walked into his room with my usual smile spread across my face. Gil’s son was at his bedside, holding his father’s hand. Gil looked up at me as he struggled to breath. His wonderful smile slowly spread across his ashen face. “Hey smiley!” he exclaimed. Then he gasped his final breath and slumped over.
I ran to his bedside and confirmed that he’d passed away. I looked over at his son, who nodded, bowed his head, and cried. I tearfully walked to the nurse’s station and told the nurse on duty what had happened. Calls were made, and his family came in to say their final ‘good-bye’s’. They spent six hours in the room with him, celebrating his life and grieving at the same time. A ‘bed-side memorial’ is what they called it at that particular nursing home.
When the family was about to leave, his son and daughter specifically asked the charge nurse to send me into Gil’s room. I walked into the room and both of them walked up to me and hugged me at the same time.
His daughter pulled back to look me in the eye and said, “Thank you. Dad really loved your talks. He talked about you all the time. My brother told me about what happened today. Through it all, dad still remembered you and I thank you for it.”
I was beside myself. I know I cried then. I hugged them back and offered my condolences.
When his family finally left, it was time to get Gil cleaned up. I stayed past my shift to help in the process. I’ll never forget it. After all, it was my very first death. I sobbed silently through the whole thing. When we were done, I kissed my fingers and placed them gently on Gil’s forehead and whispered, “Good-bye Gil. We’ll meet again.”
I watched silently as the funeral home packed him up on the gurney and cried when they pulled the red velvet cover over his face.
Ever since then, I don’t get nearly as close to the people I take care of. In the end, I am better for knowing that man. I definitely hold a special place in my heart for him.
Death is different for every individual and I have definitely been there to see my share. I consider myself fortunate really, honored. I have had the honor of being there when a babe takes its first breath and when a person breathes their last. Neither of these life processes ever begin or end the same way. Messy, calm, drama-filled, serene, devastating, spiritual … whatever the case may be, each experience is special in its own way.
Never will you experience something as intimate as death- no matter how unattached you try to be. Take it from me … a nurse, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a grand-daughter, and a friend. Hug your loved ones. Hold them close. Love them. Be there for them up until the bitter end. Every life is precious, whether it’s just begun or coming to an end. Take each experience and hold it close to your heart.
Until next time …