Before this point in my life, death was a fleeting thought. Death happened to other people, in other families that weren’t mine and it never happened within my immediate sphere of existence. My understanding of the phenomenon was abstract and foggy, at best, and I have been blessed with 22 years of ignorant bliss in regards to the life shattering grief of losing a loved one.
Within the last two months, however, death and I have become intimate compatriots.
To a Nursing Assistant, death comes with the territory. We give end of life care before and after the resident has passed. We are there for each and every ragged breath, every disoriented delusion, every desperate attempt to fight it off and every quiet acceptance of the inevitable.
But Fay was my first.
Fay had returned to the facility, from the hospital, just a few days before. Truthfully, I don’t know what reasons he had been admitted for but there was no denying his condition worsened exponentially upon his discharge from the hospital.
Fay wouldn’t eat. He refused to drink the thickened liquids we gave him (per his doctor’s orders, due to his difficulty swallowing). The single thing that he was concerned about was getting his haircut. He lay in bed doing nothing, shouted for help when he wanted something, and over and over, he repeated how desperate he was for a haircut. This man had been up and walking before he went to the hospital. He had had a healthy appetite and frequently asked for ice cream and hot cocoa – he loved anything sweet. But in the matter of weeks that he was there, it was as if his spirit had been crushed.
In the day before his passing, his fear and unrest was palpable. I must have entered that room 16 times to try and calm him, all before 10 AM. We put him on oxygen around noon in an attempt to help him breath. Around 2 in the afternoon, he began complaining that he could not move his arms or legs. By that evening, he was gone.
Being as it was my first, albeit detached, interaction with the death of a human being, I was struck by two things.
First was how unceremonious it was. This man had nothing in his closet. Not a t-shirt, not a pair of socks, not even adult diapers in his size. The walls around him were bare. No family member had been in to see him. No Pastor or Father or religious official had stopped in to give him a tiny sliver of peace. A human soul evaporated from the earth but life moved on as usual, as if it had never been there in the first place.
The second: his fear. His uncertainty. I’ve always had this fanciful notion in my head that death comes so quickly, it catches us by surprise and takes us in an instant, leaving us no time to think or worry. I knew reality was not that way, but I had no evidence to prove the contrary. Now, here it was. Staring me in the face.
Some of us die completely alone. Some of us die in a state of terror, overtaken by agonizing pain. Some of us die and no one that cares is around to notice. Some of us die and no one cares. But, one way or another, we die.
It’s a sobering thought. And I’m not sure how I feel about it at this point in time. But, I’m going to attempt to make their transitions into whatever it is that happens…afterwards…as smooth and supported as possible.
Mars, signing off. ◊