A flood of emotions
For many years I have sat at bedsides witnessing people die; this is the work I do, I am a hospice nurse. I have held thousands of hands, hugged so many people, wiped so many tears, and watched hundreds of people say goodbye to someone they love. I cry often, and sometimes I don’t cry at all… I have learned that my reactions during the dying process, when last breaths are taken, and after… are very unpredictable.
I recently sat for several hours at the bedside of a man who was dying alone. By the time I sat with him, he was verbally non-responsive and never opened his eyes. He moaned for hours as I tried to reduce whatever struggle he was having, which to be honest I was unable to decipher. I did not think he was having physical pain, in fact aside from his moaning, I felt that he was peaceful, but the moaning was deep, it felt personal, and it felt sad. I held his hand in mine, I spoke softly letting him know I was there, and that I was not going to let him do this alone, and I gently placed my hand on his chest feeling his breath slow, hoping my instincts were right and this was bringing him comfort.
I left him for a few minutes to take a call from his sister, who was tearful and riddled with guilt for their disconnect, wanting so badly to say something to him… not knowing what those words should be. I told her I could place the phone next to his ear and I assured her he could hear. She asked me what to say, that there were years-worth of conversations she practiced in her head but right now didn’t seem to be the time for all of that. I told her I didn’t think he had much time and suggested she simply let him know that she loves him, that she will miss him, and say goodbye.
I held the phone up to his ear and with my other hand I held his as I listened to his sister sobbing in between her words, which were beautiful, and he moaned that same deep moan he’d had all day. She asked to talk to me, so I walked out to the hallway and comforted her while she cried. I told her I did not want him to die alone and wanted to go back in his room, promising to call when he was gone. She asked me if she was able to reach his daughter, could I do the same for her and hold up the phone to his ear so she too could say goodbye. I said, “yes, of course.”
I went back into his room, I took his hand and I whispered in his ear that his daughter was going to call, he moaned again. This moan brought tears to my eyes and I felt this surge of emotional pain that I believe was his. The phone rang, it was his daughter, and as promised, I put the phone up to his ear and listened as a daughter said goodbye to her dad.
As she talked, his moans stopped, his breathing calmed, and there was such a sense of peace… and when she said goodbye, he took his last breath. Tears were aching to burst out of my eyes but I held them in so I could talk to her. She was crying, and concerned he didn’t hear her… I assured her that he did, and I said, “yours were the last words he got to hear and you brought him peace." She tearfully thanked me, she said "goodbye" and she hung up the phone.
I went back into his room, I sat down next to his bed, I took his hand and I cried, and I cried, and I cried. I am crying as I write this now, because I still feel the flood of emotions as they rush through me like raging water. I don’t know if I was crying because I didn’t get to say goodbye to my own dad and wished I had, or perhaps it was imagining my children having to say goodbye to me, or maybe it was just for all the tears I have held in over the years that finally found their way out. All I knew for certain was that I needed that cry and it felt appropriate.
For the rest of the day my eyes stung from the tears and I felt as though I was in a fog of sorts, unable to shake it off. When I came home, I sat down on my couch, I emptied all of the hearts from my grief bowl, and I cried. I took each heart out, rubbing them with my fingers and thinking about all of my own personal losses, the ones I never really grieved for, and I allowed myself to let go of everything I have held in… and it felt good, really, really good.
We see death every single day in the work we do, and we support so many people who have to say goodbye. This work is not easy, but it is beautiful, and we are definitely called to do it. But don’t for one second think we don’t feel things deeply, or are not affected by each loss, each tear, or each goodbye. We are… we just have our own ways of processing it. I took longer than I should have to work through my own, I know that now. I had a flood of emotions… it doesn’t mean I am breaking, it means that I am healing.