Updated: Jul 17, 2020
I admit it... I get attached... I try so hard not to. This work we do is so intimate and so personal that a deep connection is made relatively quickly. Sometimes it doesn’t happen; sometimes they are the patient and I am the nurse, and while I am still compassionate and kind to the end, I don’t get that ache when they pass. But sometimes, the connection is made immediately and a bond is built at the first hello. And the ache, the pain I feel when they pass… cuts deep.
I wish I could truly express the feeling I have when I meet a patient for the first time and I look in their eyes and I know they are dying and I know they know they are dying and all I want to do, is to remove their pain and fear and I make an unspoken promise to take their hand and not let it go until their last breath is taken. I give all of me, which can be my worst and best quality. I don’t know how to do it any other way. I see their sadness when it’s time for me to go and I fill with happy when I see their face light up as I walk in the door. Just knowing they trust me feeds my soul. Some patients I can’t wait to see, and leaving after each visit makes me sad. I have a very difficult time leaving at the end of some visits, because I know… this may very well be the last time I see them. I don’t think people truly realize how hard this job is, or how personally it effects us or how deeply we give.
I had a patient recently who falls into the category of me becoming too attached. And yes, I became too attached. I walked into her room; she was lying in her bed and looked so weak, and so tired and so frail. It took everything I had not to cry. I cry so easily lately. Not really lately, I just cry easily. Let’s be honest… I am emotional and I feel things deeply. Anyway… I was sitting at her bedside and she looked at me and said, “I need you to be brutally honest with me. Why am I dying and when will I die”. The lump you might be feeling as you read this is exactly the lump I felt when she asked me that. I had about 10 seconds to think about this, wondering what I would want to hear. Dying sucks. People hover around you like vultures, which feels like they are anticipating your death. You know that they know, but no one says the truths. Everyone tries to be so kind, and thoughtful with their words, but is that the best way to be? I decided to be exactly what she asked of me, and I was brutally honest… “you are going to die, and probably soon… maybe a week, maybe two.” And she looked at me and said “thank you”. She legitimately thanked me for telling her that she was going to die. How do I process this without completely losing it? But what I took from this is the ways we behave around people who are dying. Without realizing it, we treat them like they are going to die. Could we do this differently? YES! We could stop treating them as though they are fragile, despite the fact that they are. We could create a less dismal environment around them. We can talk TO THEM instead of ABOUT THEM in their presence, and we can ask them directly, and honestly, what they need from us.
Death has become a taboo subject; some people, like myself, talk about it often, while others refuse to talk about it at all, almost avoiding it completely. Even when it reflects something they might be experiencing themselves, they don’t let anyone know and feel the need to keep it private. I actually get that, because the thing about death, much like anything else we experience, is that people always have an opinion. But death, especially for the person experiencing it, IS private and personal and intimate and it’s a one-time event… I think people deserve the right to have it done the way they are most comfortable with, and if given the chance to voice their wishes, we should respect them.
Imagine if we each took time to tell the people we love, how we would want our death to be. Obviously some things cannot be planned out. We cannot predict our life and certainly not our death. But, what if we could ask those we love to not be so heavy, to not whisper at our bedside, but to play certain music, to talk with us instead of about us and most of all… to remind us and those we love about the impact we had on the life we lived. I would want people to talk about the life I lived while at my bedside, to share the stories of the fun we had and the memories we made. I would want to be reminded of the life I lived. And until that time, way before I am on that death bed, I want to live a life, that is filled with memory making; for myself and those I love. I have learned so much about life, while seeing so much death, most importantly is living a life that is fun to talk about and makes people laugh, and smile… and yeah… sometimes cry… but that just means you touched their heart. This life… is a life worth living and I want to be reminded of that before I die.
I had a conversation today with some 20-somethings and we discussed death. Both stated that they didn’t want to know what happens when they die, and both admitted that they don’t believe in heaven, hell or the afterlife. They just want to live for right now and embrace the right now. BUT… if given a life expectancy of something very short term, they would want the truth. The brutal complete truth. They would want to know they only had a week or two left… because given that time frame, allows them to say the goodbyes, drink the really good whiskey, and die with some dignity and grace.
Dying sucks. Dying without notice, takes our grand finale away from us. But given some notice, given a time frame, allows us the chance to at the very least, do it on our terms. This doesn’t take away or remove the pain, the struggle or difficulty of knowing you are about to die. We can’t do that. No one can do that. But as humans, could we do a better job at that last goodbye? I believe we can, and I think it starts with being completely truthful.
As a nurse, raise your hand right now if you have been asked to NOT say the word “hospice” around a patient you are about to see? As a hospice nurse, I struggle with this. So basically, you are keeping their death a secret? From them???????????? Is that fair? I don’t think so. Why do we do that? Death is not easy on any level, in any mindset, at any age, for any reason. Death cannot be sugar coated, we cannot color it with pretty colors, dress it up in a feather boa and glitter or speak softly in hopes someone doesn’t get offended. Death is the friggin end. It’s it. And if given notice… a time frame of sorts… it deserves honesty, respect, kindness and dignity. Death, is final, it deserves a proper farewell if there is the opportunity for that… let’s give it bells and whistles, glitter and maybe even a feather boa…. But definitely honesty!