Life after death
Updated: Feb 15, 2020
After someone takes their last breath, I stay with the family and I provide comfort, support and active listening. I have a number of tasks I handle for them. I usually make the call to the funeral home, if they’ve made that arrangement, or assist them if they haven’t. You would be surprised how many people do not make that arrangement ahead of time. I tell them how to dispose of the medications, both opened and unused. Which by the way, if you have never experienced this, is one the largest wastes I have ever seen; so much medication is disposed of, some that has never even been opened. I encourage them to welcome the support of our bereavement counselors even if it is months after. And I always offer to bathe them; sometimes the family says “no”, sometimes they will participate and sometimes I do it alone. Bathing is a very important ritual for me; there is something truly beautiful about gently bathing someone after they have passed.
As I gather my things and prepare to leave, it feels like time stands still as I say goodbye to those left behind. Whether I have known the patient, their family and/or friends for weeks, days, or just a few hours, the moments before, during and after a death are some of the most powerful and emotional moments for me. They are intimate, delicate, and sensitive. As I have written so many times before, telling someone the last breath has been taken and acknowledging this person has passed, is one of the hardest parts of my job. It is no secret this human is about to die but regardless of how prepared everyone is, those words resonate hard; it feels as though their entire world has come crashing down on them. As if they had absolutely no idea this was about to happen, and I am the one giving the bad news.
But because we shared something so intimate, the moment passes quickly from me being the bearer of bad news, to the reminder of me being the one that held their hand through the most difficult moment of their life. I usually try to hold back my tears, saving them for later when I am alone and no one can see. But sometimes I cry with them, because while I was not personally involved with them up until this moment, their emotions always elicit a response within.
The moment they walk me to the door is also hard because they don’t usually want me to leave. It sometimes feels like they are afraid to be alone, to move forward without the support. I held their hands, I guided them through every step and I helped remove their fear. They knew that as soon I walked out that door, they would need to do the rest on their own, and sometimes, at least early on, it is really, really hard to do. I sometimes call them a day or two later, to check in. They are much stronger by then, and for the most part doing okay. They are thankful and express gratitude, which always fills my heart. Our bereavement team follows up with them as well, even when they say they won’t need it, most times, they welcome it with very open arms.
What I have noticed is that it is usually many days, or weeks, and sometimes, months after when they have the real struggle. They’ve been busy with funeral arrangements and legal stuff, family gatherings, and cleaning out everything that had anything to do with them while they were alive. That is busy work that while difficult and emotional, can also be a much-needed distraction while they navigate the loss. It has been my experience that it is after this time, when emotions come back up and in many ways are even more painful. It feels like everyone expects you to be fine and “over it” so you keep things to yourself. But the truth is, at least from what I have seen, once all the busy distractions are over and you find yourself alone with your thoughts, all you can do is think. And that is when they need us the most.
When someone loses someone they love, the pain doesn’t go away with time; sometimes it might calm for a bit but it comes back when they least expect it. Don’t assume they are fine even if they say they are. Keep checking in. Let them know you are there. They might not want to talk about it, but I can almost guarantee they would really love to know that they haven’t been forgotten. Because what usually happens, is that everyone is there in the beginning, but one by one, as time fades… so do the people in your corner.
The thing about losing someone you love is that the pain and ache doesn’t ever really go away. You don’t just stop thinking about them. Some days are better than others, and some days are worse. And while life goes on and time passes by, we hope that the one that is hurting the most starts to feel a little better, but it is usually only temporary, because the thing about grief is that it doesn’t have an expiration date. Our job, as their friend or family member, is to keep checking in; on the holidays, the birthdays, the anniversary of each year after they’ve passed and sometimes “just because”.
There is life after death for those that have been left behind but life will never be the same for them. Healing takes time, and it is a process that does not come with a guidebook. No one actually gets over it, and no one forgets, please don’t expect them to. Love them, support them and be patient with them.