Blog 109. Death and Bereavement: Find Out How The Body Dies And Why Many Fear Death.
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Some would say that we start the process of dying when we are born. But first we have to go through the stages of growing up and becoming an adult. And then 20 years on, we’re suddenly middle aged and another 25 years later, we’re expected to retire from work – and then at some point we die. The thought of this can be very daunting for some – especially in an age were it’s frowned upon to even own a wrinkle or two.
Sadly however, and if we’re not careful, our attitude with regards death could be making our lives worse, in the long run that is. But what do I mean?
Years ago when I was lucky to spend some time visiting my ageing mother-in-law who was resident in a really nice old age home in Hampstead, London, I learnt a few things from my observations and from what carers or the nurses shared with me: When I first started visiting and during tea-time, a sandwich was hurled at me by one of the other residents. This was followed by a long barrage of swear words. Weeks later she hurled a ceramic cup filled with tea at me. Needless to say the contents went everywhere. The carers informed me that this was utterly normal and that she did this rather regularly. Much later whilst talking to a carer, she shared an important insight with me. It seemed that the happy and more peaceful residents, were the ones who felt they’d had a good life. The grumpy or obnoxious residents were usually the ones who felt that their lives hadn’t gone so well. They were also the ones who found getting old and dying really difficult. She then added that it was also the unhappy ones that needed more love and kindness. This carer was of course a very special person and I was sad that once my mother-in-law had passed away, that I would no longer have the opportunity to have our valued and welcomed chats.
Many years later when a close friend died, a nurse reinforced this information saying that when someone hadn’t made peace with life, they often found dying difficult. As a result, their death usually became onerous and burdensome as they struggle to let go.
And herein lies an important lesson.
I wonder how many young adults really understand that they need to do as much as they can whilst they are still young. Why? Because once the ageing process starts, if they haven’t done much with their lives, they may find the ageing process very hard to accept, compared to someone who has done tons of stuff and who is confident and comfortable with who they are.
We lose the face of youth very quickly, and if life hasn’t been lived to it’s fullest, then anything less can be very hard to accept. It is no wonder then, that some people run off to have face lifts and so on, trying desperately to cling to their youth.
But similarly, continuing to lead a full life in middle age is just as important – so that when old age arrives a feeling of accomplishment is achieved rather than feelings of regret, disappointment, sadness and so on.
Few people it seems, really take this wisdom on board until it’s too late. Not realising that by ignoring this wisdom, the next phase can be even harder to bear – when we know we’re becoming old or when we realise that we are dying.
This is why it is crucially important to become mindful that every day, week, month and year edges us towards that final moment, when we have to look into the mirror and account for our lives. But by then it’s often too late to start running around doing what we neglected to do.
And also, knowing or having watched someone die is important for a better understanding of what death really entails.
In the past, a lot more people were exposed to process of death and indeed the dying. Nowadays and sadly, many elderly get put into an old age home and left, or family visits lessen over time.
I witnessed this in my mother-in-laws old age home. Carers would tell me that some residents only ever received the odd phone call or a yearly visit. I always found this hard. Most carers do such a wonderful job and many really appreciate support, feed back and at least a thank you from the resident’s families.
And then, the day comes when a distant family are told of a death. A funeral is maybe arranged, wills read and that’s that. And that is how close the average person comes to experiencing a loss or death. Unless of course, someone close, a child, a partner a close family member or a friend dies of a terminal illness which you then sadly witness.
But with regards the elderly, often we miss out on the wisdom that that they can teach us. Their vast knowledge and life experiences are always valuable, no matter what they did. Listening to their stories is always a humbling and joyful experience – even if it’s not from your own family member, who may have dementia and so on.
This is why having grandparents or indeed great grandparents as I did, is so important. I used to sit and listen to all her experiences especially as my great grandmother was a child in the Boer war. Thankfully she survived the concentration camps and as a result, she had many stories to regale.
But most importantly for me was watching her grow old. She was a strong woman and as a result I learnt as a twelve year old about the process of death in old age. She also taught me that if you lead a fulfilling life, you will never fear death – especially if you know how wonderful and natural the process actually is.
Herein lies another lesson: We only fear what we don’t know. Once you’ve witnesses people die naturally, it takes the horror and trepidation out of the experience.
However, it is of course a very sad process for the living to witness, and it’s certainly not easy, especially if you lose a child, a partner, a friend or someone very dear.
So what does that final moment entail?
How we die depends on various circumstances: We could either die very quickly or it may take longer. We could die in an accident, or we can get stabbed or even shot. We could get ill, we could have a tumour or we could get cancer. Or we could have kidney failure, a heart attack and so on. In most cases, people die from old age and how we die, differs from person to person.
However, nurses will tell you that people know when they are dying. They will certainly know unconsciously if not consciously. They may choose not to disclose this at first because the shock of what this means, may be hard to face, and they may also be processing this reality in their own way. Some may never want others to know.
How we die is up to us. And we all need to honour this fact and give people the space to die in their own way. All we can do is offer prayers, love, kindness and support. This is particularly the case with someone dying of a terminal disease.
The process of dying.
Then once the end is closer, and depending on the situation, a patient will be transferred to a hospital if they’re not there already. Depending on the situation, they are often put on a drip and given morphine for the pain. The morphine dose is usually slowly increased. At first a patient may be lucid but then they may begin to flow in and out of consciousness. This may take a few days or so. They may not be able to speak but often they are able to hear. Moistening their lips may be important as the lips dry out and can begin to stick together. Slowly the body will begin to shut down. Eventually they may find it hard to swallow, cough or clear saliva or mucous from the back of the throat. Secretions from the lungs and respiratory tract may increase, causing what is known as the death rattle. It is a strange sound which can vary and it can be disturbing if you haven’t heard it before. Then slowly the heart may begin to cease, the last breathe taken and the patient will have passed away. Their eyes may be open and in time they will have to be closed.
A doctor will then be called to verify the death and supply a death certificate. Unless an autopsy is required, the body will eventually be transferred to a mortuary. The family or friends will then begin the necessary funeral arrangements.
Haruki Murkami wisely said, “Death is not opposite of life, but part of it.”
This is the point I began with – that we begin dying the minute we are born and that life is like walking on a bridge as we slowly cross over to the ‘other side’. This is why we cannot live without keeping this reality in mind – that one day we will all reach our death beds. What we may then feel or say about our lives, will most likely also inform our last days, or indeed our old age, if we are so lucky to have one.
This is why it is so important to consider this reality when we make daily choices when we decide what to do with our time. And this reminds me of the wisdom of Chuck Palahniuk who wrote, “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.”
How we live our lives or the legacy we leave behind is what is important.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote something similar. He wrote, “It is not the length of life, but the depth of life that we should aim for,”
How someone chooses to die is not up to us and how they die is not up to us either. Sadly, people often die alone – but this is a reality we need to accept as part of the process. You will be sitting around someone’s death bed for days and the minute you decide to have a break, get a coffee or whatever, when you then return, often it’s not surprising to find that they’ve gone. This can be so sad but a reminder that dying was their process, not yours.
Even so, I urge you to try to live as best you can but also that you spend more time around the dying as this will also teach you about life.
And I repeat my great grandmother’s wisdom: “If you lead a fulfilling life, you will never fear death – especially if you know how wonderful and natural the process actually is”.
And as Anais Nin once wrote, “People living deeply have no fear of death.”
Why not do the same?
© 2019 Deidré Wallace All rights reserved.
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