My wish for each of you is that, at least once in your life, you will receive the gift of sitting bedside with someone as they die. If your first reaction to this statement is one of alarm, discomfort or fear, I understand. But I have been given this opportunity many times in my life, and each time has been more than memorable.
The most common visualization of the experience is of people passing away with loved ones encircling their bedside. But the reality is that death often happens when those loved ones are taking a well-deserved moment away to get some air or take a quick nap.
I was unable to be with my mother when she ended her journey here. She had been very ill for five months and went quietly in the early morning hours. But I was fortunate to have spent several hours with her the previous evening, letting her know that everything was alright and it was okay for her to go now.
The moment of death is not a moment. It is a process. And just as the process of carrying a child takes many months, it can also take a very long time for the body to wind down.
We all hope for a quiet and peaceful death for our elderly parents and others in our lives who may be suffering. We pray to that they might go to bed and quietly leave this world while fast asleep. But this is a gift not given in great numbers.
If you’ve been reading my blog posts since the beginning, you know I spent several years working for a medical center. I was blessed to be in emergency rooms and coronary care units to witness full-blown miracles. Patients who arrived in critical condition and barely hanging on to life were sitting up in bed three days later asking for better food. (FYI: If you find yourself healing in any medical center, eat what is served unless you have family and friends sneaking in burgers and fries. There is no “better food”).
What I learned from all of these experiences was truly life changing. As mentioned in my Time to Live post earlier this week, I realized no one knows when someone is finished on this earth. Doctors and other caregivers will freely admit they cannot commit to an exact outcome in an emergent situation.
Yet, as much as I marveled at the miracles, I learned more about life from the vigils I spent with dying patients.
As a younger woman, I thought everyone had someone to be with them when they died. Not true. As a result of new medications and life-extending procedures, it’s not uncommon to live well into one’s late 90’s and such longevity can create a void as friends and family pass on before us.
I have had the privilege of sitting with many extraordinary men and women, listening to their last words or hearing them take their last breath. In most of these cases, I was there because elderly individuals had already lost their spouses or others had unfortunately witnessed the passing of their adult children.
The fluidity and mobility of today’s job market can also call for frequent relocation and often separates families by thousands of miles. Even the most attentive adult children, loving friends and devoted family members cannot always arrive in time to be at the bedside of a loved one. But I’ve learned that the time you spend with people when they are well offers memories that soothe the pain you feel when you realize you won’t get there in time to say a final goodbye.
The most valuable lesson learned from these deathbed experiences is that most people want someone to listen to their stories, not to hear someone else talk. A hard fact since many of us want to say so much in the last few moments of time spent together. But this hour does not belong to us. It belongs to them and is the last they’ll ever own.
If you feel you have kindness to share with those that are dying, I encourage you to explore the possibility of volunteering and to seek out a residential hospice in your community. Most hospices have excellent training programs for new volunteers and the gift you give will be returned to you in great measure.