Death can be a very sensitive topic. Why is this? Does it bring back feelings of sadness for someone you have lost close to you? Does it scare you thinking about when it may be your time? Is it not knowing what is after death? I am sure there are many reasons out there why people are weary of talking openly about this topic and tend to brush past it in conversation. Its a little like sex, not all people are open and want to disclose every part of their sex life. Maybe some things are better left unsaid? I have really thought hard about why death isn’t talked about so freely when death is in fact all around us. We could look at it abstractly such as we see dead leaves on the floor, we see dead insects and animals and we see our community being polluted and thus our planet is also slowly dying. It’s the same for humans – we see our loved ones die, we see death on the news and we as humans are in fact born to die. I say ‘born to die’ meaning when we are born, we do not know how long we will live, it could be a few years or many years but we do know that one day we will die – that is inevitable.
Working as a nurse, I have been surrounded by death more than some people may experience and see in their lifetime. As nurses we refer to those who are elderly, are known to palliative care or have chronic illnesses as ‘expected’ deaths. These people are sick and have probably been sick for a very long time and for this reason their death was expected. Assisting these people to feel comfortable and painfree is my greatest privilege as a nurse. I feel peace when I hold their hand, I feel honour when I talk to them about their journey through life and I feel happiness supporting them in their final moments. I find that most of the time their loved ones often feel peace knowing their loved one is now pain free and in peace.
For those people that die ‘unexpectedly’ it can be extremely traumatising for their families and can be particularly upsetting to medical staff. I have been involved in unexpected deaths more times than those defined as expected. Some scenarios that have stood out to me include, the patient packing up getting ready for discharge that suddenly collapses on the floor and has had a fatal heart rhythm or the patient who was up talking one moment and the next having a major aneurysm or the patient that was peacefully sleeping one moment and was found still, cold and dead the next. These are only a few examples of many that have left me feeling upset, defeated and as if it was my fault. I have often thought that there must’ve been something I missed – an incorrect observation or a missed cue. But that’s what I’ve realised that we cannot predict the future sometimes and we cannot stop what is meant to be. These scenarios can be baffling and confusing but the more I see it, the more I believe that it was simply their time to die. I remember consoling a family member of their loved one who had died unexpectedly and she was howling asking me 101 questions – How could this be? What didn’t we see? This is not right, right? Has this happened before? This wasn’t written in their timeline! … In the woman’s final statement, I stopped her and said that maybe, just maybe it was in their ‘timeline’ and maybe it was simply meant to be. Now that is a big statement for me to say to a grieving woman but it did actually make her stop and think. Later she came back to me and said thank you for opening her up to the different possibilities and she did not ask anymore questions because she felt they were answered by my comment. She accepted that it was their time.
I am currently reading a book called Unnatural Causes by Richard Shepard. Richard is a very well known forensic pathologist who discusses his journey of being a forensic pathologist and working through criminal cases whilst expressing thoughts about death and the life we live. Richard has seen many different death scenes – peaceful, violent, brutal and perplexing. He came to the conclusion that while few people actually want to die, when it happens, he believes that death itself is probably pleasurable. He talks about the assumption that people say ‘one minute you are alive and then next you are dead.’ Richard explains that pathologically this is not the case. Death is a process. It takes hours, sometimes days for our body to completely die. This is the shutdown of our organs, cessation of our cells and the beginning of natural decompensation. I thought it was pretty interesting to think of death as a process and this may be a good way to explain it to those that have lost their loved ones. Death is a natural process and I do believe whether it be expected or not, it is a beautiful process.
I really want more people to be okay with talking about death, the process of death, the beauty of death and the acceptance of death. I do think that because I have been exposed to death more frequently than most that I have become more comfortable in this topic. But I feel it shouldn’t be this way! We should speak about it because I feel it will help many to grieve, to accept and to remember their loved ones. It’s also important to talk about to realise that we aren’t going to be alive forever, we aren’t invisible and we don’t know when our time is up. So now is the time to start living our lives and embracing every second we have on this Earth.
In conclusion, death is not something to be scared of but should be a means of motivation for us to do everything we want whilst we are alive, living and breathing.