On Death & Dying

I said I was going to make a morbid depressing post due to the fact that I read the book On Death & Dying.  Well here it is.

I think the book was more directed to those in the healthcare field.  I think they could learn a lot from it.  But it was still a good read, for someone like me I guess… who well, has this intense fear of death and feels like in some respect knowledge is power, especially with a book like this, in which there contains interviews of people who are dying and/or have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses.

I’ll start off by saying that I don’t know how my anxiety about death started or when.  It has been a cause of major panic attacks.  I started developing a lot of health anxieties once the death anxiety kicked in… and as we all know, anxiety… causes your body to actually get sick and breakdown so you end up in this fucked up cycle of always feeling like crap and then worrying that you always feel like crap.

I used to feel very much okay with the concept of death.  Really.  I can recall a time in my life when I was honestly not afraid to die.  It did not scare me.  That… in and of itself… is probably one of the most freeing feelings that one can have, to not fear death.  Because death…. is every bit a part of life just as birth is.  Beginning.  End.  Alpha.  Omega.  So a part of me wonders how we got in this trap to fear the inevitable so much.  Why there seems to be more and more people running around these days fearing death than there seemed to be in the past.

I think a big part of it is, especially here in the mainstream culture of the US… is that death is hidden from it.  It is something cold, hidden, clinical.  Because it is so hidden, it is frightening.  Back….100 years ago…death was very much a part of life that was seen and not hidden.  Family members cared for their sick.  Death occurred at home.  Death was seen on the farm.  Families had to care for their sick and dying.  Children saw it from an early age.  I’m sure it was much more regarded as natural, than now or so it seems.

These days, sick people are shipped away to hospitals, hospices, nursing homes… we don’t see these people deterioate daily.  Maybe in a way that is good for our own mental health.  Maybe not.  Fewer and fewer of us have actually experienced the moment of someone’s passing.  The body is quickly prepared and made to look as alive as possible.  We aren’t expected to mourn for long before getting on with our lives.  We quickly stick our dead in the ground and are expected to move on.

I found weird things happening with me and my death anxiety.  Weird fears cropping up out of nowhere.  I remember once being extremely distraught (shortly after starting Paxil which was fucking with my emotions anyways) of the possibility of passing away before I ever had children.  Who would get my stuff?  Who would I pass it on to?  Would people just give it away and in effect my memory slowly be erased?  It terrified me.

But I think the real terror I have about death… is just that… not having a legacy to pass on to anybody.  To have not lived to my full potential.  To die at a time when I felt I had accomplished so little.  That is the real fear.  For when I lived with no fear  of death… I felt that I was really living.  Thriving.  I did not have regrets.  I was alive and in the moment.

The conflicted part of me feared the thought of knowing that I was going to die almost as much as the thought of dying in something quick…unknown…like a car accident or something.  Although I’ve reasoned with myself that if it was something quick, regardless of what the afterlife holds, I was not likely to really lament the fact that it would happen.   It would be done and over with.  Not too comforting though I suppose, since that thought is also freaky.

As I read On Death & Dying though… I started thinking differently as I read the interviews of people who knew they would be passing away soon.  And I started thinking, in a way it was almost a blessing if we got the chance to to know that the end was coming, so that we could get our affairs in order, so that we could detach from this world.  It may sound creepy but that comforted me in some way, to know that even in something as scary and unknown as death… that it too often times followed a natural order of things… in terms of how the body and mind dealt with the impending loss of one’s earthly existence.

Reading On Death & Dying was not just about comforting myself.  I learned a lot that I wish I had known beforehand.  It was about what the person who was dying needed.  How many of us know what a dying person needs?  How many care to ask?

When H’s mom was in the hospital dying of cancer… I had no idea what to do for someone who was dying.  What to say, or how to act.  It felt strange to treat someone who was obviously in such a terrible state as ‘normal’ but at the same time, I didn’t know if she would feel bad if I treated her differently due to being.  If I would have had the knowledge of this book back then… I might have had a better idea.

But in the end, I guess all the books in the world can’t spell out for us how to deal with all aspects of life.  Especially death.

I do wish though, that those in healthcare dealing with dying patients could all be forced to read this book.  It recounted various stories of how patients who were dying felt extremely put off by the nurses and doctors that were helping them.  I know with H’s mom… there were some nurses who I absolutely wanted to slug when they came in there to check on her.  They were ceasing to treat her like a human being.   To them she seemed to be just a body, waiting to succumb so the room could be vacated for the next cancer patient who likely would not leave that room.

I was glad that there were people there with us when H’s mom was dying, that seemed to know the right thing to do.  H and I certainly did not.  But other people did.  They knew what to tell her when she was hyperventaling.  They knew how to calm her down and help her rest.  They knew to hold her hand.  Stroke her legs.  Massage her feet.  And though I didn’t know then… I learned so much of helping the dying while there that I am no longer afraid of ever having to do it again… I don’t think.

Missy’s death took a tremendous toll on me.  I can only imagine how it effected her children.  I know that it took a terrible toll on H.  And it will for some time.  I used to thank God that Missy was still in her life, because her mom seemed to be her saving light when it came to all the trouble in her life.  She gave her a reason to walk straighter… to be better.  And now with her gone… and H’s dad gone as well (he succumbed to cancer when we were in the 9th grade).. I just don’t know.

I didn’t deal with Missy’s death for a long time after it happened.  I was the supporting friend.  The one who was there, who was supposed to be strong.  It wasn’t supposed to effect me so strongly as well.  But it did.  I had known her for almost 15 years… how could it not.

It wasn’t until I found myself in my counselers chair recounting the events and how I was still having nightmares of being trapped in the hospital…waiting… that I realized I had not dealt with what I had seen.  I think the largest part of me having a problem with dealing with it, is that I was extremely distraught over the fact that after we had sat for 13-14 hours on the day at the hospital on the day that Missy died, she ended up dying alone.

I had often imagined that I should have went back in, even after everybody had left and just sat.  Sat in the lobby even.  Just to have a presence there.  I don’t know why I felt so strongly about this.  But it was a thought that continued to haunt me.

“Do you really believe she was alone when she died”, the counseler asked me.

I knew what she meant.  Angels…God… that kind of stuff.

“No,” I heard myself answer.  And then I recounted the story that when we all said goodbye to her, H had placed a small angel figure by her bed and whispered for her to go with the angels now.  20 minutes later, she did.

Clearly I had also neglected the reality that Missy held on the entire time we were there.  When I had gotten the call at around 8 am, I was told that she would be lucky to make it within the hour.  H didn’t even know if she would get there in time to see her mom one last time before her passing.  But Missy held on till about 10:30 pm that night…roughly 20 minutes or so after everyone left.  The entire day was spent in awe that she was still among us, even the nurses couldn’t explain it, as everything had clearly pointed to the end.

And then I realized, I had to let go of the thought that made me ache, of her dying alone.  She wanted to go alone.  I know this now.  You hear stories of people hanging on until x happens or x visits or whatever.  This was the case with Missy, I am sure of it.  She wanted one last day of with her loved ones, and she did not want them to be there when she left.

The night that she died, as I was laying in my bed I began to doze off.  In a state of half conscious and half sleep, I clearly heard a voice say “thank you”.  I got caught up of the details of her death… and forgot who she was a a person and that now she was in a better place.  I totally believe the “thank you” that I heard was real.  I look to that now, and just feel immense peace about her passing.  To know that she is no longer in pain and can never suffer again.

At first her death made me lose my faith.  We all had prayed so damned hard for her to recover, to get more time.  But it wasn’t answered.  It has the exact opposite effect on me that Baleigh’s death had on me.

When Baleigh was removed from life support and we did actually watch her die right in front of us, I felt so close to God.  Even though my mind could not comprehend it all really happening and I prayed until the very last minute for some total miracle, in the end I was very at peace with what I witness.

But this time, I felt like we had all had somebody spit in our faces.  I don’t know why.  I guess that is what was so unnerving to me for so long.

When an adult dies, it is very different from when a child dies.  There’s a lot more things that get complicated.

I think the hardest part was, Missy knew she was dying and she neglected to share the fact that she knew the end was coming with perhaps the most important person of all… her daughter who cared for her in her final days.  It was later revealed that Missy shared this information with others, but never H.  In her weeks and days, she tried to spare her daughter of the pain of allowing her to know that she had accepted death.

Missy didn’t pass until H had let her know that it was okay for her to go.  She had been waiting on the final approval of her daughter.    Her daughter, whom shielded herself from the truth to try to survive the pain the loss of her mother would cause her.  She had told me, that it wasn’t until the last few days of Missy’s life, that she realized how sick that she was.  Before that, she had not allowed herself to believe it or see it.

It’s strange how our minds can twist events to attempt to shield us from the truth.

I think that Missy had worked out, the stages of her leaving this earth in her mind, but in order to protect her daughter, she shared this information with only a few.  But by not sharing it, with her daughter especially, to an extent the natural process of preparing other’s for one’s demise was interrupted.  Noone had really cared to ask Missy what she needed during that time.  It is often times much to easy to project our own selfish needs upon the sick and dying, when really they need us to listen and understand.

As I come to realize this, I find myself much more at peace with what I witnessed.  I know longer feel that I was subjected to something that was unnatural… something to be feared.  I realize that for the most part… the only thing stopping the whole process from being peaceful was the fact that for the most part, myself and H and some others, didn’t know how to properly communicate within the situation.  And I think that is natural too in this day and age.  We’re in our early to mid 20s.  20 year olds rarely know enough about the natural order of life…  that all things that begin, must come to an end.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Elaine williams
    Dec 18, 2008 @ 15:43:45

    Very insightful, caring post. Death is just a part of life, and many of us don’t know what to do or say to ease the transition. Having said that, however, it’s a part of life that never gets easier as we say goodbye to those we love.


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