She died as she had lived, courageously, deliberately, with as much dignity as a woman could. As much as I have my regrets for how the last hours went, as much as I fight against the bitter memories of watching her suffer, her suffering was brief compared to the prolonged agony of her perceived loss of function and dignity that would have otherwise been her fate.
She was proud, too proud to be a woman in a wheelchair, though the idea of that never could have diminished her in my mind. It was the penultimate loss for her, beyond the place where she could reconcile her desire for and perception of quality versus quantity. She had lived an amazing life. She had a career, she had raised a family, she had held her grandchildren, she had created legacies in the work she had done; she had loved and lived well.
We sat at her beside and despite the warning looks of nurses, we wet her parched lips with the coffee milk she had always loved. We held her hand as she reached her other one to join her husband in heaven.
It was a matter of days, a short death by all accounts in this age, completed mostly on her terms, right down to her body being donated to science. She was a woman before her time, for 80 plus years and to her dying breath.
Many stories of the journey to death are not the same however, and even hers included unnecessary suffering in the final hours. I often wonder, had I known then, what I know now, how much gentler and loving I could have made the process for her, how much more time, alive and happy, we might have been able to give her.
Those questions are in part the catalyst for where my life now goes, combined with years of watching patients suffer in psychological and physical agony through terminal diagnoses, chronic illness and the dying process. I have watched it too many times, held too many suffering hands, witnessed the agonized grimaces on too many beautiful faces to sit any longer and not take action to improve the way we approach palliative and end of life care.
I am on a journey now, to find the right manner in which to make this my work. It seems as of late the universe has conspired to push me in that direction and I feel called to do this, to assist in the growing movement to improve palliative and hospice care, to give dignity and rights back to the dying and make death a less horrific reality. Life is unfortunately 100% terminal. I find it agonizing to think that our society as a whole isn’t moving as quickly as it should towards making it far more compassionate, comfortable and dignified.
I am at the early stages of formulating a bigger plan. Through this time, as I always have been, I am here to assist anyone that might be working through these issues. If you’re reading this and I can assist you or your family in any way, please feel free to contact me. I expect in the coming months there will be far more education and preparation I will embark on. I also expect that there will be many who do not understand how I can do this work or why I should desire with all my heart to do it. I have always believed that nursing was a calling, it is a work that most could never fathom or desire to do, but it is something so vital and necessary that those who find it to be their passion are indeed very special. This is the next likely step for me, a progression in my career and my pursuit of following my passion and calling to leave a positive mark upon the world.
Many of my friends know that I am also an avid writer. I believe I have a beautiful gift in the written word and I would like, in time, to make this part of what I do as well. I am extremely interested in talking to people about their experiences along these lines, first to learn and grow as I develop my practice and with a secondary intent that at some point I will write in a more formal manner to share some of these stories and change the face of dying in our society from something horrific into something peaceful and beautiful.
I am excited and terrified at this juncture, but dreams are never achieved without courage to overcome the obstacles and the fear that paralyze us to inaction. So here I go. If you’re interested in following the journey or finding out more about end of life doulas, palliative care or hospice, please, be in touch.