Friday, October 08, 2004

Making Peace with Death

How does one make peace with death - with their own mortality or the loss of a loved one? That is such an individual question. I was so honored when in a recent comment, a reader told me that reading my blog "has given [her] a sense of peace about [her] mother's death." That is all I want to do for anyone, honestly.

I have watched my father struggle with his mortality. He has had a hard time with aging. It seems to depress him to be getting older. I wish I could bring him peace and happiness. It's so important to focus on enjoying each moment that we have rather than fearing the inevitable. But we all do it.

My partner tries to counter-balance my own issues with getting my first wrinkles by telling me that aging is beautiful and time only makes us wiser.

But how is it that I am able to feel enough of a sense of peace with death to be able to coach people and their families through this process? (Not that I'm exceptionally good at it yet, but I am trying - which is more than many do, I suppose).

Two events happened that served as catalysts in heading me towards peace with death and helped me to reach a degree of acceptance of my own mortality. To mention them both in the same sentence seems sacrilege, but it sincerely was the two together that helped me find this peace. First, Buffy (yes, the vampire slayer) died and was distraught when she was brought back to life. And then my cousin Marie was diagnosed with cancer.

Now, I know I sound like some kind of quack to give credit to a television character for such a major transformation in my life. But if you’ve ever gotten sucked intensely into a comic or a television program, you’ll understand. Buffy was my friend. My partner and I had watched nearly every episode for years. And when Buffy died in a season finale, both of us cried audibly. So when she came back to life and was unhappy to have been brought back and processed through that experience, she gave me a sense of hope. She vaguely talked about finding peace and serenity after death. This news, although from a rationally unreliable source, was somehow reassuring. (I have since heard similar stories from people who have been through NDE - Near Death Experiences - in real life which are equally reasuring).

Then when my cousin Marie was diagnosed with cancer, I was incredibly upset. The news was shocking, despite the fact that I knew her specific type of cancer had an excellent prognosis. To alleviate any concerns you may have, before I proceed I will mention that she is now very well. She finished chemo and has been “cancer free” for over a year. But before she had finished chemo, I had had a dream that would again change my feelings about death forever. In the dream, I saw Marie lying on the floor in the middle of a very dark room. There was a stage light shining over her. I walked toward her and knelt down beside her. Suddenly, I realized that she was dying and this realization threw me into a panic. But looking at Marie in this dream, she looked the most beautiful I’d ever seen her. She was glowing and looked so peaceful. She looked over at me and then calmly said, “It’s okay.” And I understood. It was okay. I woke up to the realization that death is a beautiful thing – like birth, beautiful and moving in its power.

Now although both of these events served as markers of transformation for me, I cannot give these occurrences all of the credit. These events were mere starting points off which I leapt less fearfully into exploring the process of death.
Since then, I have read books: “On Death and Dying” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, “Final Gifts” by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley; “Dying Well” by Dr. Ira Byock; listenned to lectures on tape by Christine Longaker; among numerous other sources of information. I have begun studying Tibetan Buddhism. According to Tibetan Buddhism, we should all live with a constant awareness of death. This awareness helps us to see every moment as precious, and reminds us to use our time wisely and conscientiously.

In addition, I have had the support of numerous people who have served as mentors for me in my quest for understanding death and dying: BS, who has laid in bed with her patients to comfort them as they’ve approached death; my clinical preceptor JA who has been working as a Home Hospice nurse for years; my communications instructor in nursing school; RK, a massage therapist who provides free bodywork to people who are dying in the hospital; and friends and family (particularly my partner) who have listened to me as I processed through the grief and growing pains of learning how to help families facing death and coping with loss. And, of course, I have learned so much from my patients themselves as well as from their families. I have not journeyed this road alone by any means.

Okay, But Why Work with People who are Dying?

Well, then my cousin Reba got cancer. During a visit with her at the hospital, she looked intensely into my eyes and said, “I don’t want to die.” Reba's cancer didn’t have the great prognosis that Marie's had had. And Reba was clearly struggling to stay alive. I felt powerless and didn’t know how to help. Months later, Reba died, in lots of pain and still desperately trying to cling to life. I want to prevent as many people as I can from having such a tragic end to their life.

So now, the best I hope for in the work that I do – is to help patients make peace with their lives so that they are able to let go of this life and to help families and patients make peace in their relationships. And in order to achieve these goals, my job is also to make sure the dying individual is physically comfortable so that they can focus on the mental and spiritual aspects of this process.

I am still learning and have a long way to go, but I'd like to think that I've at least contributed to making a few people's deaths a little less painful. I'm certain that I've helped them to be free of physical pain, but I hope that I've also made the experience less painful emotionally as well. Not only less painful, but perhaps even meaningful in a positive way - for the survivors, I hope I've helped to create a goodbye that has been more of a sweet sorrow and less of a bitter sadness filled with regrets.

But now, that is all of our jobs as well. Live a life so that at our own ends, we will be able to say, "Non, je ne regrette rien."

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