Bearing witness to death is bearing witness to life

The last two weeks have passed in a blur; acceptance into university, preparations for Master J as he enters his last ever year of high school and assisting my mother and father-in-law as they prepare for the end of her life.

She isn’t dead.  And it is likely that she will live a number of years yet.  But the person she was, the beautiful kind gentle person full of laughter and merriment, has long since gone.

Watching the family as they grapple with the inevitability of what must come has been heart wrenching.

Throughout my life I have been most comfortable with those who are that phase of life that exists just before the life force drains out of them.  I believe that no-one should pass from this life alone and as such I have an ease when it comes to death.  I am okay sitting with them, holding their hands, comforting them in their last days.  I am very open about death, talking about it, preparing for it.  We all must die and surely it is better to have prepared for it than to come to the final day and still be hoping for more time, wishing you had resolved those issues that tug you most.

Death, other people’s death at this point, does not scare me.  I would be lying if my own death doesn’t scare me, but then I am only in my midlife, so much more life to live.

The first death I ever witnessed was when I was a student nurse.  Mr McDonald was blind and he needed someone to run him a bath, walk him to the bath and help him wash.  I duly ran it, walked him over to it and placed him gently in it.  We chatted, although I did most of the talking.  His grey hair fanned out from his head as he relaxed his body into the water.  I could sense, even then, that he was nearing his time, and I looked at him as he relaxed completely into the water. I asked him if he was comfortable and he smiled gently and nodded his head.  I just have to get your wash cloth, I had said, and I will be back in two ticks.  I arrived with a cheery breeze, babbling away about the weather and all the other things that needed doing on the ward.  He didn’t speak, but his eyes were open.  I noticed that he passed urine into the bath and I gently chastised him, “Oh Mr McDonald,” I said, “Don’t wee in the bath, I can pop you on the loo, it really is no trouble.”  He didn’t respond.  He had, I believe, in that moment, passed away but it took a while for me to register that he had been unresponsive for a little while longer.  Instead, I carefully washed his body, talking as I did.  After a few minutes, of course, I shook him slightly.  “Mr McDonald?”  I shook him again.  He seemed normal, serene even, as his hair wafted softly in the water.  My heart rate quickened.  I felt a slight panic rise up in me.  I pressed the red button for another nurse.  I didn’t want to leave him.

Another nurse came in and immediately confirmed that he indeed was dead.  She muttered something about how the hell we were going to get a dead weight out of the bath and rushed off.  We did get him out of the bath, and onto a trolley and into his room.  Something compelled me to ask if I could prepare him for his family, the senior nurse said yes.

I dressed him in his pyjamas, I brushed his hair, running my fingers through it.  He looked like he was sleeping. I made sure that all his things were neatly arranged on his bedside table.  I was pretty spiritual at that point and believed that the soul lingers for a bit after it initially passes from this earthly realm and so I spoke to him, telling him that he was loved, that his family will miss him, that he had lived a good, long, happy life and that his body chose just the right moment, when he was his most relaxed, to stop working.  I thanked him for letting me bath him and letting me witness his passing, my first.

The door to his room opened.  It was his daughter.  She normally came to visit in the afternoon, but she had a feeling she should visit him this morning.  The senior nurse rushed in and took her aside explaining that he had died painlessly and peacefully.  She didn’t mention it was in the bath, though I do not know why.  “Was he alone?” the daughter asked.  No, Nurse Doxey was with him the entire time.  As I was standing next to Mr McDonald, I had my hand rested on his chest near his heart.  The daughter placed her hand on mine, looked me in the eyes and simply said “Thank you.”

I will never forget Mr McDonald, or that moment.  Perhaps, like your first experience of sex, you never do forget your first death.

After that, I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame.  For the remainder of my short nursing years, I was always the one chosen to sit with the patient as they moved from this realm to the next.  Sometimes we were so busy that we were told to leave them, that there was nothing anyone could do for them, that there was too much to do.  I always ignored this.  No-one, no matter how awful they have been as people, or how far gone they may be, should die alone.

I’ve once heard it said that we come into this life alone and leave it alone.  I don’t believe that.  We enter this life with a sea of delighted faces looking upon us – our first experience of true love – and it is our duty to have our family members who leave this life surrounded by that same love.  But this isn’t always possible and so I try, when I can, to be that person.

When my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer, I knew from the very first day that there was no hope of survival.  As my family scrambled to find treatments that would save her, all I could think of was that I needed to prepare her for her death.  I organised a palliative nurse to walk her through what the final stages would look like, I spoke at length about what she wanted at her funeral, how she wanted to be remembered, how she wanted to live the remaining days of her life.  My family rallied against this talk, which is normal, saying it was removing hope, that hope is a strong and powerful force, that it can, along with prayer, conquer death.  And in some instances, perhaps it can.  But not in the end.  Not ultimately.  And so I continued with my quest.

I don’t know if it worked.  My mom did not want to die.  There was so much I think she wanted to do.  She was afraid of death.  But she was not alone.  She was surrounded by love.  The same kind of love that greeted her when she was born and greeted me, and her other children, when we were born

There is no dignity in dying and in death.  Our bodies shut down, preparing us to lose its life force.  It’s a messy affair.  At a time we need our families most, it is often a time when we are at our most lonely.  Watching someone die forces us to face our own mortality.  It also forces us to confront that part of ourselves that doesn’t want the other person to die either.  We will it to be otherwise.

I have no idea why I have been gifted with the ability to face death head on.  I just know I do.  If anyone was to ask me what I believe in, rather than saying living a good life, I think I would say having a good death and not dying alone.  I think it must be awful to die, looking into the void, with no-one to bear witness to your last moments, to bear witness to a life lived.

And so it is, I continue to help my family come to terms with yet another end of life, although this one is going to take time.  Alzheimers is a disease that creates a slow march to the setting of the sun, and it brings with it such pain that to navigate through it is a quagmire.  But navigate it we must.  And so, we keep calm and carry on.

Until next time,

SHW Signature AmyG Font



10 thoughts on “Bearing witness to death is bearing witness to life

  1. I used to be afraid of death (and, like you, still fear my own), then I had the privilege (and I’ve come to see it as that) of being there when my father, mother and mother-in-law died. It’s gut-wrenching, profound and life-affirming, all at once. Thank you for this moving essay, and for all you do so that people don’t die alone.


    1. You are right Roxanne, it is gut wrenching and life affirming at the same time. It is a privilege to witness people as they pass because in doing so, I believe, we are honouring them as people and the life they have led. xx


  2. I’ve never witnessed a person’s passing though I have assisted in caregiving for both of my grandmothers. Both of them passed soon after I left to go take a rest. I do believe what you have is a special gift to be there for people in those last, and what must be terrifying, moments of their lives. I wish your family strength as you cope with your mother-in-law’s illness.


    1. Thank you Corinne. It is a difficult time, but one we all must go through at some point in our lives – in different guises perhaps but still a journey we all must take.


  3. I think it is a special gift to be comfortable with death and dying. We need more people like you, as the ability to talk about makes it less frightening. My mother’s death brought my own mortality into sharp focus and I believe considering death – our own and others makes for a better and fuller life. Understanding that life really is short (and it’s not just a cliche) has helped me live more honestly. This was lovely to read. xx


    1. Thank you very much Collette. I agree, facing our mortality does bring living into sharp focus and helps us understand that indeed life is short. Thank you for your comment. xx


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