A baby is born. Everyone is excited, bringing gifts, food, cards, flowers. How wonderful. We expand our heart to include this new, precious soul. The birth of a child is one of the most unifying experiences that we share; a reason to come together, a cause for celebration. We are good at using all of our “community skills” in these moments.
Now turn the page. Change the words and pictures on the drugstore cards. Change the colour of the flowers. Add several years, in most cases, to the family and friends that are coming in and out of the hospital. Again we use our “community skills” when someone who has taken a special place in our lives prepares to take their last breath. Now it is death that unifies us, and, unlike birth, unlike graduation, unlike marriage, unlike retirement or any other celebration – everybody dies.
As an emergency room nurse, I have been present for many deaths. Some have been peaceful, some have not. Some come after an long fought battle with illness. Some deaths occur as a result of tragic accidents. Old people, young people, healthy people, sick people, rich, poor, those accompanied by masses of family, and in some sad instances, lonely people – death has no bias.
And yet, even though we know that we are going to die someday, it is hard to find anyone that is not worried about, if not terrified of, when their last day on earth will be and what will happen to them on that day. Why is this? Why are we so scared to leave our bodies behind? Understandably it is troubling to think of leaving our families and friends behind. Perhaps we’ve worked very hard our whole lives to have a retirement full of enjoying the things we didn’t have time to do when we were younger – and yes, death will take these opportunities from us. There is also a fear of “what is on the other side.” These are all very real and palpable fears and concerns.
May I suggest an alternative to fearing death? Instead of viewing the end of this life as a stoppage in positive experiences or as a break away from our loved ones, why not embrace grief? That’s right. Embrace grieving the loss of the people and things we love. There is a special kind of sadness that can actually be very comforting when we pay homage to how important someone is that they invoke such intense emotion in our hearts. We often mistake the grieving process to be one carried out by those who have lost someone. We forget the fact that those that are dying are also preparing to be without those they love as well.
So how do we remedy this? Well it’s quite obvious. We grieve together. We should talk about what we’re scared of. We should tell each other “I’m so sad that I am not going to be able to hold your hand anymore.” We need to tell the truth about how we feel about dying. We should comfort each other before we leave. These conversations are hard because nobody likes to talk about sad things – but believe me – death makes more sense in our human experience when we talk about it.
My very quiet and conservative father’s bravery in his final days – it lead him down a path of sharing with my mother, sisters and I about how he was truly feeling about his impending death. It was the greatest gift he ever gave me. It allowed me to be honest with him as well. I told him I was scared to lose him. And he hugged me and told me that he was going to be okay and that I would be okay too. We grieved together so that I would have the memory of his comforting words when I could no longer hear his voice. We had extra long hugs and I took time to hold his hands and examine them so that I could remember what they looked like and how they felt wrapped around mine. What a meaningful and long-lasting gift. I am so thankful that my dad was brave enough to grieve with me.
If you or anybody you know is having a hard time getting to this point, finding a way to break the ice on the topic of death, or if you feel like you’re running out of time and you haven’t said all the things you want to say, I can help you organize your thoughts and start the process of grieving together.
With encouragement, and in memory of my dad,