We, the living (which we all are until we take our last breath), owe it to ourselves, our loved ones, and our society to learn about the process of dying. We need to understand that death is a natural part of life. In fact, we need to become as familiar with dying, as we are with pregnancy, labor, and birth.
There was a time when pregnancy and birth was not openly discussed, and certainly nursing mothers were seldom seen in public. We did not see pregnant women portrayed on television until ‘I Love Lucy’. It was all a mystery kept behind closed doors. Now, pregnant women are often viewed on television, and actresses are seen fully pregnant in skintight, revealing dresses. In sitcoms, we have seen a woman’s water breaking and even witnessed certain aspects of labor and birth. Mothers now nurse their children in public. It has become a normal part of our culture. It is out of the closet.
Now death must come out of the closet. As a society, is it now time for us to stop pretending it does not exist for us? Death is not a failure, and we are all going to do it. We are part of nature’s cycle, just as is every living organism on earth. We are born, we live, and we die. Ideally, we will become as familiar with the stages of dying as we are with those of pregnancy and birthing. Then, when we are faced with death in our personal lives, we will read about and learn the finer details of the process. We will gather support around ourselves just as we do when pregnancy becomes a personal reality. In this way, shame, fear, and uncertainty are less likely to arise.
As we learn to accept dying as a normal, expected part of life, we demystify it and understand the hard work it is, as well as embrace the gifts that accompany it. When we learn how to best be with each other during this most poignant of times, to offer true peace and comfort, we will have changed ourselves as individuals and as a society.
As a registered nurse since the mid-sixties and a hospice nurse for more than half of that time, I have learned that one of the most important parts of hospice care is teaching family and friends about the dying process, to allow them to become comfortable being with and caring for their loved ones.
With education and support, especially from hospice, a peaceful death at home or in an inpatient hospice facility can be facilitated. And when a person does die in a hospital or nursing home, with awareness, that death can also happen in as peaceful and supportive an environment as possible.
What helps is to become familiar with the actual dying process, the physiology of it, and the spiritual aspects that emerge, to know what is really going on.
Taking care of a loved one who is dying presents some of the most difficult, demanding, and rewarding work we will ever do. Always the challenges are unique—to the course of the disease, our loved one’s relationship to their own death, and our connection with them. Understanding how to be with a loved one in their last days is one of the most life-affirming—and life and death-altering gifts we can give them and ourselves.