I spend time with people who are dying, actively dying, and I spend time with the people who love them. It does and doesn’t get easier to listen to the rises of hope and the slips into sadness as some son imagines the soon-coming death of his mother or to the patient who looks ahead and thinks about not existing anymore.
I know how to stand and sit with a nurse whose patient just died or expired or passed away. I know how to acknowledge the connection between myself and a doctor I met only around the grim and delightful experience of a patient who died late that night a few months back, the recognition between us like a secret we keep to ourselves.
The medical intensive care unit, the on-call experience, the jacket that identifies me in the hospital all lend themselves to wearing the experience of somebody’s grief. Of course, I have my own because I learn something of these good people, I am known in little bits, and I know them in little bits. And then, I carry and hold the grief of others. And it does and doesn’t get easier.
This post isn’t about the skills necessary to carry the grief of others, and it’s not about the ways in which I support people up to the edge and just before the dark unknown that is death. Of course, for the Christian, the reality is that death is a step or slip or movement. Like the shift of one’s body in a gracious dance, death is supposed to be a movement into another life, another part of life. In the words of a young woman who said something I’ll never forget: Whether we live or die, we win. That is a Christian view of death.
The lived experience is murkier. Living with the stories and words and prayers of another as she approaches that existential doorstep into eternity is grounding.
When I woke up this morning, I heard myself say of one of my patients, “He’s not going to die over the weekend” and, shaking my head at the unbidden thought, “He’s not dying today”. Of course, when I arrived for our morning report where we discuss the issues of the previous day, where we talk about who needs to be followed or continually given care, that patient was on the lips of my colleague. She dropped her head and her tone and said she had sad news. It was brutal for that to be saved until the last relay.
I had been right up until that moment. He had not died. In my mind, he was still with us. In truth, his spirit or his intention was waiting on the perimeter of my unconscious, even before I woke, telling me in his own way–or in God’s own way–that he was, in fact, gone.
I was glad, made glad really, that my chaplain colleague was with him when he died. Knowing of his faith and seeing the notes that had been charted, she sat with him and played gospel music for him. She sang to him, held his hand. She was there when he breathed his last breath.
This morning became for me another moment to grieve, another patient I had cared for, another person I had gotten to know. He was another person whose story, in such a compressed time, I learned to appreciate.
I spent the day doing the same things I always do in the hospital. And if you weren’t a colleague of mine or a nurse from my unit, you wouldn’t know that this gentleman was now added to my mental picture of deceased patients. I would remember that he had been in that room. I would associate the number with the first meeting and then the second until I captured what my last prayers for him had been. Had I prayed a prayer of benediction? I generally tried to.
He joined a different cloud of witnesses and not just the one the scriptures speak of. His face became associated with his room so that when I walked by, I said another goodbye, and it was like that on the unit. He was still a teacher to me, a teacher in how to acknowledge what was happening in me, a teacher of remarking on a man’s grace-filled transformation, and how to continually respect the boundary that we give all that we have when we’re there and that when we’re not there, somebody else is.
He became an occasion for me to remember the other patients who I thought of in similar ways, even if there was one or two profound ways that distinguished him forever in my memory. He will be one of the people I look for when I slip through the split in the veil myself one day. I will anticipate him as a host quite like he was when he welcomed me at the hospital, and I believe he’ll be smiling widely and probably calling me by a title and a last name.