A little while ago, a woman who deeply influenced me and whom I respected greatly died. She was 89 years old. Her death was hardly unexpected: she had been in fragile health for the past couple of years, burdened principally by a failing heart. About a year ago, in a matter-of-fact way, she told me she was “ready to go home.” She missed her husband, she said, and she thought she’d had quite enough of this life.
When she did go, her death saddened me but I wasn’t distraught or overwhelmed with grief. I didn’t cry at her funeral, but smiled instead of the memories of her. She’d had a very long and full life; she had a large and (as far as families go) loving family, she was a prominent member of the little community in which she lived; she had done many good things; she bore the discomforts of her last years with grace and good cheer. What more could you want?
I used to believe if death desensitized me, I would quit nursing and — I don’t know, become a Gurkha and guide people up Everest. Now I think I’m just more phlegmatic about dying and death than I was as a young nurse. Perhaps I’m hardened a bit. I have seen a lot of people die, after all, and the Great Mystery is maybe not so mysterious. Most people go very gently. Deathbed drama, at least among they dying, is vanishingly rare. If there is one gift (among many) we can receive from our patients, it’s learning how to face our own mortality — and learning how to die.
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If you’re here for the first time via Change of Shift (or have just sailed in), welcome, and feel free to put up your feet on the furniture, and look around.