Dying isn\'t easy

They lie to you in movies and on television about what it is like to sit by the deathbed of a loved one. Movies are too short to capture the mixture of exhaustion, boredom, panic, worry and grief that closes in around the people at the bedside.  Television is too episodic to capture the grinding constancy of routinized sorrow. 

A year ago I thought I understood just how wrong are the images of dying we learn in popular culture. I was wrong.

The day after I learned my mother was dying I woke up early. The last I had seen of my mother the night before she had fallen into an fitful uneasy sleep. Since I knew the time of the nursing shift change I wanted to talk to my mother\’s nurse before she went off duty. A pattern had already been established. I introduced myself to the nurses as they came on shift and if I was not there when they went off shift I called them. 

The speed with which the patterns of hospital time became the patterns of my time was something I had not expected. By the end of the first few days I knew when they gave medications and when they changed the sheets. I knew when they took each patient\’s temperature and blood pressure and I knew when they gave my mother a bed bath and shampooed her hair. But I didn\’t know when they fed their patients because my mother would never eat again. 

We don\’t know exactly how long my mother had been suffering from severe pain after attempting to eat. It wasn\’t until the night my father found her vomiting blood that he realized how she was ill and insisted that she let him take her to the hospital. Although on the day of her \”death sentence\” she had been in great pain she was still able to think clearly and discuss her medical situation with her surgeon. Soon the mixture of pain killers and pain left her unable to remember exactly why she was so terribly hungry. 

I quickly learned that tending to a dying person means having to take great care lest you accidentally rip their skin. I learned that tending a dying person means holding their head as they gasp and cough and fight to breathe because they have have accidentally obstructed the ng suction tube. I learned that sitting at the bedside of a dying person meant monitoring their urine bag and their ng collector bag and always knowing the location of every nurse on the floor. I quickly learned that giving comfort and preventing pain was all I could do. 

By the end of the second day of my season of sadness I felt that I had learned much. By the end of that second day I thought I knew exactly how wrong the movies and television were about death bed vigils. I was wrong. There was much more I had yet to learn about exhaustion, worry, pain and grief.


5 thoughts on “Dying isn\'t easy

  1. In case you missed it at the \”We Are Still Open …\” thread,{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{Mmy}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}From what you have said about her before, I know she was a remarkable person. I wish I knew the right thing to say. I want to say that I'm very sorry, but I don't know whether that helps. FWIW, I will be keeping you in my thoughts – and prayers if that's OK with you.Rajrajtrekker@gmail.com

  2. About 15 yrs ago, my grandmother had a series of small strokes. Then she was diagnosed w endometrial cancer. She was then over 80, and had had (she said) a long full life, so she declined cancer treatment. She developed dementia, which meant she could no longer live alone; my parents took her in, and did hospice as she died over a period of maybe 6 months.I lived 200 miles away and had a full-time job, so my visits home were not as frequent as I would have preferred. But the process was utterly heartbreaking for me, and I imagine it was a good deal more emotionally taxing on my parents and my sister who lived nearby.I expect your posts on this difficult topic will give me a better idea of what I missed out on during that time period. Thank you for sharing with us. Hugs if you want them.~Laima

  3. I find it very comforting to write about my mother and read the responses. I am sometime afraid I may be triggering grief in others but I have as suspicion that many in North American culture have been denied the right to truly feel their grief.In the 'old days' people died at home with their families and most people had actually experienced the death of others before they faced their own — now they have little to prepare them.

  4. My own experience with my mother's illness and death was longer…. I didn't have the actual bedside deathwatch; my brother had that. I had the year or two beforehand as she fought her illness, hoping for the miracle remission, riding all the rollercoasster ups-n-downs of it with her. What you said is so true — the \”mixture of exhaustion, boredom, panic, worry and grief that closes in\” is no easier to bear even in the extended version.In her final few days, in Hospice care, the actual \”end\” snuck up on me. From the last update I'd had from my brother and the Hospice liaison, I'd thought she had at least a couple more days. I'd already taken the next day off from work so I could be there, even though by that point she was so drugged on the morphine that she wasn't even awake most of the time. I spoke with my brother on the phone, went to the grocery store to pick up a few things, and when I got back just 30 minutes later he called me to tell me she'd died.So the month of March is also my Season of Sadness, with April 5th being the anniversary of her death. Blogging about it as it happened did help… sometimes I even go back and read over those entries. But during this particular month I usually avoid them.

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