How death can be a beautiful experience

I was honored to be part of a beautiful experience in late January of 2011. It was the death of my mother-in-law at the direction of Trinity Hospice in Aiken, SC. Having never thought I would describe death as beautiful the word choice comes as a surprise even to me, a Sagittarius and straight shooter, and in combination with mother-in-law, I would also guess, very suspect. However, sharing in her passing alongside her loving husband, sons, daughters and grandchildren, I found hospice to be a brilliant choice made by Shirley and all so dear to her.

Having worked in and around healthcare since 1998, I quickly learned that medicine is anything but a perfect science. The first time I walked through an ICU I was taken by the silence and the lack of life in the hushed hallways. Patients were housed in their individual rooms, hooked to ventilators, tubing and softly beeping machines. Not one room had a visitor or loved one sitting nearby on this day. Not one patients’ hand was reassuringly being held extending the one universal source of healing—touch.

A few years later I was in another ICU. I was talking with a nurse who shared with me a study they were working on. Family members do not understand just exactly what “do whatever you can” for their loved one means, she shared. Cracking ribs to resuscitate someone who has days or even weeks to live is useless for many, yet familial guilt or duty or feeling the need to do something, forces healthcare providers to perform actions they know in their heart are so far from the best interest of the patient. This particular study was allowing family members in patient rooms to witness the truth behind “do whatever you can” in hope that painful, costly procedures inflicted upon patients could be avoided.

When hospice came that unseasonably cold January evening in Aiken, a wonderful nurse who was unafraid of truth, or of death, told us all that it wouldn’t be too long before Shirley left us. She had lost the ability to communicate because, as the nurse explained, those who are dying become dehydrated from their inability to take in liquid or food making their vocal cords useless. When the nurse left, we sat vigil waiting for death to come. We Googled “stages of death” to better understand what we and Shirley were facing, and found both relief and comfort online in an outline of the bodies’ universal deterioration. We talked to Shirley, held her hand as she lay in her enclosed backporch, surrounded by windows that gave view to a golf course — the game she loved so very much. Photos of family and familiarity surrounded her until her final breath.

I encouraged my husband, his sister and my father-in-law to continue to talk to her when their own grief, fear and concern left the room silent. I could only put myself in her place and know that I would crave constant touch and a voice nearby saying, “It’s okay,” because dying is indeed just that. Sometimes better than okay, and for a woman who at 83 had battled the cancer that had first attacked her breast, then lungs, then back, then bones, since her 40s in the process of raising four children, a husband, three grandchildren and was loved and admired by many friends—her death was now a blessing. An avid socialite and athlete, all who knew Shirley knew that being confined to a bed for over six months was killing her spirit—a fate much worse than death.

A few hours before her death, my husband recalled to his mother memories of vacations they had taken over the years. Shirley tried to communicate something as he spoke. An unintelligible syllable here—a grumble there. We believe she heard him and was trying to join the conversation. We will never know what she was feeling or trying to say, if anything. But what I do now know is that the best way to die is at home if at all possible, with family around recalling trips to England, a soapbox derby 2nd place finish, or the hope that maybe the daughter she buried from the same cancer fifteen years earlier would be waiting to greet her in heaven. Perception and belief create our reality—I choose this one over the sterile, cold, often intrusive, unnecessary, loss of control that occurs when you surrender the care of your loved one to a healthcare system that tries but often falls short in this life passage.

Watching someone you care about suffer is hard work. Many shy away from it and give this gift to a stranger or healthcare provider. But being present for this transition is a gift—like birth, like graduation, like marriage. Dying is something we all must do and to miss this life passage of those you love most seems like the ultimate instance of not being there when someone most needs you. Shirley had those she loved most at her bedside that early January morning, and even if she couldn’t acknowledge us with intention, I know she felt our presence when it mattered to her most.

Tracy Granzyk is a health care writer and filmmaker.

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  • bojimbo26

    There is nothing to fear from death but the fear itself . Death is being smothered in love , much more than can be known from earthly love . Love is everything .

  • Sophie Zhou

    I think doctors are used to being pushy. It’s in their nature to push themselves and their patients towards regaining health. But there is something to be said for learning when to let palliative care take charge. There is no need for senseless suffering. Death can be a beautiful thing, but only if we let it be. (see Ryan Kennedy’s story – 9 year old from Michigan). 

    - alittlehappi.blogspot.com

  • mlamb02

    I absolutely agree with you. Death is just as important as birth and we should find the strength in ourselves to bear witness to the beautiful event it can be. Allowing it to bring us closer to the dying, our families and our God. 

  • doctorsonpurpose

    Tracy, you are so fortunate to have had, and to be able to appreciate, this experience.  I commend you for sharing it with others and encouraging them to try to give their loved ones and themselves this gift when the opportunity arises.

    No one looks forward to death, however we will all die at some point.  Recognizing this and developing a comfortable relationship with this concept allows us to fully engage in life without the fear of death looming over us, like a veil of darkness blocking out our light.

    I’ve been an emergency physician for over twenty years, and have also provided hospice care on many occasions– both for friends and patients (who quickly become my friends.)  Every time I am in the presence of someone who is dying (or has recently died) I consider it an honor and a privilege, and it allows me to feel a connection with the infinite.  Yes, I may be a bit more spiritually minded about this than the typical ER doc, and because of this I have begun speaking to groups and sharing these concepts from my unique perspective, and I also coach people on finding joy and meaning in life, recognizing that our relationship with death is one of the most important relationships in our life.

    Tracy, I want to invite you (and your readers and fans) to join me and my good friend Kristi Shmyr, as we begin a series of teleclasses we’re calling “A Life and Death Conversation.”  We will discuss some of the healthier beliefs and philosophies about death, share stories about how being touched by death gave people more life (your story is very moving),  and help people heal and engage in life more fully.  We will open up the space for these conversations to begin and continue.

    I’d love to share more if you’re interested in participating on some level.

    With gratitude for your sharing,
    Dr. Bob Uslander
    http://www.DoctorsOnPurpose.com

  • JacobinTexas

    Jacob
     Well written account of what happens.  I has been one year and two weeks since my soul mate walked that valley at home in the presence of family and friends.  The children had some challenges with seeing mother in what appeared to be distress.  So long as we were there holding her hands and talking with her she was comfortable.  It was less than a week later one daughter witnessed what mother would have experienced if we had put her in the hospital.  That daughter was very grateful for having had the experience at home in spite of the loss of her mother.  As a nurse I am well acquainted with the travesty we call “doing everything we can” for grandpa.  I personally believe it to be inhumane.

  • http://twitter.com/tgranz Tracy Granzyk Wetzel

     Bob,

    Thanks so much for your kind comments. I would enjoy hearing more about about your work. Please feel free to contact me through Twitter @tgranz:twitter Kind regards, Tracy

  • Marcus Fidel

    Hospice care is good care…My Father in law died a good death with hospice…I have worked very hard to attend to the patient and to the family at end of life. Death is beautiful, if its managed with care.