I wrote my undergraduate thesis on death and dying. I read journal articles trying to understand what death meant and how it affected people. I spent hours reading books, both fiction and nonfiction, trying to understand if you can ever die a good death. I engaged in meaningful conversations with compassionate and astute physicians, nurses, and professors who experienced the death of their patients, both adults and children, time and time again. I wrote tirelessly, page after page, trying to make sense of the factors it takes to die a good death. I did everything I could to mentally prepare myself for experiencing death in the hospital. I did everything to try to cushion the fall. But nothing could prepare me for this. No words, no books, no conversations—nothing.
The death of someone who was alive yesterday.
The passing of someone who was fine. Of course, they were not fine. They were in the hospital. But they were fine. Fine to you or me. A passerby on the street would not even guess something was wrong. They came in for what they thought was an acute stroke, and they left with …
A brain tumor. A post-op complication. A shortened life.
Less time with their partner and more things they could have experienced.
If they did not physically leave, did they really leave? I spiral.
I am stunned at the possibilities. What would have happened if they did not come to the hospital? Maybe they would have been fine. Maybe their neurologic deficits would have gotten worse, but that still meant they were alive. Maybe they would have had more time with their partner. Maybe they would have had another slice of pizza from their favorite local restaurant. Maybe they would have been able to finish Schitt’s Creek. You know, we talked about the show two days before they died?
Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve. What if they just let whatever they found stay in their brain. Let life run its course. But man wants answers. After all, we have worked hard to find them. These alternative possibilities leave me shaken. They make me wonder: Is living in the unknown better than not living at all? And being gone so soon? When you least expected it?
I do not think I will ever have an answer to that. I do not think I want to find one.
All I know is that you can think that you are prepared to face death, but it is not that easy. You are not just facing death. You are facing life. You are facing a lifetime of memories, emotions, secrets, stories, connections, and experiences. You can tell yourself that you are doing your best to cope with the fact that someone you have spent time with, whether it was for one hour or one lifetime, may not be there the next time you think of them. And that is your right. We can do our best to cope with difficult things. Abstract things. Upsetting things. But in the end, nothing can prepare you for the raw emotion you feel when you experience an unexpected loss of someone whose smile you remember as clear as day—and whose tears you can still feel on your hand when you last handed them a tissue.
Simran Kripalani is a medical student.
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