I recently had the privilege of attending the passing of a great lady named Rose. She lived for 97 years and was the matriarch of a loving family. She had not been sick; she simply reached the end of her natural lifetime. Here is my account of the last hours of her life.
Rose was ensconced in a large room in a very attentively run nursing home. There were couches and chairs surrounding her bed, a television, and snacks and beverages for visitors. She seemed comfortable, even though she could no longer communicate. Her nurses told us her death was very near.
I was struck by the visceral feeling of love in the room. Children and grandchildren, some who had left jobs in other states to be at her side, reminisced about holidays and birthdays; sharing pictures and videos from days gone by. Someone played Rose's favorite music; others smoothed the hair from her forehead; many told her how much she meant to them. She was literally surrounded by love.
There were tears and sadness, to be sure. It's hard to say goodbye to someone who so profoundly impacted your life and who acted so selflessly. But there was also a sense of completion and celebration of a true woman of valor. The evidence was all around her.
We became aware of the signs of dying: changes in breathing, body temperature, and appearance. We learned to swab her lips when her mouth seemed dry and to read her comfort level hour by hour. We were told what to expect.
It occurred to me that Rose's dying process was like a reverse birth. We all come into the world through labor of some sort. Now Rose seemed to be going through another kind of labor as systems shut down in preparation for non-use. The time of her departure drew close and even though we understood she had to go, no one wanted that moment to come.
We decided to order dinner in rather than go out, as nobody wanted to leave. And then, shortly after the meal was finished and with the arrival after work of her eldest living son, Rose's breathing began to change. As family circled her bed offering tender touches and loving words to ease her journey, Rose took her last breaths and quietly slipped away.
I have never experienced natural death from old age before. I'm familiar with the long suffering of illness and the trauma of accidents. But this was different. Rose was ready to go; she had repeatedly said so. There was no need for crash carts or 911. All is peaceful. All is right. It felt healing to know that despite my previous experiences of loved ones' deaths, it is indeed possible to have a good passing.
And so I offer this celebration of Rose's life and all life. You know, I used to think of death as the opposite of life. Now it seems to me that death is the opposite of birth, and that life encompasses them both.
I wish you all a wonderful 2014; here's to Life!
Essays on Grief Resilience