When dying is not easy…
By Terre Mirsch
Sometimes it is just not easy. In fact, dying can be incredibly hard–and for some the road is harder than others.
Sometimes, one may be emotionally and spiritually ready to die, but the body is not—and the process of shutting down lingers in a way that is incomprehensible to those who watch and wait. Such was the case for my father, and for many that I have cared for. Occasionally, the journey is hard because illness creates devastating symptoms and complications that cannot be prevented despite the best medical or hospice care. Thankfully, this is rare and most of the time hospice and palliative care professionals are able to quickly bring these symptoms under control.
Sometimes, the journey is hard because it is just not easy for one to let go: to leave those that are important to them; to accept that they will no longer participate—at least physically—in the joys and in the hardships of loved ones; to leave the known and enter the unknown; or to surrender to the transcendent. Our goodbyes, our reassurances, and even one’s strong belief in a higher power and afterlife may help. But perhaps, for some, the feeling of life completion necessary for letting go is just not possible- because, indeed, life isn’t complete and it is not in our human control to make it so.
We all have in our minds’ eye an image—that ‘picture perfect death’—where our loved one slips quietly into the night, without pain, suffering, or distress; the last breath is quiet and barely noticeable, the face is relaxed, and perhaps we even envision a slight smile. We hope and often we pray for this peace and comfort for those that we love and for ourselves. Most of the time, this process—what we refer to as the dying process—will be fairly predictable and will occur in just this way.
But when this is not our reality, we struggle to make sense of it all. We ask ourselves why? Why my loved one or my friend? And much of the time, this will remain one of many unanswered questions about the mystery of life and of death. It’s not fair that some die young while others live long and healthy lives. It’s not fair that some die so peacefully and others have a harder road. We can’t always explain why, it just is.
My hope is that each of us, as devoted caregivers, family, and friends, can take comfort in knowing that we did the best we could as we cared for those that we love. And that the best we could was, indeed, good enough. In fact, it was great. Because in the end all that was needed was our love, our care, our compassion, and our presence, whether that be physical, emotional, or spiritual.
I am reminded of a quote that I keep at my desk as a daily reminder of the role of powerlessness and the importance of presence. I hope that it will bring you the peace and comfort that it brings to me.
“Slowly I learn the importance of powerlessness. I experience it in my own life and I live with it in my work. The secret is not to be afraid of it—not to run away. The dying know that we are not God… All they ask is that we do not desert them.”- Sheila Cassidy, in Sharing the Darkness: The Spirituality of Caring (Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1988)