We come into this world as a bolt of lightning.
Screaming and red-faced as we announce we’ve arrived. The elation of that hospital room, bedroom, or bathroom is at a peak—something not often re-experienced as we move through our lives.
We grow until we start shrinking. We build memories until we start forgetting. We raise children until they move out of the house and their bedrooms are overtaken with scrapbooks and toys getting dusty in between visits from grandchildren. We build 401ks and IRAs until we need to withdraw from them. We trade in our four bedroom colonials for townhouses in a 55+ community where we do aerobics with the gals or play shuffleboard with the gents. We walk until we need a wheelchair. We cook until we rely on Meals on Wheels or a visiting angel. We get up to use the bathroom several times a night until we finally surrender to a bedpan or catheter.
Our hearts beat until one day, they stop.
If we are lucky, we will live a grand life and succumb to the “great beyond” at an old age. If a different path is chosen for us, we may not reach our time of gray hair or ear hair.
Oftentimes, not much thought or conversation occurs as the years pass by. We should really start building a plan for how we want to be cared for when the time comes that we can no longer manage ourselves.
Caring for the young is tiring, but babies are cute and need us to survive. Our feelings about being caretakers change when the ones we’re responsible for are our parents, grandparents, elderly neighbors, or friends. Something about the obligation of wiping the chin of a 90-year-old slurping soup just doesn’t feel the same as a toothy nine-month-old needing the same assistance.
In the former scenario, we may think of our own schedules and demands; how we have other things to do and people to take care of. These circumstances can lead to decisions where instead of allowing the ones who gave us life to end theirs peacefully, in the comfort of their homes, we hire others to take care of them, simply because there is not enough time or hands to do so without outside help.
I have seen the last moments before death—they are haunting, but beautiful.
There is a sense of serenity and peace that is void from so much of our busy lives. Passing over comes with a certain aura around the person, almost like they are bathed in their own departure. Depending on their clarity and means, those preparing to die may want us to just talk, sit, and laugh with them.
I laughed with my dying friend, 43 years old and leaving behind a beautiful wife and toddler, as my own baby sat on his bed in a bright green onesie and stole fruit from his bowl. I laughed hearing stories about my 91-year-old grandfather who saw visions of long-passed pets and relatives. He told my family to take care of my grandmother because she was “trouble.”
It was difficult to muster a laugh when I saw that same man 24 hours before he left the Earth. Once strong and capable, he was shrunken into a shell of himself, laying incoherently in a portable hospital bed. I could smile because my grandmother, parents, and siblings gave him the chance to end his life at home on his own terms.
Their efforts opened my mind to seeing the process of death in a much different way. They made me realize that honoring those who paved our way to die with dignity and comfort means so much more than personal agendas or inconveniences.
I know it isn’t always possible. I know that family circumstances sometimes don’t allow this to happen for many understandable reasons. But I hope when it’s my own parents—and honestly, when it’s me—that the chance is given. If I live out as many years as I hope to, when the moment comes, I hope it’s in a familiar place with people who mean the world to me. I hope my son can tell his children the story of my death because he was there, not because someone from the nursing home called to tell him I have passed.
Regardless of whether or not you’re contemplating the best source of care for yourself or a member of your family, I encourage you to spend time with the dying.
Sit with them and listen to their stories, their lessons, and their regrets. Watch their faces light up as they recall the moments they met the loves of their lives, or the births of their first children. Listen to their advice about pyramid schemes, whether or not you really need that fancy car to be happy, or the best place they’ve ever watched a sunset. Ask them what they would do differently and what they wouldn’t change.
At all points in our lives, we’re seeking relevancy. We want to matter and we want to touch others, even in moments when we may believe we have little to actually offer.
Giving someone who is about to leave the physical world an opportunity to matter will stay with you long after they are gone.
To be in the company of a child entering the world is breathtaking; to be in the company of someone about to leave it is humbling.
To experience both is to be blessed.
Author: Jenny Roman
Image: Ondrej Salek/Flickr
Editor: Danielle Beutell