So as I sat with my patients today, one thought played over and over in my mind: Why can’t we all have the fairy tale ending to life? I mean, really, who wouldn’t want to be completely cognizant of self and loved ones one minute, then fall asleep and “wake up” in heaven the next? Isn’t that the way it happens in the movies? Like in Titanic, when the adult Rose drifts blissfully into sleep and dies after throwing the necklace overboard. Or when Forrest Gump’s mama dies shortly after having a conversation where she encourages him and tells him all will be fine. Tragic death scenes not withstanding (the ones where someone is shot, hurt, blown up or otherwise killed), Hollywood and television portray death as this peaceful and gentle thing. Well, sometimes it’s not.
Each of the patients I saw today were in very different points of decline. One patient was not responsive at all, meaning no longer able to wake up, eat or drink, move her limbs or even open her eyes. I sat with her, playing peaceful music and praying. I was reflecting on how peaceful she seemed, despite the audible secretions I was hearing (sounding much like phlegm in your throat) and the occasional several seconds of apnea (where you stop breathing for a time). I was wondering what, if anything, she was thinking or dreaming about. What goes through the mind when the body is no longer functioning as it should? I could not come up with anything that made sense, and defaulted to praying that she was comfortable and at peace.
Another patient was very much awake, but was suffering from the effects of a very recent stroke, so her body was not working well and her speech was slurred. She is still very much aware of her surroundings and who and where she is, but her speech and mobility are now severely limited. As she attempted to talk with me, I was pondering what it must be like to WANT to do more, but knowing no matter how hard you try, you can’t. How difficult and disappointing that must be! I resolved to offer her affirmation of what she was going through, and empathy for her situation.
The next person I visited was a delight to talk to, but was so confused that she didn’t make much sense. She was very much able to carry on a conversation, but she was not aware of where she was, what time of the day it was or what was going on around her. She could offer no details about herself or her life, other than generalities such as “I used to travel,” or “I still work, taking care of what they told me to do.” She has a lovely sense of humor and could say the funniest things at the oddest moments. I was reassured that in her stage of decline, she was not understanding what was going on, and yet she was still able to enjoy herself.
My final visit today culminated with a kind woman who is content with where she is in her life, although she also is confused about what year it is, how old she is and how long she has been in the facility where she resides. That doesn’t stop her from putting a smile on her face and saying she has lived a good life. Her comment, “If I closed my eyes tonight and did not wake up tomorrow, that would be fine with me,” was a true blessing for her. We talked about heaven and what she hoped heaven would be like. We talked about how God has been part of her life from the very beginning, and she shared many of the gifts God provided through the years. I left her today feeling content that she is true in her faith and is well taken care of.
Each of these individuals left an impression on me. Which was the better situation to be in? Not responsive and unable to do anything, but being comfortable? Aware of oneself and surroundings but slowly declining because of a stroke and physical limitations? Confused, but happy and able to participate just a little more in life? Or content and peaceful and ready to go to the other side on a moment’s notice? Or maybe all of these patients today have or will go through each of these experiences at one time or another. That remains to be seen.
These several individuals are definitely not representative at all of the vast numbers of ways someone’s soul departs the earth. I have been in dozens of hospital and hospice rooms where restlessness takes over the body and arms and legs are moving about. I’ve watched patients struggle with breathing until medications were given to calm the gasping. And I’ve watched CPR being performed without success, and gun shot wounds so severe blood was pouring out faster than it was able to be infused back in.
Why don’t we all get the fairy tale ending? If you believe in free will (as I do), then our endings can very much be a product of the choices we make. Not entirely, that is, but at least some of it. A pastor friend of mine once said to me, “When your children were born, their births were not the same. Each one was a different experience and each came into the world differently. The same is true for everyone, no two births are exactly the same. If this is the case, why would we expect every death to be the same?” I find myself thinking about this very often and wondering what my death experience will be like. The blessing I find in it all is my faith that something much better awaits me once my death is finished.