After living here for two years I frequently made the comment, “Nobody dies here.” I remember an aide looking at me strangely and saying, “What are you talking about?” Then I explained that I had never faced a death directly. Residents died but I had not witnessed one nor had I seen a corpse being removed from the nursing home.
We seldom get to know all the residents well. But occasionally we do meet a resident who takes a part of our heart. Then we meet their family and they become our friends. But if we think about it we know there are only two things that usually happen to residents: Either they get better and move out, or they die. I have watched the process many times.
A resident’s death reminds us that death can occur any time. I remember being surprised when a resident with Alzheimer’s passed away in his geri-chair on his way back from breakfast. I heard of his death a few minutes after they pushed him past me in the hallway. The man never spoke for he was way beyond speaking. Many commented that he had beautiful hair and he truly did. It was the first thing you would notice. He was a tall man and young looking. It was devastating to see what the disease had done to him.
There was another man similarly afflicted who also used a geri-chair. His son, who appeared to be a clergy person, visited frequently and stood at the nurses’ station joking about death with the nurses. I remember listening to this aghast. But then I realized that we all have our coping mechanisms. I cannot imagine what it would be like to visit your father knowing that he had no idea who you are or at least had no way to outwardly show you. It must be a devastating experience. Death might be welcomed in such a situation.
I also wondered why there was no memorial service or life celebration after a resident passed way. The alert and oriented residents wanted the obituaries read to them every morning. Some even went to funeral home calling hours. For the rest of us, though, there was no memorial service. It was clear many residents were loved by the staff. But there were other residents who seemed outwardly to hate the world and the aides who stepped into their own. Some of them screamed and lashed out at nurses and aides. I silently wondered how those aides and nurses got up the courage to go near them again. It would be difficult to care for someone so outwardly hostile. Memorializing these difficult souls would have been a challenge. So for the greater good it was probably better to have no service for the many in order not to slight the few.
I wrote the following piece after a resident’s death.
A resident has just died and a hush quiets the hall. Then a flurry of activity follows. A resident’s death is difficult. But most of the residents are old. Yet this resident was young, he was in his early 30s. He came here after a stroke. There was never much of a recovery for him. His father said he had over 100 operations during his life. So clearly he had a rough time before the stroke. Then after living here a few years, he deteriorated over several months. On many days the expressions on the faces of nurses and aides showed they were pained by the process. They tried to make him as comfortable as they could. His death was expected. Death and expected do not seem to go in the same sentence.
Every death reminds me that I will die here and the method of my death is the only question. Will they find me dead in my sleep during nightly bed checks? Will I choke while eating? Will I vomit and aspirate? Am I afraid to die … even to die alone? Will I know I am dying? Will my family and friends be here with me? Will some part of me stay here in this nursing home? Will people here think they see me roaming the halls even after I am gone?
Death robs all of us. There is no going back. There are no second chances. We cannot make it right with the person who died, for he is in a different place, and no longer needs our help or our laughter. Death takes our power; the power to heal and to help.
Transition comes in many forms. It begins with conception. Birth manifests it. Growth enhances it. Having a family and friends validates it. Death photographs it. Our legacy is what we have given to others.
The death ritual is over. The aides have bathed him. His family departed quietly, speaking in comforting tones to each other. Soon the funeral director will arrive. Out of respect we residents are kept in our rooms until his body is gone. In the morning they will pack his things and clean the room. After that, no trace of him will remain. The room will be institutional again. There will be no sign of the NASCAR fan that once lived and died there. Before long his empty bed will be filled with another resident.
An hour after his death life returned to normal. Sounds were louder and laughter returned. They were back taking care of the living again.
I wrote the above text the actual night when that resident died. I wanted to do something for him, his family, or to help the aides with this challenging situation. But I could only sit and reminisce in text about a young life that ended quietly in the middle of a busy after supper evening.
A couple of years later we actually had a memorial service for one resident. He was in his 50s and had lived here for many years. Everyone knew him and had gotten accustomed to him being around. Usually he was helpful but sometimes he could be a bugger, too. After his death an aide who is also a pastor conducted his memorial service in the dining room. I printed the order of service. It made all of us feel better and we hope that somehow he knew that we missed him and that we really cared.