One of the greatest mysteries of life is when and how we will die. Will death be sudden, or will we die in increments? Will we die at home or in hospital, in a hospice or care facility? Will we be alone, or with people who care about us, or with strangers?
Many people with cancer tell me they would rather die of cancer, than die suddenly. They want enough time to say farewell thoroughly. Many healthy people say they’d prefer to die quickly and not linger with protracted illnesses, burdening loved ones.
I have accompanied close family members, beloved friends, and people I grew to love through my work as an oncology nurse and therapist, in their last days. The memories, images, sounds, touches, smells, and feelings are imprinted on my mind and heart. Some memories are so painful that I'd like to forget them, and others I hope to always remember because of how mysterious, and beautiful they were.
As a witness, I have observed that the last days of every death are filled with moments of tension and release, like a breath or a muscle, like a whole life. We feel helpful one moment and helpless the next, deeply connected to the person we love, and then wholly abandoned. We long for the person to be released from their suffering one day, and plead with them to stay, the next. We can miss the moment of death, or be there until the last breath.
The last days often unfold for the caregiver in slow motion: each breath noticed, each sound interpreted, each offer of comfort whether it be a touch, a song, a poem, a medication, a story, hopefully received as helpful. The quality of our presence sanctifies the place of dying, and we remember the experience for the rest of our lives.