Tag Archives: Death

The final acts

Sorry for the break in communication. Anyone reading this blog who is a writer will understand what happens when the words start to flow. Not only is it an irresistible feeling to be writing with fluidity and insight, it also means that a manuscript is getting completed. Over that last week or so I have been sequestered with my thoughts and words, but I want to finish my documentation of dear B’s last days.

Almost two weeks had passed since all nutrition and fluids were withdrawn and B was still hanging on to life. At about eleven o’clock on this final day of B’s life, the nurses came into the room as usual to change his position, and when they moved him he grimaced in pain for the last time and went into crisis. Forty-five minutes later it was all over. All that remained to be done was the signing of his death certificate, the procession out from the hospice suite to the hearse, a laying in for people to visit the family and pay their respects, the funeral and finally a burial.

The wake, as it was called, was held three days later at the funeral home. At this point in the blog I need to flip the switch over from the all the scenarios occurring around me, to my reactions to the rituals associated with the death of this man. For these final rituals, I stepped outside myself into  the theater of it all and away from the significance of  loss. It is a quirk of mine to step back  from things in my head in times of stress and pain and look at them as an observer, rather than a participant. Perhaps it is a defense mechanism or a technique for grasping the reality of a situation more fully. I am not sure which, but it is what I do.

The wake was held in a large room at the funeral home and B was laying in an open casket. This was the second time I was exposed to the final rendition of a once living being as the result of cosmetic skills and mortuary science. The first time I was exposed to such a sight was at the funeral of a friend and colleague who had died in an automobile crash. In both cases, I only saw a mannequin of the person I knew laying in the casket. My dear B looked more like himself as he lay in the hospice bed than he did now. In his life, over all the years I had known him, he never looked like he was made to look in death.

At my own father’s funeral, I declined the offer to have a last look at him before he was buried. My dear wife went into the room where he lay with my mother, and all I could hear was my mother’s wailing cry “That’s not my Lou”. I only wanted to remember him as he was just a few days before when we had travelled to visit him at home. You could tell his heart was struggling to supply enough blood to his organs systems just by looking at him, but he was alive and that was what I wanted to remember. When my mother died some twenty years later, she gave express instructions that there was to be no viewing of her body, no cosmetic treatment, and only a simple grave side service. It was very dignified indeed.

I ventured up to the casket to have a closer look and just touched an arm. At that moment, I experienced this part of the ritual of death as a degradation of the life that was. I imagine this whole scene is for the benefit of the family, but I think it barbaric and disrespectful to the dynamic life of the B that I knew so well.

The funeral service and burial were held the next day. I was still standing outside of myself, detached and in observation mode. I confess to being a very non-religious type, and as this was a Catholic service so it was very foreign to me. You need to believe in God to see the relevance of the words of the service and of the priest speaking them. The only meaningful part of the service occurred when my nephews, each in their turn, stood to speak of their father. They spoke so well and with so much dignity, that the I felt B’s memory was reconstituted after  the artificiality of  his open casket that day before.

B’s burial was simple, with a few words of the mass repeated at the grave side. The most interesting and touching event of his burial was the addition of a military honor guard and flag folding ceremony. His casket was draped with the American flag in respect for his participation in actions related to the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was in the Navy at the time and somehow involved as a crew member of one of the ships participating in the blockade around Cuba. That was a few years before we knew each other. Once the ceremony was completed and the flag was folded in the customary manner, it was handed to my sister-in-law. The casket was lowered into a concrete lined bunker as required for any burial in that part of Illinois, and that was that.

My thoughts as his casket descended into his cement lined crypt reinforced my belief that life is life and death is just death, and nothing more. On the way to a luncheon held in his honor following the burial, I stepped back into myself and finally shed a tear for the loss of a friend and in sadness and happiness at the same time, because his suffering had come to an end. Shalom my friend.

Until the next time . . . L

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A test of my beliefs

I have not been able to post these last  few weeks because of events related to the final days in the life of a relative.  The experience tested beliefs and philosophy as I lived through those days with family, experiencing the ebbing of a life and witnessing the rites associated with death. This was not an immediate relative, nor a blood relation, but a relation through marriage. Nevertheless, this family and this individual are dear to me. They are all under my dome of heaven. The experiences of the last two weeks led me to look closely at what happens when the equilibrium of life is disrupted by the very human condition of the death.

This individual is not the first close to me to pass away over the years, just the first that I have witnessed the passing of. Parents, grandparents, uncles and cousins are all among the deceased of my close relatives. I may have seen them shortly prior to their demise or attended their funeral rites, but I have never been witness to the final days in the process of dying.  My relative (by marriage only), who I shall refer to as B, suffered a recurrence of a cancer that had been fought and supressed for thirteen years. A year ago, it reared its pernicious head in metastatic form affecting the brain and eventually many other tissues. When we were appraised of the fact that B was terminal and entering a hospice, it was time to go and be with our family members and with B.

We arrived at the hospice several days after all nutrition and fluids had been stopped. B was not on life support, but was on a regime of pain suppression (morphine) and antihistaminic to prevent fluid build up. The only other attention he received was to be turned regularly to prevent bed sores and to sponge bath him. When we entered the hospice suite, most of B’s immediate family was present, but at the time he was resting and uncommunicative. B had come through a crisis a few days earlier but rebounded slightly. The scene was somber and at the same time not. It was at best an unexpected incongruence.  To illustrate my sense of being off balance in the situation I shall describe the setting as best I can.

The suite was located in a pleasant, relatively modern low rise building. The hallways and rooms were very clean and comfortably set up for patient and family alike. The music playing in the corridors constantly was distressingly upbeat with occasional lyrics that seemed in conflict with the reality that lay behind the doors providing privacy for the families availing themselves of the hospice facility. B’s suite was spacious, perhaps 800 square feet or so. There was B’s hospital bed along the far side, a large flat screen TV and sitting/lounging area for the family, a washroom and lighting that was subdued at times. In one corner of the room near the TV was an ample supply of snacks for all. The TV was on constantly at a low volume with various sporting events in progress one after the other, including the final few games of the MLB World Series.

In some ways, the setting was very like the setting in B’s on home when everyone was there. B was an avid sports fan and actively promoted the participations of his sons in competitive sport, particularly soccer. There was always a lot of chatter and laughter when you were with B and so it was in his hospice suite, albeit at a more subdued level than normal. Of course, B appeared to be oblivious to all that was going on around him, or was he? Not only was B in a substantially weakened state, he was receiving morphine injections at regular intervals so it was difficult to assess his level of awareness most of the time. When I took B’s hand it was warm to the touch and familiar, but on that first evening, I am certain that he was not responsive to my grasp, but not certain that he was unaware of it. I spoke a few words but there was no sign of response at the time. I do not mind saying that it was difficult to utter words as I was greatly affected by the scenario in which I found myself that evening.

How did all this fit into my ideas about life, self, and a personal dome of heaven? How did I feel about the idea of a hospice as a last way station before death? Could I get comfortable with the idea of death? More reflections in the next post.

Until them . . . L

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