At the risk of sounding morbid or creepy, I enjoy post-mortem care. (Spell check is making me put a hyphen in between those two words and I do not like it). Perhaps enjoy is not the appropriate word. Maybe what I mean is value, or meaning. I choose to see value and meaning in post-mortem care. What would invariably creep others out is where I often find peace and beauty. Not many people really get to experience death and dying on a routine basis, and I often find myself contemplating the honor of having that experience. I suppose my labor & delivery nurse friends might understand a little of what I mean because they experience the magic and beauty at the other end of the continuum. The joy of a fresh new life. The promise. The potential. We often think of one end as happy, the other end as sad.
I have been present at a lot of messy, sad deaths. The remains of a CODE 4 strewn about the room, the residual epinephrine/adrenaline running through my veins and sitting stagnant in the veins of that who we were trying to save, the family standing stunned in the doorway. Fortunately not all deaths are like that. Many are beautiful. Meaningful. Accepted. All are mysterious. What and who was once there a minute before is now gone. And it begs the question, what is the essence of a person? What is a soul and what does it look like? It’s impossible for me not to get spiritual when I’m performing post-mortem care. One final beat of the heart that has been beating nonstop every second of every day of every year and all of a sudden the person who was “there” a second before no longer is. I look upwards.
When exactly does death occur and life end? The final beat of a heart as modern science tells us? What if we can keep that heart beating? Loss of consciousness or brain activity? A body with a beating heart and only a beating heart is still “alive”? The topic has stretched ethical discussion for ages, and I don’t think it will ever cease to. At least I hope it doesn’t anyway. Because questions we ask about end of life are also pertinent at the start of life. When does life start? The same way it ends? With a beating heart? I remember my mom grappling with the looming death of her mother who had been suffering from progressive Alzheimer’s for several years. The last days of her existence were spent obtunded and I remember my mom saying, “It’s just her body, her shell. Her soul is already free and in heaven” This helped my mom process and cope with her own beloved mother’s impending final heartbeat which would only be a final detail in a death that had been stretching for days. My mom also firmly believes that life starts at conception, that the soul is there from the moment the sperm and egg join. There is no “shell” stage like there is at death, and the heartbeat is just a detail.
Sometimes I feel as though I’m desensitized to death. It lost its novelty after the first few. Removing lines, tubes, drains & airways from a lifeless yellowing body was once disconcerting but now has become routine But where novelty is lost, meaning is not. I strive to find value in every death whether its holding an abandoned grandpa’s hand while he passes on without anyone to witness or care, or fighting to let a family sit with their deceased for hours rather than have them carted off to the morgue to make room for another living body. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder. And I behold a fair amount of death.
Reading over this post, it looks messy. Disorganized. It bugs me. But I think I’ll leave it that way. Because that’s often how I feel about these questions and situations. I hope we never stop talking, wondering, questioning, crying, laughing and valuing death.