What matters in the End?
Throughout my nursing career, I have found sitting with the dying to be the most rewarding.
Being physically near death, feeling its silence, I have learnt a thing or two about life. Death is a powerful teacher. Death gives life perspective. It reminds us of what is valuable.
Death makes life come alive.
I have learnt that in the end:
1. All that matters is that we mattered:
Nursing my 72-year-old patient, “C” was a privilege. Nursing is a privilege at all times, but nursing into death and dying has a poignancy, a certain intimacy with life. “C” was dying of a malignant tumour in her lungs.
She was a feisty lady, a polish immigrant after the war, brought to a new country and a new way of life by her late husband 50 years ago. She never left Poland behind. They lived in a community full of Polish immigrants, and she seemed to have lived Poland in England.
She had raised a family of two sons and a daughter and lived well past her husband who died of alcohol related liver failure.
Now, as she lay dying, her only wish was to be with her family. She had been estranged from her children for many years. The eldest son and the daughter came to visit her while she was in hospital. Upon her request, I rang the youngest son informing him that the “end” was near. He never came.
“What have I done to you all to deserve this?” I often heard her ask her children. The answer, a stoic silence, or tears fought back. Perhaps the most important questions in life have no answers. Perhaps life invites us to look for those answers in the container of our hearts.
As her Light dimmed, one night as I sorted her pain medication, she held my hand saying, “Do you know what matters in life the most, nurse?” Her voice was tired, but clear. I waited. She looked out to the night sky full of stars and a new moon. Slowly she said, “That we lived a life that mattered. Yes, we make mistakes along the way. That is because we don’t know any better. If I had known better nurse, I promise you, I would have done better. I am so sorry children…that I did not know better” then closed her eyes to rest.
She died that morning. Her youngest son did not make it to her cremation. I am hoping that he is reading this so he can let his mother go.
“C” taught me that in the end, we like to feel that we matter—to know that our lives mattered.
2. Life is a process—of unlearning:
“R,” 68, was dying of heart failure. Weak and tired, she denied any medical intervention, beyond pain relief. Surrounded by her family, music, incense and flowers, she was at peace.
“You have such beautiful eyes” I said to her one day. She smiled, mostly through her eyes. Her daughter who had come to stay with her mother during these last days of life said to me, “Mum has always had the most beautiful eyes I have known. That is why she looks at the world as such a beautiful place…Mum has a gift that is rare. She is able to see from her heart.”
“Pray, tell me more?” I asked, curious.
“Mum lived a difficult life. Isolated, judged, and called to bear the unbearable darkness of human ego. Mum always said that this darkness was a blessing. That living through sadness is an important, even essential part of coming to clarity about what is truly valuable. Difficulties and heartbreak break us down, pulverising and crushing all hope and joy. Until they can break us no more. Then, when we are completely broken, we come into contact with the truth of who we are—the strength, the values, the love, the compassion and the generosity of the human soul. When we are broken, we finally see the Light within.”
“Mum also taught us that all education, religion and ideology is useful if it leads to a kinder, more compassionate world. In such a world there is joy. That is heaven on earth. An education, religion, economics and ideology that largely feeds the mind, is all about information processing . That creates hell on earth.”
“Mum learned to let go of the words so she could cling to their essence. Mum learned to trust only the whisper of her soul. She taught us by example. A life lived from the soul was the only valuable way for her. Don’t bother with dogma and big words she would tell us often. Always seek your inner Light. The answer you seek is inside of you. Trust your inner guide only. Whatever feels loving and compassionate is good. Guard your intuition, honour your soul’s knowing. The trees, the wind, the rain and the birds have the answers to what is truly precious or worth remembering. As for the rest, there is always education and media” she would say with a wink.
“R” died peacefully, her eyes open wide and smiling two days later.
She taught me that a rich life is a full life. It is full of various experiences, of joy, sorrow, heartbreak and loss. Perhaps, in the heaven on earth that “R” relayed to her daughter, the balance is about less mind and more heart.
3. Our only responsibility is to the quality of our being:
“T,” six, was dying of a malignant brain tumour. Her only visitor was her mother. Heavily pregnant with twins, her mother would sometimes need as much care by the nurses as “T” did. Consumed by a demanding relationship with an abusive and alcoholic man, her mother often treated the hospice as a sanctuary. Her daughter was dying, and she was really sad about that. But she was sadder for herself and feared for the unborn.
While changing “T” one day, I was curious to note some purple bruise marks on her thighs. The wound looked old and was slow to heal given her illness. Curious, I asked her mother if she knew where they came from. She shook her head in ignorance. So I asked “T” about it. “Ah, I got them when I tried to save mum from daddy last time” she replied directly.
Upon examination, we discovered more old bruises. “Are you angry about it T?” the doctor asked “Do you want to talk about it….or punch a pillow, or scream and kick the wall” he asked.
She looked at him and said “No, thank you. I am not angry. I am sad that my mum and dad are going through so much pain. I am worried that after I am gone, there will be no one to take the punches.”
“But, you shouldn’t be taking the punches. It is not your responsibility,” the doctor insisted.
“My only responsibility is to help them. No one is perfect doctor. If I can help someone in pain, I feel better,” she said and closed her eyes.
At six, “T” taught me the greatest lesson of my life–our only responsibility is to help, without judgement. Help ourselves, our children our pets, our elderly, our communities, environment (animals, forests, lakes and mountains) and our planet—our only home.
Our only responsibility is the quality of the human “being” we can be.
“T” taught me that human “beings” are not born. Human “beings” are made. She taught me that we are all mortal. We are all here only for a limited time upon the planet. Let us leave it a better, more humane, more joyful place whilst we are journeying through it and after. Life is given to us. In that sense , life is free. But death, well death must be earned.
“T” never opened her eyes again. Her mother has since moved out of the relationship and is being supported to build a new life for herself and the twins. Her father has currently refused any help with his pain.
Disclaimer: All characters are fictional and names have been anonymised.
Author: Rekha Vijayshankar
Editor: Renee Jahnke
Image: Jeronimo Sanz-Flickr