I am now at the age when death is a reality. While death is ever present even from the time we are young, it somehow looms ever larger as we age…perhaps it is our own destiny that brings everything into perspective. Losing a loved one clarifies a lot.
I lost my father in 1983 and my mother in 1999, so both have been gone for many years. They died sooner than I would have liked, but we cannot change what is. We can only accept and live with it. When my husband died in 2010, it was far more difficult. He was my everyday friend in life, the man who loved me more than life itself. There remains a huge void with his departure from this Earth.
But loss is part of life. We each have a beginning and an end. We cannot escape that. I was at a seminar recently about advance care planning. The instructor asked us each to think about our first encounter with death. Initially, I thought about my grandfather. I was 13 when he died peacefully in my parents’ bedroom. My grandmother opened the front door of our house just as my sister and I were running in laughing after a rousing game of bound-ball in the heat of a sunny Florida afternoon. Her words stunned us.
“He’s gone,” she said curtly. “Your grandfather’s gone.”
My sister and I looked at one another puzzled about the clarity of the message. What did she mean? We tiptoed in the house and as we passed by my mother’s bedroom door, we got a glimpse of Grand-daddy. My mother told us we should say goodbye to him and gave us permission to enter the room. Inching closer to the bed, the finality of it all caused my face to burn bright red. It was the first time I had seen someone dead. He looked very peaceful, as I recall, but definitely not moving or winking his eye at me like he always used to do. He was gone, as my grandmother had said.
That memory spawned yet another and I realized that I had been touched by death even earlier than as a young teen. When I was about nine years old, I lost a kitten. I have always been a cat lover and had kittens from the time I was a young kid, even though my father didn’t like them very much. Our cat had kittens one spring and there were four of them running around the yard since we weren’t allowed to have them indoors. Sometimes I would sneak them into my bedroom at night, but generally they had to survive outdoors. One morning, it was raining hard. I was standing on the front porch looking for my kittens to bring them in from the rain. My father was leaving for work and I knew I could hide them easily. I waved goodbye to him as he darted through the raindrops and got into the car. He turned on the ignition. One of my kittens, trying to get out of the rain, had taken shelter behind the wheel of the car. As Dad backed out of the driveway, I witnessed the death of my sweet, little furry friend, watching as she flipped in the air with the impact of the car, her lifeless body landing flat on the concrete, soaked and dying.
Death makes a lasting impression on us. It helps us realize the beauty of life. It helps us appreciate what we have, those we love, and what is most important. It’s easy to get caught up in the brouhaha of wanting success, love, wealth, or power. In the end, we all die. And what is most important is telling those we love that we love them, we forgive them, and we ask that they forgive us. We want peace and we want to be pain free. And last of all, we do not want to be a burden to our families.
My memories of death include the most recent one of my husband, of course. I was with him when he died, although it was not as I had hoped. We had no hospice. He lay in a sterile hospital bed when the doctor told me he had only a few days to live. But I knew that he was dying. I had seen that for months. One of the mistakes doctors and families make is not calling upon hospice soon enough. The hospice benefit is available for patients with a prognosis of six months or less to live. Had my family been given those six months of care, my husband’s death would have been far more peaceful and my family would have gotten the support we needed both then and afterward as the deepest of all grief begins to take over your life for what seems like years.
My advice to one and all is to consider hospice care much earlier in the process. Time and time again, families tell me that they wish they had known about hospice sooner. It is a wonderful benefit available to those with insurance or not since non-profit hospices care for everyone no matter their ability to pay. CMS (Medicare) covers hospice services, as does other commercial insurances. Ask for it. Don’t wait until 24 hours before your loved one dies. Ask for hospice care months before… when you, your loved one and your family need it the most. It is an amazing benefit. Don’t be afraid of asking for hospice.