Today I attended a funeral (long story, no questions), which had an open casket viewing. To pay your respects to the deceased, it is common to go up to the casket and view the deceased and say a prayer or well wishes or whatever you want to call it.
Well, looking at a human body, that has passed away is something most people will never be comfortable with or get used to. Not that anyone should. Except funeral directors. Or autopsists. Because its kind of their job. But for everyone else, its normal to feel uncomfortable. I don't feel uncomfortable, but it does create a strange feeling working with the dead or viewing the dead.
In a casket, for example, the body is dressed up, groomed...it just looks as if they are sleeping. They are even in a sleeping position. They look peaceful.
Then, your eyes begin to play tricks on you. Even on me, who has been around this topic for 5 years now. Here is my theory: Our brains are so wired to see people breathing when people are sleeping, that our brains actually trick us into thinking that we see the chest still rising, even as they lie peacefully in their casket. Our brains are so wired into thinking we see the normal "twitches" a person has when sleeping, that we think we saw them too. Its almost alarming, so much so that for a second we think- Did that person just breathe? And then you remember.
Our brains don't often get the chance to learn the sight of seeing a human body that isn't breathing. So this is a strange sight for our brain and it does not like it.
Death is a strange thing in the hospital, too. It is one thing to view the deceased in a casket. They are nicely dressed, peaceful. Well, I cannot put in words what it is like working with the deceased in the hospital. Some of the time they are a complete mess because they just suffered through a code, and most likely CPR. They have tubes in them, IVs, foleys (sometimes), sometimes they are bleeding somewhere or everywhere...there is a lot of things that could happen. And, sometimes, they didn't suffer through a code but died peacefully in their bed. Well, the hospital bed. But even so, they are in a hospital gown..their hair is messy, they are "hospital-y".
There is something fascinating in the emotions department that comes out of you when you have a deceased patient in front of you that you just had a conversation with an hour ago, or 5 minutes ago, or that morning, or your last shift....Its very strange. One minute they were telling about their grandchildren, and the next...
I had a patient that I had worked with my entire winter break, and she was one out of 3 that was still on the floor 2 weeks later when I came back to help on a weekend. She was in the hospital for about a month and a half total (she left to go home for a day or two). So that really gives the staff a chance to get to know a person. It is even more tragic witnessing death in the hospital when the patient was walking and talking and "independent" when you remember them being admitted, to them being completely bedridden, unresponsive and hallucinogenic and barely breathing in their last minutes of life...(which has nothing to do with the hospital stay, simply just the course of the disease).
It's another story completely when you, as an aide or nurse, are selected to do the post-mortem care. I won't go into details to bore or gross anyone out, but it is strange, I can tell you that. You are with someones beloved grandpa, or grandma, or parent, or child...just after their death. It is very important to treat all patients with extreme and utmost respect at this moment (in case you already didn't all the time anyway).
I think a lot of people get scared when going up to a dead person...whether it be at a wake or if they are a new aide or new nurse that hasn't had experience in this department yet. Why are they scared? Different reasons, sometimes. I think people feel scared of the unknown, scared perhaps because they have never been around a dead person before, or scared that the person will come back to life, or maybe scared that the person's ghost is watching you watch the body. (Call me strange, but I always think about that). I am one of those people that believes in spirits, ghosts, souls, etc., and I wouldn't doubt for a second that the spirit sticks around most of the time when they first leave their body. But who knows.
So that is my depressing blog, on death. And, as if this blog weren't long enough already, I wanted to include at the end here my first "real" (aka not written before college) short story. It was not assigned to be about death, the assignment was just to write about a moment that you learned an epiphany, or a moment when you learned something that changed you forever. And I chose to write about the first patient that touched my life- and how I took care of her after she passed. I used pseudo-names in the story, names are not real. I was 18 or 19 when I wrote the story. I'm going to include it at the end of this, so it is purely optional to read. But, this blog is also about writing, and this is a story about nursing, too. So its a double whammy that fits not only into this post, but perfectly into this blog. So feel free to read it, and to those of you that do, thank you! And feel free to comment if you like it, as always.
~A Writer in a Nurse's Body
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“Okay, I’m ready Melissa.” Lyn lightly touched the curtain in front of her as the two curtains that came together separated for her to enter the small make-shift room, walls made of curtain.
Melissa was leaning on the window-sill as she wrote Edith’s information on the body tag. She placed the body tag on Edith’s right big toe, and tied it really tight. At first, Lyn was worried that it would hurt Edith if it was too tight, cutting off the circulation to the foot.
Then she remembered, again.
Lyn took two steps over and touched Edith’s right pinkie, as she slowly let herself grab the whole hand. The top was cold to the touch, but the bottom still warm. She glanced at Edith’s watch that she was still wearing. It had only been an hour since she had passed. Lyn lifted the limp arm and unlatched the watch. It wasn’t right for a dead person to be wearing a working watch. It just reminded her that time went on without us. Time will always go on.
“Can I have that? I didn’t even see that. That goes in her valuables bag.” Said Melissa as she took the silver chain watch from Lyn’s open hand. Melissa then threw it in the plastic hospital bag and tied the top to enclose the belongings inside.
“What about everything else?” Lyn asked as she scanned the rest of the room. The faded red closet was open, there was Edith’s petite nightgown that she had specially ordered still hanging, and her small size 5 flat shoes beneath the gown.
“Only the valuables go with the body, you know that. Everything else is the family’s responsibility.”
But Edith doesn’t have any family, she thought to herself. Edith had told her that.
Lyn looked back at Edith and her small bag of valuables, “Well what the heck good does that do? Is Edith supposed to be guarding those items? Is that why they have to stay with her?”
Melissa finished zipping the bag, which was now just a giant-oversized plastic bag sitting on the still white linen on the wooden bed. It didn’t even resemble a body anymore, let alone Edith.
“Seriously Lyn. This is just the way it is.”
“Doesn’t she get to wear any clothes?”
Melissa shook her head, “They take care of that at the funeral home. The family arranges what she wears.”
Great, Lyn thought. Edith was going to be naked at her funeral.
“I guess so.” Lyn murmured.
There was a knock on the wooden door behind the curtain as the security guard entered the room, “Is she ready?”
“Depends on who you’re asking.” Lyn murmured.
“Yes Sir, Edith is ready.” Replied Melissa.