I once took care of a man who was trying to die. Sometimes, the dying patients are my favorite. Don’t get me wrong, I’m crazy about surgeries. Give me an otherwise healthy person who needs a little fix-up, and I’m in heaven. I’m not an adrenaline junkie, either. I don’t need the emergencies and the near-death stuff to make me come alive. I’m just as excited when people pass gas for the first time after an operation.
But every now and then, I get to take care of a man or a woman who’s at the end, someone who’s lived a full life and is ready to let go. If you’ve never been around an actively dying person, let me tell you something about it. It is a sacred, holy experience. Even if you aren’t a spiritual person, you’ll be one for a few minutes when you’re standing next to someone who’s literally about to breathe their last.
During the last several decades in this country, we’ve slowly forgotten how to let people die. We love medicine and we fear death. I heard it best described recently as “predatory.” We view the end as predatory, something dark that’s coming for us, something that needs to be beaten and overcome. Regardless of your views on death and what happens afterwards, it’s unavoidable. It happens to each and every one of us, and it’s not something to be feared or ignored. I’ve learned the beauty of the dying process over the last few years of my career, and I’ve had the privilege of helping a few family members see the beauty in it as well.
So back to the man who was trying to die. I can’t even remember his diagnosis, but I remember it was only slightly sudden. His wife had been dealing it for a few months, and she knew it wasn’t curable. Nonetheless, she doted and prodded and made big plans for his recovery. As he began to fade throughout my shift, she began to push harder. Let’s sit up and eat. Do you want me to call so-and-so for you? They’d love to hear from you. I can’t wait until we get you out of here. Take another bite. Wake up. Don’t sleep all day. Look at me.
He grew less responsive as the day wore on, and she grew more determined. The more agitated and restless he became, the more she paced and talked to him. After several hours, she asked me if I thought she should leave to check out nursing homes for him. She said she wanted to be prepared for the next step of his rehabilitation. We see this a lot, when people aren’t sure what to do with their grief. She asked one of the most loaded questions ever fired at a nurse. What would you do? I took a deep breath. I closed the door behind me and sat down next to her. I put my arm around her shoulders and I pointed at him.
I need you to look at him. Do you see how tired he is? Let him be tired. Be here with him.
The patient immediately settled down, bowing his head ever so slightly. It was almost as if he agreed with me, that someone what finally shooting it straight with his beloved. I pushed on to describe a bit of what she could expect to happen as her soulmate headed into his last few hours. How long do you think he has? Her eyes filled up with tears, and mine soon followed.
Not long. He’s been telling us all day. I think it’s time for you to just hold his hand. Just be tired with him.
I left them alone then but she called me into the room thirty minutes later, to confirm what she already knew. Her husband was gone. She smiled through her tears and gave me a tight squeeze. Thank you for what you did.
I wrote this story down so I wouldn’t forget that patient or his wife, but the truth is my job is full of these accounts. What a powerful place to be at work… walking into the dark, holding hands, and turning faces towards the light. And I chose this one to share because that day, those words taught me something. For a woman who is always on the move, who pushes to see progress, who tends to bulldoze her husband, I want to be a woman unafraid to someday just be tired with him.