The Perfect Death
We’ve all been there--eyes watering on the verge of tears in the dark movie theatre, mouth wide, waiting for the next handful of that comforting, buttery popcorn. The Notebook; Titanic; P.S. I Love You. The tearjerkers get us every time. But why? These movies deal with the theme of death--a topic we tend to avoid! Somehow, in these silver screen situations, death doesn’t seem to be all that bad; Hollywood has crafted The Perfect Death.
Leonardo DiCaprio with those purple, swollen lips staring into his lover’s eyes declaring he will “Never let go…”; Nicholas Sparks’ soul inspiring story where two people can love each other so much that their hearts stop beating as one. My favorite image from P.S. I Love You, is a grief-stricken and neurotic Hilary Swank running down the street, clinging desperately to the custom-made urn of her rock-and roll husband’s ashes.
Heartbreakingly romantic--but does it really happen like this?
I am a doula for the dying. In my many years of experience at bedside during the eleventh hour, I can honestly say no two deaths are the same, and it’s never what you expect.
Real-life reactions to end of life are raw, humble.
That moment when people realize there really is a higher power, and it’s Death. It will come for us all, no matter what your spiritual belief is. No one escapes. It’s usually in this moment the Hollywood bubble bursts.
So, what does ‘real life’ death look like?
Each body has its own way of shutting down due to illness or injury. In a natural death, your breathing will simply slow until it stops. That is out of our control. Eventually all of our bodies will wear down to nothing more than ashes and dust. But American culture struggles with accepting mortality. We don’t like to age; we don’t like ugly. Unfortunately, neither idealizing nor ignoring death will make it go away.
Neglecting the reality of death only makes it uglier.
I remember a time, early in my career, I went to see a family so terrified of a dead body they neglected it for almost twelve hours. I got there, called the mortuary, and proceeded to wash their mother’s corpse. I like to bring a few things with me to care for bodies post-mortem. Rose water, essential oils, sage, just to make things more pleasant. The rest is done at the mortuary. This body was cold and stiff, her head was turned to the right with her jaw locked open. This can be prevented if the body is tended to immediately following a death. The lady was stuck in this jarring position. As a result, her throat was like a straight tunnel for bodily fluids and I will spare you the details of what has henceforth been known as ‘The Body Juice Incident.’
I will never forget that day.
Perhaps the perfect death is something that must be accepted and created within ourselves, throughout the course of life. It is up to us as individuals to take control of our eventual endings by planning ahead, embracing mortality and bringing an honored sense of ceremony to life’s final graduation.
Then, when we all face our final moments at least we know that our life was complete; we are ready; we can let go.
And yet, after I write all of this, a particular case rushes back into my mind that really was Oscar-worthy. I worked closely with this patient and family for upwards of a year and had come to know them very well. They were a very kind, faithful family taking care of their elderly mother. Getting to know this woman’s life story over time, she seemed to have something like a luck, or fortunate path in life. In reviewing her years on Earth it was clear that even out of her deepest struggles something wonderful was born.
I remember in her final moments kneeling at her bedside with her son and daughter. Her breaths shallow, few and far between--any one could be her last. We waited in the quiet until the shrill sound of a cell phone pierced the air, followed by footsteps running out of the room to grab it. The patient’s daughter rushed right back in, afraid she would miss her mother’s last moments of life. The patient’s granddaughter was on the phone,
“Mom,” we could hear the anxiety through the muffled speaker, “I really need to talk to grandma!”
“Sweetheart, your grandmother won’t be able to talk, she could go at any second, but I’ll put you on speakerphone so she can hear you.”
The granddaughter spoke very briefly, and as she she struggled to choke back her tears made a solemn promise to her grandma. I kept my head lowered, in quiet meditation holding this sacred space. After she stopped talking, the patient let out a sound, and a final sigh. The air was still in that moment, all of us present, humbled in awe by what may have been a real-life Hollywood ending.