Death With Grace

I’ve been away from my blog for some time. A close friend of my husband died quite suddenly, and although I didn’t know him very well I’ve been struggling to write something meaningful. He died too young at the height of his success, leaving behind a wife and two daughters. So, I’ve been thinking about death lately. As an EMT, I see it all of the time. We can’t usually choose when we die, but sometimes we can choose how. If given the choice, I’d go with grace.

The first time I saw a dead person was when I was ten years old. My great grandma Doris died of kidney cancer. She never showed me her emotions, but my mother tearfully admitted that Grandma begged to live because she wasn’t ready to go just yet.

Doris was a beloved woman with four generations of living family. Her partner, a kind Swedish man who smelled like month-old sweat, dusty hay, and spilled whiskey, had not been the husband that bore those generations. The family thought of Sulo as Grandpa anyway. He did not attend the service.

I sat in a special section behind the casket that was reserved for close family. I cried silently so as not to be heard, but sucked in embarrassing breaths when my air ran low. My great aunt Jeanie sat beside me. Wishing for nothing more than a tissue for my shamefully flowing nose, she handed me a Lifesaver candy instead. The casket was opened, and the audience gasped with a new decibel of grief.

We often remember our first death the most, but losing a parent is especially hard.

I watched my dad go when he was 55 years old. Suffering from lung cancer for many years, we mostly kept silent, ignoring the issue though prepared for it. When I saw him the last time, his fit young body had turned old. His hair suddenly gray, skin ancient with old-person bruises, and multiple tubes did his breathing, circulating, feeding and emptying. He couldn’t talk, so he simply turned his hand into a symbolic gun and pointed it at his head. The nurses cried with me as I relayed the decision to take him off life support. I went home, and he made a recovery. At first I wouldn’t talk to him, because I had already gone through the grief of him dying. Eventually, I called and it was like talking to a ghost. We had many more conversations before he died quite suddenly in the middle of the night three months later.

One of the benefits of being an EMT is being constantly aware of one’s own mortality, which reminds us all of the precious gifts of life. People die in many ways, but they never die how they do on television. People lucky enough to live a long life often pay for it with a slow agonizing death. Typically, people are scared. A friend described his own mother’s death as being horrific in its fear. A woman in her 80’s you’d think she was ready to go, but she was not. Terrified, she refused to believe she was dying, and purposely failed to make out a will or assign a power of attorney. She even blamed her son for letting death happen to her.

Reactions to another’s death is equally odd. I’ve seen a woman obsess over a casserole after we found her husband dead in the back yard. Another woman turned on the television after delivering a stillborn child. A man tearlessly played with his wedding ring and talked about a beach vacation while his wife oozed blood from every orifice in a two hour demise. Even I cried on that one, but he did not. A family smiled awkwardly while explaining to me that their 10 year old daughter must have suffocated while in diabetic shock.

We all know it’s coming, but can we decide how to go? As I said before, it never happens like on television. Death is usually ugly and violent. There are often many fluids involved. It’s smelly. It’s hard to imagine that will someday be me.

It is worth thinking about just in case you do get the choice. I’m not talking suicide. I’m talking about something quite rare-a death one is ready to meet face to face.

My Grandma Betty died in this manner. She waited for her family to arrive from all over the country to her terracotta home in St. George, Utah. She’d moved there to be closer to Vegas, but the beauty of the town had its charm too.

“I’m dying tomorrow,” she told me, and I nodded skeptically. “Sure, Grandma.” I spent that day with her in one of the most wonderfully bonding moments of my life. I’d wheel her outside in her wheelchair, take off her oxygen and place a pulse oximeter on her finger. The device told me just how much oxygen she had in her blood. “Keep me alive today, Michelle. I’m dying tomorrow,” she said, and I did. I’d light up her cigarette, and she’d choke on one or two short puffs as I watched her numbers drop into the 70s. Then, I’d gently stub out the butt for later, replace her oxygen and take her back in. We did this many times during the day.

I disbelieved she’d die because she got herself out of bed and to the bathroom without help, and I disbelieved it when she sat in front of me eating scrambled eggs. She looked up from her plate of eggs and said, “This dying stuff is hard work.” Grandma’s wit wasn’t the least bit ill.

The next morning, the final members of the family arrived and surrounded her bed. She didn’t wake up, but with all of them watching she simply took her last breath. It was the most graceful death I’ve ever known, and I want it as my own.

Have you thought about death?

If given the choice, how would it look?