As a hospice nurse I often have very difficult conversations with people. I come in to their homes and say things like "our bodies wear out" and "bodies are temporary." I speak slowly -- intuitively trying to gauge the individual or families' ability to handle and absorb what I am saying. My goal is not to upset people but to bring understanding and, if possible, bring some acceptance. I have seen that this acceptance generates peace and comfort. Death comes whether we agree to it or not but with acceptance comes a decrease in suffering. My goal is to help reduce suffering whenever I can -- sometimes I can and sometimes I cannot.
In my line of work I often meet people who do not want to accept the truth of their current condition. They say, "This should not be happening to me." Occasionally I can, very gently, help them find acceptance, to snuggle into the truth of what is. I once met an old man near the end of his life who was heartbroken because he could no longer walk to his kitchen. He was angry and pained deeply by this; he was ready to give up and recede into sorrow. I took his hand, looked into his eyes and said: "Bodies wear out. Did you really think that you were exempt from this?" He was quiet, and then he smiled and said:" I guess I thought I was." A light crept into his eyes and we laughed and laughed. He had a wonderfully loving family, more than willing to get him anything he might need from the kitchen. He agreed to accept help from his loved ones with gratitude; he started to feel very loved and appreciated. He was on board for the experience of his body wearing out. It was beautiful to see.
We all will die, this is certain. Perhaps this is the most profound truth of all time, if only because of its unchangeable and concrete nature. Yet we deny and avoid this truth to no end. Often I am instructed by a patient's family not to use the word "hospice" or "death." The family members, though well intended, are trying to shield their loved one from the truth. I see in their eyes deep denial and fear. I always respect family's wishes because the hospice experience is their own, I will however, if it seems appropriate, give a gentle reminder that there can be great comfort and great peace at the end of life. I may even invite people to entertain the idea of a different experience of death, an experience not of fear, pain, and loss but one of deep intimacy and harmony. End of life can be a profoundly personal family time, the sharing of a sacred spiritual experience, a celebration of life and appreciation.
If I have seen anything in my hospice work it is that the end of life need not be unnecessarily painful, emotionally or physically. We have fantastically strong medications to address any physical symptom. And if we are willing to look at our ideas, fears, and denial surrounding death maybe we can decrease the emotional suffering as well. There is grief, I am not denying that there is grief, but when the pain of loss is met with honesty then there is the opportunity for profound love and understanding. Perhaps with courage and acceptance we can make friends with our own mortality, and with acceptance we can be a peaceful presence when given the opportunity to experience the death of a loved one.