I am not unfamiliar with death. It stole, into my house and my life, when I was just six years old, with my mother’s passing from ovarian cancer. I can recall that day clearly–it was summer, the sky was unfairly blue, and light shown into the bedroom where once she lay in darkness, tubes in her arm and up her nose, body slowly thinning. Yet the concept of death–its meaning, the actuality of it–has remained elusive for years.
I knew the facts of death (here, then gone), I knew there were many mechanisms for it (a failure of the lungs, the heart), and even knew its aftermath (in my mother’s case, a small, black box filled with ash), but grasping it in full was difficult. Perhaps this stems from the social convention of avoiding the topic of death and dying, of burying it under careful words–‘passing’, instead of ‘death’, for example–or, always, whispering the word ‘sorry’, which is meant to convey empathy but only ends up painting death as somehow always wrong, and unnatural. Participating in hospice this year has made me confront the concept of death in new ways, mostly because it has encouraged me to think of it as somehow natural, inevitable to the process of living. That said, I think I am still processing the nature of death–and in all honesty, it remains a difficult subject for me.
What made hospice difficult was the physicality of the act of dying, of watching fingers shrivel, eyes dim slowly, weight drop off already gaunt frames. It was difficult hearing, in patients’ lucid moments, the echoes of lives well-lived, and knowing that within these people there remained traces of existence and experience I would never fully be able to honor, because I would never fully be able to understand. It was difficult comparing these people, ill and fragile, to my own aging father, who is 75 and, slowly but surely, approaching the condition of those in hospice. While this was a valuable experience, and permitted me to confront the idea of death–one of my patients passed away after several months of visiting her, for example–it was also deeply personal, and unearthed some of my fears and reservations around death. It raised the specter of my own anorexia and suicide attempt, and reminded me of my own institutionalization. It unearthed within me discomfort, and wariness, and frustration–frustration at the things I could not change, frustration at pain and its stubborn presence, frustration because I often felt that my sitting there, holding someone’s hand, trying to bring them to the brink of awareness, was not enough. I found it difficult to detach myself; instead of being too distant from these patients, mere strangers, I could barely set boundaries at all.
This experience, in all honesty, made me question my desire to be a doctor, and my ability to witness suffering. Again, illness is not an alien concept to me–some of my earliest memories are of my mom’s cancer, of Christmas in a hospital, of bleeping machines and bald scalps–and anorexia forced me to examine not just the suffering of those around me, but my own pain. What was different about this experience, I think, is that I was not 6, blissfully sheltered by incomprehension and immaturity; and neither was I experiencing the pain myself. Although in the end I still wish to go into medicine, I realize I have work to do when it comes to setting boundaries, and I still have to come to terms with death and suffering in many ways. This experience was a start to that, but I have a feeling acceptance is a ways off.