In the healthcare profession, we are told that dealing with death is difficult, and will continue to be difficult because losing our patients can make us feel guilty or responsible. It really is strange when you are the caretaker of someone and they just pass away under your care. That was not the most difficult part for me, however. I figured out that what made death difficult in the unit especially, was understanding how hard it was for the patients themselves and their families as well. It is truly saddening to see patients so helpless when they were once so independent and full of life and energy. It is especially saddening when the patients themselves understand this and have trouble accepting that they may not be there the next week. I have had several experiences with patients who experienced this, but one in particular stands out.
About a month ago one of my patients had a birthday. We helped her bathe, and once she was all cleaned up we wished her a happy birthday before leaving. After a few seconds she began crying and said, “This is probably going to be my last birthday”. The nurse aide and myself couldn’t think of anything else to do at the time other than a comforting touch to the shoulder and arm. We were uncomfortable, helpless, and clueless as to what we could do to genuinely ease her pain. Thankfully, her request to have her makeup and hair done broke the silence and gave me something to do for her. Within the next thirty minutes, I gave her a new hairdo, brought some color back to her face, and even got her to smile again. I learned about her children, her grandchildren, and her favorite snacks too! I got to know so much about her, and was happy to know that I could be a highlight on her birthday.
I thought that having a personal relationship would make it more difficult for me to accept their deaths. While it can to some degree, knowing that your interactions with them gave them comfort and brought them some happiness makes it easier to accept that they may have found some peace before passing away. For me, seeing that they had people around them who they understood were with them because they cared, made it easier for them, for their families, and for us, the caretakers. It really is easier knowing that a patient has died with acceptance as opposed to a patient who was afraid and in denial.
I was generally comfortable with death before beginning my experience with hospice. I have had several family members, family friends, and friends pass away while I still had a close relationship with them starting at a young age. My experience with hospice showed me the other side of death, however. Specifically, an outside look on how the patients themselves feel when they are nearing death. My time at hospice has allowed me to gain a greater understanding for the overall patient experience that I hope to take with me as I continue on in the field of health and medicine.