By Kaye Ketterer
I’m dying. Not right now, nor tomorrow probably, but someday. We all are dying. From the day we are born, we begin life knowing that someday we will die.
I find it interesting when I talk with friends about my own death or plans for when I die. They are not willing to talk about it and shrug it off as a subject that does not need to be thought about now. We probably learn our values and beliefs about death from our family of origin and also from religion. The Christian tradition teaches us that in death we receive eternal life. If you buy into that thinking, it seems that death would be something to embrace and trust that our life in a different way or form would continue. Other religions help their dead by preparing the body in certain ways so the loved one can transport to the other side; or some cultures build huge temples for the dead rulers or leave food or valuables with the dead person so they have something with them for the “other world”.
Whatever our beliefs, I don’t think we really can know what happens when we die. If I had to guess, or state my beliefs, I’d say it will be a place where there is peace, good food, and great music! I believe I’ll be reunited with family and friends that have died before me. I will look to them to show me the way.
During my growing-up years, death was part of my life. Living on a farm, animals were born and animals died, and it was never hidden from me. Sometimes there was no explanation why an animal died, it was seen as a natural event.
Having a mother who was a registered nurse also helped me know that death was a natural event and something we could talk about over the breakfast table. When my mother was a nurse most people died in the hospital and if they died on her shift I knew they found comfort in her.
Sometimes I would hear my mother on the telephone with a co-worker talking about someone who had died on their shift. Their conversations would often reveal their beliefs that “people always die in threes”, or there was nothing anyone could do, or simply talk about the poor timing of the death and eventually I would hear laughter which meant they worked through their feelings a bit and eased the stress they must have felt while on duty.
I remember when my parents discussed with me their wishes for what would happen when they died. They assured me they weren’t afraid to die and later my mother would say she wasn’t afraid of dying, but of simply getting there. My parents trusted me to abide by their wishes as they faced their own death and knew I could handle it with honesty and compassion, thus I was their power of attorney for health care. Having them as examples and having had conversations with them about death, made it comfortable for me to be with them both as they were dying. It wasn’t frightening; but it was hard, it was holy, and it was an experience I wouldn’t have chosen to miss.
My Dad died in December of 2003. He had been a resident of a dementia unit in a County Nursing Home for three years. As is usual, weeks before his death he had stopped eating and didn’t have many words left to say. It was fortunate that it was Christmas time as my sister was there and she and I along with my mother stayed with my dad pretty much round the clock for six days until he died. There were other family members who came to keep vigil. My dad’s sister felt it important to be with him, as did another resident of the dementia unit whose name was Harold. He and my dad had become good friends and knowing my dad was dying, he would sit by my dad’s bedside until a staff member would come and insist that he come to eat a meal.
My dad had a slow death and it seemed as if he fought every minute to remain with us. My mother said her goodbyes like we all did, and still he lingered. My mother wondered if he was waiting for my one brother who chose not to come until the funeral; Or was it some unresolved issue about WW II which he seldom talked about? Whatever the case, he died slowly and hung on to each labored breath. On December 28th he achieved the peace that dying can bring.
As for my mother, in her nursing role, she would have said she had a good death. My sister who is also a nurse did say that Mother had a good death.
My mother was in a nursing home from October until February 2010. In the last month she became more and more confused and the last week of her life couldn’t put a complete sentence together.
I called her on a Wednesday evening and she couldn’t find words to talk, but when I talked with the nurse and was informed that she wasn’t eating and seemed to have difficulty responding verbally, I decided to drive the two hours to be with her and I am so glad I did. She knew I was with her and I got in touch with the hospice nurse so she would have the right pain medication and assurance that she would be kept comfortable. She received good care. Early on Friday, February 12, 2010, she just drifted away.
It seemed she had no regrets and was a peace. When the funeral director came I helped him move my Mother to the black body bag and said my final good byes.
After my mother’s death I found a book that I had given her years before when she was still active in her profession. The book is by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist who studied and wrote several books on death and dying.
The title of one book, Death the Final Stage of Growth really resonates with me. Kubler-Ross sees death as the key to the door of life. She writes,
There is no need to be afraid of death. It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive—to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a façade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.
Every individual human being born on this earth has the capacity to become a unique and special person unlike any who has ever existed before or will ever exist again.” (Death the Final Stage of Growth; 1975, p. 164)
I take Elizabeth’s words to heart and have my “death plans” written and cremation paid for. This brings me comfort in knowing that when I die my friends and loved ones can concentrate on their grief and memories both good and bad instead of having to make arrangements by guessing what I would have liked to have happen. This also brings me comfort so I can live each moment of every day to its’ fullest.
I believe we must have conversations about death with our families and friends so it is not something to be feared, but something to be fulfilled. If we accept death as the final stage of our growth, we can fully live our lives in the present.
© 2017 Kaye Ketterer
Kaye lives in Monona, Wisconsin, and keeps her country roots close to her heart. Along with writing, her interests include music, traveling, children, and the elderly.
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When Kaye read her essay at our January “First Monday, First Person” salon for memoir writers, I encouraged her to share it with readers of TSWT.