As some of you out there may know, I spent the last 5 years caring for my elderly, dementia-ridden mother-in-law. I lived with her 24/7 and took care of all her needs. Although not a fun experience by any means, I will say that I learned a lot. Most of it I was unable to process until after she had passed, in fact I’m still processing. One thing I did learn is how to appreciate death. I realize this may sound a bit out there but the truth is that there comes a time when death is a blessing and this was definitely one of them.
In life, my mother-in-law was a fiercely independent and self-sufficient woman. She detested asking for assistance and would have despised what her illness did to her. Towards the end she was unable to recognize any of us (although she did still occasionally respond to my hubby’s voice); she had no control over her movements or bodily functions and no awareness of what went on around her. It was horrible to watch as she deteriorated over time and be unable to do anything about it. In her final days her doctor came for a home visit and told us that he felt she didn’t have much time left – days to months at the most. Ironically she died within two days. At the time we were arranging for in-home hospice care for her. We joked that she found the idea of strangers in her home so repugnant that she decided it was time to move on.
After she died she laid in her bed for several hours before the funeral parlor folks were able to pick her up. Although no funeral services were planned, we did want her to be cremated. The hospice agency sent a nurse so that time of death could be declared (it was actually 4:30 although legally the time was recorded as 6:30). The nurse also change my mom-in-law and cleaned her up. Now this is where things got strange for me. I am one of those people that has always refused to touch a dead body – visions of corpses sitting up and trying to grab me have always filled my mind, blame it on too many zombie flicks. Even when my father died I could not bring myself to touch his corpse. With my mother-in-law it was a very different experience.
Perhaps because I had tended her daily for the past few years (there was literally no part of her body I hadn’t seen), I was able to stroke her head and help prepare her for the funeral hearse. I helped the nurse change her and clean her. Before the nurse arrived I found myself entering her bedroom numerous times just to say goodbye and reassure her that her son, my deaf, mute & retarded brother-in-law, would be fine. There was something soothing about this ritual. It made me understand why having a loved one waked in the home makes more sense than a funeral parlor. Doing this for her made me feel like a priestess.
This experience also taught me not to fear death. Although dying can be traumatic, especially to those left behind, it is a natural part of life. If there is no death then there is no room left for new growth. Death can also be a blessing in disguise. I am often reminded of the classic Star Trek Season 3 episode The Mark of Gideon. The basic plot is that Kirk is beamed down to a fake Enterprise where he meets Odona. It turns out her planet is suffering from overpopulation and in an effort to control it Odona hopes to become infected by a disease Kirk carries but to which he is now immune. To these people, death has become a promise of relief, a surcease. For some people who suffer from a long-term debilitating illnesses or dementia, death but start to become a welcome experience.
What I have learned is that even if I have times when death seems cruel and capricious, there are also times when it is a boon signalling an end to suffering. Yes, it is a journey to the unknown but I now believe there comes a time in our lives when what is known is no longer tolerable and it is our choice to embrace this transition. Instead of fearing death and putting off the inevitable, we should speak to our loved ones and make our wishes known should certain situations arise. We should have the right to consciously decide if and when we chose to make this transition and the only reliable way to make our wishes known is through legal documents. These conversations may be painful but knowing how my mother-in-law felt about such matters make caring for her final days much more bearable.