Thoughts on death

Mariah Martin lives with her husband in Harrisonburg, Virginia and works as a nurse on an intermediate care unit. She enjoys good conversation, cooking and anything outdoors. In the future, she hopes to pursue a career as a nurse midwife and eventually work overseas.

Death. We don’t like to talk about it.

The word itself has a negative connotation, sometimes. At a recent funeral service I attended, death was even referred to as “the enemy.” We avoid it at great emotional and financial cost; we deny it as long as we can; we fight it until the last breath.

Yet it happens to all of us.

As a nurse, I have learned firsthand that death is not something that can be bypassed. I work in an intermediate care unit where most of our patients are very sick. When the hospital volunteer drops off the newspaper in the morning, it is not uncommon for one of the nursing staff to pick it up, flip to the obituaries and scan the list for familiar names, patients that we have cared for. We wrestle with death every day.

My wonderful mother is a hospice nurse. In her work, she walks even more closely with death. Her patients are past the point of struggling against it. There is no elaborate game of chess — this treatment played against that symptom. Instead there is presence, comfort, adjustment and a constant evaluation of what is important in this moment.

A few years ago, when I shadowed my mom at work for a day, I was moved by the calmness and reassurance with which she alleviated the concerns of both patients and family members. I felt nothing remotely close to an enemy as I quietly followed her on her visits.

I noticed the joy felt in small things. A man who was utterly content to sit with his cat and overjoyed to see his cat again after returning from a doctor’s appointment.

I saw the commitment of a husband as he cared for his wife, even though she could not remember the meals he had served her a few hours before.

I saw the closeness of family as they drew together near the end, holding each other, telling stories, simply being close.

Yes, death is painful. We are never quite ready to say goodbye to someone we love. There is often something that seems unfinished; some event they should have made it to, or some achievement they should have been granted. And it is important to let ourselves mourn this loss, to let our hearts yearn for more time.

But there is no question that we will die, so trying to outrun or dodge death is futile.

I have seen families hang on so tightly to a breathing body that they fail to realize that the person they are trying to hang on to is already gone. They plead to nurses and doctors to intervene in every way; to eke out even a few more days or a few more minutes. All too often we confuse “being alive” with truly living.

We will all die, but we each get to choose our own response to this fact.

If we honestly believe that this life in our human bodies is merely a stop on our journey, why do we fear leaving it so much? Celebrate the life that has been lived. Remember the moments that have been shared, but do not cling to something that was never meant to be eternal in the first place.

I am young, but I have entered a profession that reminds me daily that I am not invincible, and neither is modern medicine. I see patients who try to battle with death, and I see patients who walk toward it in peace.

I hope that I can be one of the latter: not eager for death, but not afraid of it. Instead, simply confident in the mighty hands that hold our entire existence in their palms, and trusting in the great love that will carry us home.