In October, members of our management team attended the Journeying Home Conference, coordinated by Hospice of the Red River Valley. This daylong seminar, presented by Barbara Karnes, focused on the idea that:
“Dying is simple, why do we make it so hard?”
Barbara Karnes is an RN and previous Executive Director for Hospice. Throughout her 30 year long career, she found herself having similar experiences with those facing the death of a loved one, so she decided to write down these experiences, creating, “The Little Blue Book.”
Much of what is contained in her book was discussed this day.
Role Models – How We Die
The first idea Barbara focused on is how we have so few role models for dying. When we are presented with death in movies, it is often quick, dramatic, and totally unrealistic. Everyone is gathered around the bedside of an actor with perfect hair and makeup. They are responsive, talkative, and the body is still functioning in an able way.
Western culture treats dying as a failure – a failure of treatment, or inability to cure. When the time comes, we must accept some truths: the doctor is not wrong, there will not be a miracle, or cure. People often go through the 5 stages of grief, during and after the dying process. These stages are: Anger, Depression, Bargaining, Denial, and finally, Acceptance. We often do not know exactly how long the labor of dying will last, so it is important to take the opportunity to make the most of each moment, and be honest about this final act of living.
It is comforting to think of the body as simply a vehicle for our self, or soul. Every body is going to die, but the essence of who we are is carried on in those whose lives we have touched, the legacy we leave, and through our various belief systems. Remember: it’s okay to cry.
We tend to die the way we lived, with limited control as our “social mask” comes off. A type “A” body will often die more quickly, whereas an overly-protective parent body might refuse to die with children in the room. Sometimes we feel guilt that a fear of dying means a disbelief in God. Not so.
One thing Barbara could not stress enough –and can be so hard to hear- is that, “starvation and dehydration are a normal, natural way to die.” Forcing food (especially protein) creates complications, including pain. Forcing fluids on a body with malfunctioning kidneys, can lead to drowning. This is why it is important to listen to the body – if it just can’t eat, don’t force it. A dying person may also start to push people away to make it easier for them to let go of this world.
The Labor of Dying
Dying itself is not painful; disease causes pain. However, we did look at dying as a labor. While each death is unique to that person, there are similar behaviors dying bodies go through. This is why it is so helpful to have someone from Hospice available. They will help guide this labor, and help everyone involved with much needed coping skills. Hospice makes sure comfort is ensured during this most emotional of events.
During the dying process, it is important to “meet the person in their reality.” If they are seeing other people in the room, encourage this, and ask them questions. Some people believe that we never die alone, because those that have gone before us, come back to help us die. In this, we see that dying is much more a social and communal event, not a medical one. You can help the dying person by not holding them here; by telling them that you understand they have to go, versus saying something like, “it’s okay.”
Grief and Coping
We concluded with a discussion of grief and how this too is unique to each person. At first we may be numb, until the pain becomes real. There is a fear that, “I could die too.” This is an important time to express grief. Talk about the person who has died. If you know someone dealing with loss, ask them about that person – it will be on their mind anyway. Having an outlet to express grief and anger, can help prevent it from turning into a lasting depression. Barbara suggested, for those that feel comfortable, to talk to the deceased person. For example, at holiday meal times, set a place for Mom and say aloud that you miss her and know she is here with you.
Holidays are often when we are most confronted with grief. Know that Hospice is here for you, and that River Pointe has a long history of working closely with Hospice. We believe in care and comfort at all times in life. You can find more information about Hospice by visiting their website. If you have questions for our Nurse, Ashley, about how Hospice may be (or become) relevant in a loved one’s life, do not hesitate to given us a call (218-287-6900).
Disclaimer: Please note that Hospice Care is different from Palliative Care, which is also available through Hospice of the Red River Valley at River Pointe. More information on that here.
I learned so much from attending this seminar, and hope you have been able to take away something from this post, as well. All of us here at River Pointe wish you a beautiful holiday season, full of joy and happy memories.