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Contemplating death

By Tania ~

My job as a housekeeper at the hospital offers some insights into facts of life that are, for many people, quite unfamiliar and uncomfortable. For me, after years of working in hospitals and nursing homes, most of it is not a big deal anymore — the places of aging and sickness and healing, the hospital gowns and bedpans, bells and alarms that ring all day. As well, when working in a hospital or a nursing home, the concept of “death” isn’t as foreign as it is in other work places — like, for example, at a department store or a credit union!

In the unit I work at in KGH, death is not as “common” as it is in other units. After their surgeries, most people there are ready for discharge after three or four days; but every once in a while, that’s not the case. A few mornings ago, I was cleaning a patient’s room, and her husband told me that death was imminent — maybe a few hours, maybe a day or two. As it turned out, it was about two hours later that the patient passed away. Her husband told me the news, and I offered my condolences. I wasn’t working nearby when the porters came by transfer the woman to the morgue, but I’ve seen it in the hallways a few times — the “blue stretcher.” I cleaned the room afterwards, just like I’ve cleaned other rooms in which people spent their last weeks, days, hours, breaths.

Death is a huge topic. It can be awkward, scary, weird, a relief, beautiful, bittersweet. Being so close to it — seeing the butterfly notice on a hospital door, talking to someone who has just lost a loved one, seeing the empty spaces afterwards — still makes me catch my breath sometimes, still makes me pause a bit.

For as long as I can remember, the topic of death was quite commonplace. I cannot remember when exactly I first began learning about it, but probably from my parents or from Sunday School. I’m sure that there were some colouring sheets or a felt board that showed me what heaven and hell looked like. In heaven, there were were puffy clouds, bright lights, good little boys and girls, Jesus; in hell, heat and fire, and the devil, who looked like the Green Giant on a can of peas.

Those of us who grew up in the church are probably familiar with altar calls — an invitation by the pastor or another leader to anyone in the congregation who wishes to come to the front of the sanctuary and commit (or re-commit) his or her life to God. I remember many, many pastors who said such things as, “If you are uncertain about your salvation, please come forward to pray with someone here at the altar. If you are uncertain about where you are headed after you die, please come to the front. Are you sure that you are going to heaven? What if…what if…you were to step out of this church tonight and get into a car accident? And you died? Please, make sure you are on the right path. We’re here to help you.” Even back then, as a teenager or in my early 20’s, I never felt an urgent need to go forward to “be saved” from eternal damnation. Sometimes I’d whisper a quick prayer to Jesus to make sure that He and I were on good terms, and most of the time, we were…and when we weren’t, I’d pray extra hard and read extra chapters in the Bible in the following days, until things were okay in my mind.

I think it’s important that we do think about the topic of death from time to time, and also that we reflect on our lives periodicallyFrom ages 22 to 27, I volunteered quite a lot with Shuswap Hospice Society in Salmon Arm, where I lived for a big part of my life. That is when I really learned about dying and death, and there were certainly many interesting lessons learned. I began to see other views of death and the afterlife, not just the Christian view. For me, it was valuable to learn about others’ journeys, regardless of their status of religious faith. I learned about the experience of dying — what it looks like, how that varies from person to person, what people need, what’s important in the days and hours leading up to death. The training sessions, the monthly volunteer meetings, the conferences, the program co-ordinator, and, of course, the hours and hours of bedside vigil, all taught me so much about dying, death, and grief…and how to live life fully, here and now.

A few years ago, in 2012, I took a leave of absence from my job to take a funeral service program and work in a funeral home. The brief 10 months I worked at a funeral home in Penticton were very eye-opening and thought-provoking. I can go on and on once I start talking about it, so I’ll save that for another time and place! I can also recommend a few books, of course.*

In the last six years, since about age 26, my transition away from Chrisitianity and towards a non-religious/humanist worldview has brought about more changes in how I view death, life, the afterlife, and all those “kind of a big deal” subjects. I’ve noticed that some people assume that I don’t think about such things — as though leaving my religious faith has somehow made me shallow, unaware of such things as “my salvation,” or that I now view death simply as a cold, harsh reality. I would say this about shift away from a religious belief system: I have just as many questions now — or maybe even more — but I am okay with that. I am okay with saying, “I don’t know what happens after we die.” I care about how I live in this moment, this day, this lifetime… and I’d rather spend more effort on living my life to the best ability, here and now, than being overly worried or excited about an afterlife. There are enough things in my life right now that keep me challenged, that keep me working to improve some aspect of myself, that keep my mind occupied — I don’t have to dwell too far into the future.

The thought of death brings about for me a certain feeling of peace, stillness, relief about the end of all the craziness that we sometimes have to put up with in this world. And of course, sometimes the thought terrifies me — when I think of losing any one of the many special people in my life, I wonder how much I’ll cry, if I’ll ever make it through Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, how I’ll eventually pick up the pieces of my shattered world and bravely carry on. I feel okay about the thought of my own death, but I hope it doesn’t happen for a long time — I’ve got stuff to do here!

I think it’s important that we do think about the topic of death from time to time, and also that we reflect on our lives periodically — and that we continuously live so that we when it is our time to die, we won’t have regrets. Think deeply. Read. Make that phone call. Stop re-playing the old tapes in your mind that no longer benefit you or anyone else. Act silly. Be vulnerable. Feel your intense sadness or anger or whatever unpleasant emotion you’re having, and try to grow from it.

We cannot ever sort out all our feelings around death — I think that it’s a lifelong journey. We won’t know how we will handle someone else’s death or how we will be at our own death until we’re actually there, and worrying about it or over-thinking it to any extent probably won’t be very beneficial anyhow. So, for now, we go out and do life!

*Some books that taught me a lot are “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by Caitlin Doughty, “Curtains” by Tom Jokinen, and “The Undertaking” by Thomas Lynch. I also really like Caitlin Doughty’s Youtube channel “Ask A Moritician” — it’s a bit kooky, but also funny and down-to-earth, and this girl’s passion about her job is obvious. I also like the children’s book “Lifetimes” by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen. Some other helpful books related to dying, death, and grief are “I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye” by Brook Noel and Pamela Blair, and “Final Gifts” by Maggie Callanan


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