The Last Breath: A Healing Moment

I watched a man take his dying breaths today. It’s not the first time and will not be the last, but each instance comes with its own unique circumstances in addition to the underlying elements that seem common to most deaths I witness firsthand. In this case my agency was able to make the dying man’s last wish come true–he passed away at home, in his own bed, without being over-medicated, and surrounded by family and loved ones. His wife of 69 years curled up next to him in bed as his last breath slipped away into the ether. I could not imagine her pain. I am only 40 years old and will celebrate my 5th wedding anniversary later this year. Their daughter fears, as do I, what will happen to his wife now that he is gone and she is in very poor health herself. The man’s wife had reportedly had what her niece called the “romantic notion” that she would die alongside her husband at the same time. It did not happen that way.

His family initially presented us with many difficulties, not the least of which was verbal aggression at what they perceived was a misrepresentation of exactly what hospice services entail. It was a classic case of grief and extraordinarily powerful emotions influencing what they heard as opposed to what was said by our staff. This is not unusual as the information is presented at a time when split-second decisions of astounding magnitude must be agreed upon by several family members often harboring problematic dynamics amongst themselves that are exacerbated by the stress of a loved one’s illness.

This is where I really earn my salary and prove my value to our organization. For several reasons, some of which I suspect I understand and some that I do not, I seem to be calmest amongst the chaos and highly-charged atmosphere such situations pose. In those times the largest fact in my life is that I was born to do this. There is no greater satisfaction for me than intervening with an upset family utilizing a mixture of education, empathy, and mediation to bring them to an understanding that we are all on the same page with the same goal, that being to provide the utmost in comfort measures and pain management to their loved one. I am good at this because the families can see my sincerity and the genuine desire for nothing more than to bring them relief in their toughest times. I believe that the alleviation of another’s suffering is the noblest cause there is and that I am privileged, as a member of the helping professions, to be an instrument of such healing.

It is for this precise reason that I am able to perform my job without succumbing to the depression that most people assume I would experience in such an intense position. The plain fact is that suffering exists in this world and that sometimes, in the face of such pain, the best thing you can do is to be its unflinching witness. Never underestimate the power of your sincerity and your presence. They are some of the greatest things you can offer. Until next time.



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