O Death

One misconception I occasionally run into is that as a hospice nurse, I must welcome death, embrace it, almost have a morbid fascination with it. 

Well, I certainly think about death. I thought about death before I went into nursing, and I think about it even more now. Death is the backdrop of all our lives, and I am constantly aware of it. “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of life between two eternities of darkness.”† Common sense does, indeed. 

The people who think I must have a morbid fascination with death are often puzzled upon discovery that I am also an EMT. Saving lives and midwifing the ends of them seem incompatible. 

Yet I tend to death and to the dying because of how much I love life. I'm an EMT because I want to save lives, and I am delighted when that can happen. Nothing cancels the joy of a life restored. Life is a vessel holding the sacred and should itself be held close for as long as we can faithfully hold it.

At some point, though, it stops making sense. It stops being an act of faithfulness to hold on to our lives. In case anyone missed the bulletin: we all die. Yes, all. Any restoration is temporary. 

I, like most people, am afraid of my death. I am afraid but I acknowledge that my fear makes no sense. Fear of death is like fear of breathing. If, in an effort to cope with such a fear, I turn my back on death (or breathing), I can't really live. 

So, confronted with the abyss, tempted to stand continually with my back towards it, I must turn, then, and live. 

When I turn, living, and look into the abyss, my reaction is to bless it the only way I know how. Clinging to life can’t overcome death — but love can. 

When people with very severe illnesses sit down with their loved ones and discuss “goals of care,” one of the goals is almost always to have as much full time together as possible. If, in my work, I can help people attain that goal and bear out the fullness of their love “even unto the edge of doom,”‡ I have helped to bless death. I am, then, blessed in return. My own fear of death boils down to a fear of no longer being loved. When, over and over, I see love resurrect in the face of death* — I can finally begin to let go of fear.

Nevertheless, “please spare me over for another year!”

†from Nabokov's Speak, Memory; ‡from Shakespeare's sonnet 116; *image of love as a resurrection from Kate Braestrup's Here If You Need Me.) Oh, and “Turn, then, and live!” is from multiple places in the Bible.