The first death I experienced as a brand new nurse was a young woman (in her 40s) with metastatic cancer. She was on a morphine drip, but did not want it on very high, so we titrated up and down based on her anxiety and her or her husband's request. She was very religious and strong in her faith. She and her spouse obviously had a close and loving relationship. As a brand new nurse, I was fascinated, horrified, frightened and anxious as the dying process took place before my eyes. I wanted so badly to do right by her and her spouse....but I digress.
She had been laboring all night long and somewhere around 4 or 5 in the morning began to pour fluid from her mouth and nose the likes of which I had never seen nor smelled before. She was panting and gurgling, sitting at 90 degrees and leaning forward. Suddenly, her eyes went to the ceiling of the room and her face filled up with wonder and light....no joke. She started to cry out "Amen! Amen! Amen! Amen!" over and over, her eyes just....bright and amazed. Her husband's eyes filled with tears and he stroked her head and asked her if she was seeing angels....and she relaxed back against the bed and gave up her soul.
It was a super intense experience and I will never forget it. It was the beginning of me letting go of my anger over Joseph's death. I wanted to know what she saw. I still do.
I had another death-related experience when my dad died, a few years before nursing school. Dad was a volatile man, likely mentally ill and he was chaotic when I was growing up, going from withdrawn silences to violent spasms of temper with the rare moment of gentleness mixed in. We were all pretty damaged from never knowing...a real Dr. Jeckyl and Mr Hyde. He generally was withdrawn unless he was screaming about something and he would toss things around, throw drawers and then make you kneel to clean it up, beat up the dog because he was angry about something one of us did...swore a lot, called a lot of names, asked a lot of open ended, unanswerable questions and then became further enraged when all you could do was sweat and cry and wet yourself from fear. He liked to wake us from deep sleep to lay into us over stuff. Being around him was the very definition of walking on eggshells. We did everything we could not to draw his attention and to this day the sound of a garage door opener causes a momentary internal sense of panic. He bloodied my lip a few times. I feared him and never really felt safe ever....from the time I was as young as I can remember until the day I moved out.
He mellowed some with age and he and I had started making our peace around the time of my divorce, which was ongoing at the time of his death. He was very ill with a Parkinsonian disorder of some kind and was kind of losing his mentation little by little. He was stiff, had flat faces and was having little car accidents until he wasn't allowed to drive anymore. We had a lake house that he loved to go fish at and he wanted to go one weekend. Mom hated it there, so she took him to the lake house and dropped him off with admonitions not to use the boat. Well, Dad was nothing if not stubborn. He took that boat out fishing. It was found a few days later moored in the mud, out of gas, a fishing line still hooked up and dead bait in a bucket, but no Dad. His body was found floating in the lake a fairly long distance away. He must have lost balance on the boat and fell overboard. He had been a strong swimmer, but with his disorder his limbs were pretty stiff and unresponsive. He was not wearing a life jacket. They estimated he had been in the lake a couple of days.
I took some time alone with him at the funeral home. They worked hard to make him viewable but cautioned us not to get too close to the casket, as apparently there was odor and mold they could not really contain. So I stood back some distance and talked to him. I had rebelled against him hard in my teen years and I told him I was sorry. I told him I forgave him. I told him I loved him and that I hoped he would be waiting for me when my time comes. Probably hard to understand with the portrait I painted of him above, but he was Elvis to me...an untouchable rockstar, a person I strove hard to please but never really could and now all the chances to somehow make him finally proud of me were gone. I felt relief at his death and yet.....destroyed by it. How could someone that powerful die?
I did his eulogy at the funeral. I was strangely numb. I would cry in fits, then feel nothing at all and then feel horribly guilty for feeling nothing. Then one night I had a dream. In it, I was in a white Cape Cod style of house. The interior of the house had one central square room with a hallway all around the outside and inside the room were the type of white folding chairs you see people rent for weddings and such. They were once in rows, but had been disturbed and were kind of askew. I sat on one and a minute later my dad came in. He was wearing a dark suit with a lavender shirt and an amethyst colored tie. He wore suits every work day of his life. A couple of months before his death he had given me a pair of amethyst earrings with a humble apology for being a poor father. The tie was the color of those. He sat down on a chair facing toward me. During his life, when he smiled, one side of his mouth went up further than the other. He gave me a closed lip, somewhat sad, still crooked little smile and we began to....talk? His mouth did not move at all. I just had....sensations coming from him that communicated things all in one transaction. He told me he had heard me at his casket and that he had heard me give his eulogy. That he was sorry. That he loved me. That he wished he had done better. That he appreciated the things I said, that he was full of regret, wished he had been different...its hard to communicate. Overwhelmingly he wanted me to know he loved me, heard me, forgave me...that he still existed. When I woke up, all I felt was peace. I have not had conflicted grief since then. I know it was him with every fiber of my being. I wish so much he knew I became a nurse. That I got a Bachelors degree and now a Masters degree...the first woman in my family to go to graduate school. Sometimes I miss him. Sometimes I still have nightmares about him. But my inner conflict over his passing went away after that dream. I would give anything to know he is proud of me.
As an odd aside, when I was a teen and really really hated him, I often dreamed I was killing him or beating him up. It troubled me and I prayed a lot for deliverance from my hopelessness over the situation. One night I had a dream that Dad was drooling in a wheelchair, slumped and helpless and that there was nobody to care for him because of how he had been through his life. I felt intense pity...and my rage simmered much lower after that. Had he not died how he did, that very likely was going to be his fate. I wonder sometimes if his ability to see his failures and try to rectify them as much as he could after so many damaging years was what gave him the death he had, doing something he loved rather than dying of aspiration pneumonia and loneliness.