Death and dying in America (Part 1)
These last few weeks have been quite a roller coaster ride for my family. With the support of my three siblings (and their partners), we are taking care of my 83-year-old dad, who came home from the hospital with a diagnosis of inoperable cancer. He is sleeping in a hospital bed set up in the family room of his house. One of us sleeps on the couch next to him in case he needs help in the middle of the night.
When he wakes up, we help him shuffle into the bathroom and then to sit at the kitchen table to sip coffee or eat some tapioca pudding which my step-mom lovingly makes for him. Sometimes he sits in an easy chair and looks out the picture windows onto his gardens and ponds. He tires easily, so after an hour or two of visiting, he drifts off to sleep in his chair or in the bed.
Dad is surrounded by family and the acres he has sculpted and passionately tended for 50 years. The scenery is tranquil, and the view changes as rain trades places with sunshine, day turns to night, and groups of deer drift in and out of the yard, nibbling on fallen acorns or any of Dad’s plants which aren’t covered or fenced off.
I recognize that not every person has this luxury of spending one’s dying days at home. Many are in the hospital or a hospice facility. Luckily for my dad, his children have the free time, the strength, and the compassion to tend to most of his needs.
There are medical issues. Tending the tube connected to a pump which gently pulls out liquids from his stomach. Keeping him hydrated with apple juice. Putting drops into his eyes or swabbing petroleum jelly into his nostrils because he is drying out.
There are emotional moments. When he calls each of his children in for a “private moment” to discuss any unresolved business. We reminisce. We laugh. We cry. We talk about unfinished projects and maybe what could have been. It is a mixture of fear and relief, of sadness and gratitude. Above the mix of emotions, I recognize it is all good.
We’ve never done this before, saying a final (extended) goodbye, sending a loved one into the unknown. We are doing many good things for Dad, but we are making mistakes along the way. It is okay. It is hard and it is inspiring. And ultimately, it is very satisfying. I realize not everyone has the luxury of time. Some loved ones depart suddenly—via heart attack or accident—and there is no period of days or weeks in which to say a last farewell. No time to say “I love you” or “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you.”
I think this emotionally stressful time is complicated (balanced?) by the birth of our first grandchild in this same time period. As one life is being ushered in, another life is taken from us. If you are familiar with the Disney movie, The Lion King, it is what is referred to as the Circle of Life.
To help you understand the U.S. aspects of this universal business of death and dying, I will put together a few lists which might be helpful for you as you begin to experience the Circle of Life which affects your American friends and co-workers. The topics will include:
- Hospice, hospice centers, and hospital care
- Funerals and funeral homes
- Condolence cards and messages of sympathy