They are dying and you can’t be there.
People have died alone before. This isn’t new. Unexpected deaths, delays, avoidance, or hope of healing are just some reasons that can keep us from being at a death bed when a death occurs.
But never or rarely are people prevented from being there. This is a whole new type of trauma that the bereaved people of the COVID-era will have to navigate. And this isn’t happening just to COVID patients but to anyone sick or dying in a hospital setting. People dying of “normal” things are dying in abnormal ways. Abnormal meaning, instead of having loved ones around, waiting vigil, getting those last moments and saying those final words – everyone is alone. While being at someone’s death bed is very surreal – anything but “normal” – it is what is right. And the kicker is, we only get one chance.
For years now I have been deeply comforted by the idea that “no one dies alone”. I’ve written about it on here before – it’s one of the most comforting things we can share with people who couldn’t be or can’t be at the deathbed.
This idea was taught to me by Barbara Karnes – a hospice nurse with over 30 years of experience who I’ve had the pleasure of hearing speak a couple of times. I am always moved and helped by her death-wisdom and comfortability with the subject.
From her anecdotal point-of-view, dying people seem to speak to, see, or reach out to unseen people around them that they know and are comforted by. They mention seeing their mother, a deceased sibling, sometimes a childhood dog. The point is, the dying person is always accompanied as they make their transition from life to death.
I’d like to add that when she speaks the room is FILLED with other experienced hospice nurses nodding knowingly, enthusiastically, and each one of them has every story you can imagine to back this idea up. It’s just true.
So, take this in. No one is dying alone, not really. It is one of the most comforting truths I’ve encountered.
A few weeks ago I was scrolling through Facebook and came across something she wrote that absolutely grabbed me.
“One of my teachers said ‘Thoughts are things’ and ‘Thoughts originate before actions can follow’. So let’s use thoughts to send support, guidance and love to our loved one if they are alone in the ICU, nursing home, field hospital, or wherever they may be.
Quiet yourself, sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and think of your loved one. See in your mind your loved one in bed, sleeping. Again, in your mind, sit beside them, hold them, their hand or cuddle, whatever you are drawn to doing. Now start talking. Say what is in your heart. Talk about the good times, talk about the challenging times (every relationship has challenging times). Offer them love, gratitude for their life, for your relationship (if it is true).
In your mind create a gentle passing. What is a gentle passing? The person is non responsive, breathing gets slower and slower, eyes are partially closed, there’s no agitation, no talking, then there’s a facial expression of a grimace (maybe a smile but generally a grimace), one or two more breaths, and they are gone.”
*For the full Facebook post, click here.
Isn’t this beautiful/sad/crazy/peaceful/awful/hopeful/and so giving? I felt so heartbroken and yet, so profoundly moved by the power of the intimate “goodbye” that we can still have with our loved ones – even at a distance.
We are all having to get creative in this time and adjust to a new way of existing and grieving. I think what Barbara Karnes offers in this post is a way to peace, a powerful experience, and a treasured, final moment of togetherness.
You may not be able to be there, but your loved one is not alone.