“How will I know if he’s dead?” This question came from a woman in her 50s, husband was nearing the end of his life. Does he like change color? She continued, “I’ve never really seen anyone that’s dead before.”
The moment of death. The moment where there was once life, a flame, extinguished. Is that moment scary? When will I know to say goodbye?
As a hospice nurse, these are questions we get asked on a regular basis. There is such a mystery surrounding the actual moment of death. It is a veil that occasionally is lifted, and we are given a glimpse of what the ending looks like.
That moment is many things, and it would be a travesty to attempt to explain it with one simple word. It is mystical. It is solemn. Really, it is the combination of one’s entire existence. Not everyone experiences that moment the same way though. It is not a cookie-cutter ending. But rather very individual and unique set of circumstances that each person traverses differently.
Just those when we look for a newborn baby to take that first breath, we look to the person passing away to breathe their last exhale. That final dance that can often clue us into understanding that a person is no more in their physical form.
How do I know if someone has passed away? Can tell by looking – You can tell by the coloring of their face. When someone has reached the end, there is an almost grayish or purpleish hue that takes over, primarily in their face. The rest of the skin will take on a yellowish tone. It is almost an unnatural color. But, this all occurs after that final exhale.
Being in the profession that I am, my ultimate goal is to make sure that a person traverse is the river of death in a comfortable and pain-free manner. Yes, that includes medications. There is an enduring fallacy that hospice staff kill people. Several online forums are dedicated to talking about how hospice murdered someone’s loved one. I can assure you that I have never murdered someone in the entire six years that I’ve been a hospice nurse. Nor will I ever. Comfort much different than killing. Making sure that one’s life ends peacefully is much different than just ending one’s life.
So, what’s the actual moment like, from someone who has seen hundreds of deaths?
It is overwhelming and yet empty… there is a visible deflation of a being.
It is almost beyond comprehension because how is it actually possible?
It is often a bitterly sad moment as one’s loved one is no longer but a glorious moment as there is no more suffering.
It can be loud yet peaceful.
There is freedom
There is emotion
Tears flow, sometimes from the patient…
It is a reversed birth…
One looks for an inhale
The other for an exhale
It is fragile
It is palpable
It is the closest that one will ever feel in this life to God, or the universe, or whatever being is believed to be higher.
No matter how many actual moments of death my eyes have seen, the awe of the moment never ceases to amaze. Witness it once and it will remain with you forever.