Wednesday, April 12, 2017

About the Moment of Death

Death is not scary.  The actual moment of death really is no different from falling asleep, even though that's not what we're supposed to tell kids about death, as it may confuse them about the permanency of death.  And yet... for believers, death really isn't permanent at all, is it?  It's a birth into eternal life. 
Three weeks ago, we had to euthenize our dog.  That day marked the end of a 9 year era for us as "pet parents".  Our dog, Bigosia, got very sick very quickly, and we didn't have much time to process what was happening or what we ought to do.  The day we had her xrays done to confirm a large growth that had been interfering with her eating and breathing, we knew that one way or another, we had to make a decision quickly, within the week.  We couldn't make her suffer any longer.

All four of us were there with her as she passed onto the other side.  I remember petting her on the bridge of her nose, softly encouraging her to lay down, saying "get comfortable, baby".  She was calm.  Just that, she was calm.  No deep penetrating looks trying to tell me something.  No trying to remove herself from the situation.  She was calm.  Peaceful.  Weather she knew her pain was about to be gone for good, I don't know.  But she certainly didn't fear dying.  And she seemed no different to me after the vet confirmed that her heart had stopped beating and she was "gone".  I was so used to seeing her just lying around, keeping to herself.  I'd approach her and pet her at my leisure, and she often wouldn't stir, so this was no different.  

Five years ago, I approach another loved one's deceased body - my best friend Rachel, at her viewing.  It was four days after she died, so I suppose her body had been embalmed.  I noticed several things as I stood over her open casket to say my last goodbye.  One - they really caked on her makeup! Two - she had her hair straight and cut, a newer style to the one I preferred, the one I always image her with - long and curly.  Three - she was not in that casket.  Standing over Rachel's body, I remember realizing that my best friend was being housed in that body, transported in it, but she was not bound to it.  On some gut level, I knew that what made her Rachel was that je ne sais quoi that could only be described as "that which animated her body" - her spirit, her soul.  That realization gave me closure, even though her death was unexpected.

I wasn't present at the exact moment of my great-grandmother's death, but I was there just minutes before, and minutes after.  I had just stepped into the bathroom to wash my hair when she died.  I was drying my hair when I heard my grandmother talking to her mom and, upon not getting a response, starting to wail.  I knew even before she reached the bathroom door to tell me that Babcia Bronia had passed on.  I remember being very calm about it.  Sad, but calm.  Earlier in the day, I watched my great-grandmother as she lay on her bed in the large kitchen, where she had been living to ease getting to and from the one bathroom in the house.  She was on her back, and she was stretching out her arms above her, with a gentle grin on her face.  She was clearly reaching towards something - or someone - that only she could see.  As soon as I knew she had died, I knew that she had known she was dying.  Not in the prolonged illness, my time is approaching kind of way, but in the "that's my name, gotta go!" kind of way.  She was a devoted Catholic, and she died on the 8th of September, Mary's birthday.  So we suspect that she was reaching out to the birthday girl, ehem, Queen of Heaven, thrilled to have been called home on such a day.

In the hour or so following her death, before the funeral home people came to take her body, I helped my grandmother and grandfather dress her in the funeral clothes Babcia Bronia had picked out for herself ahead of time.  Before she died, her daughter/my grandmother had shown me the neatly folded outfit in her dresser.  Babcia Bronia had packed for a trip, essentially!  She packed light - she only wanted to wear a black dress with white ruffles.  She knew she didn't need anything else.  Anyway, the three of us liften her into a seating position to take off her nightgown and put on her funeral dress.  I will never forget the shock I felt when she sat up.  A gaspy noise came out of her mouth.  For a split second, I thought she was back!  Later I'd learn that it's normal for the last remnants of air to escape from the body after death, thereby making sounds.  In fact, when we were preparing for our beloved dog Bigosia's "big moment", the vet also mentioned the possibility of some unexpected - well, she actually mentioned liquids coming out, but luckily no such thing happened.

And so I'm back to my original observation.  Death itself is nothing to fear.  Instead, it's all the trauma that often leads up to death that can be scary, painful, and confusing.  And of course, the loss and grief that is felt by the loved ones left behind is the other unpleasant aspect of death.  But the actual moment of death?  Nah, that's just a transition.