One of the hardest things being endured during this pandemic is being physically separated from loved ones who are sick. One doctor I heard interviewed said that this is the worst thing about Covid-19–you drop off a loved one at the emergency room and don’t realize that you may never see them again. This is terrible. In this post Janelle Borders-Denault, an education student at King’s, shares a powerful and hopeful story about separation from her pépère during his dying process.
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Dying in Quarantine – Janelle Borders-Denault
I, like many others, am being shut out of a loved one’s dying process because of Covid-19. Ironically, I have spent the last year practicing for this, practicing for the moment where I could sit with someone I love through their final hours of life. Being shut out of a love one’s dying process, though, alongside my typical bedside experiences, has taught me a secret:your loved one dying in quarantine is not alone.
This pandemic is changing the dying experience for everyone right now, not just those who have the virus. My pépère does not have Covid-19; he is actively dying from an infection. But the last hand he holds will not be mine or my father’s. As of March 21st, only one, single essential visitor may visit a long-term care facility at a time. Essential visitors are defined as family, friends, or paid visitors who are providing care necessary for a resident, and visitors who are attending a resident who is actively dying. Both me and my father were blessed with one visit last week, where each of us had to go in on separate days, by ourselves, to say goodbye. And now we wait. Because of Covid 19, both directly and indirectly, people in our communities are dying without loved ones by their side.
But what if sitting with our dying people is more for us than it is for them? First of all, withdrawal is one of the first signs that someone is entering the dying process. Eyes glaze over, and suddenly any sort of embodied engagement must be prompted. When my pépère entered this stage, it was really hard for my mémère to accept. “Where is Raymond?” she would ask him. “He’s to the moon!” Pépère would remain preoccupied, ‘somewhere else,’ until she nudged his arm. Most of their conversations deteriorated into her vetting for his attention. Moreover, it is not unusual for people in this stage to report seeing deceased loved ones, which can lead to further withdrawal if their experiences are dismissed as delusion. One of my hospice patients saw a child on the edge of his bed, for example, while I was visiting. “Move!” he screamed. “Lay her down!” Last week, I told my pépère how much I love him. “You can leave whenever you’re ready,” I said. As I spoke, he sat up, looked around the room, and then up at the ceiling. “Where’s that voice coming from?” he asked. This ‘somewhere else’ where our dying endure is, I think, God’s all-consuming embrace. The very onset of the dying process, it seems, is a final one-legged swing over the saddle that rides the crack between ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere.’ It is a draw towards God’s summoning.
Withdrawal is exaggerated, of course, as active dying sets in. Each of the senses begin to slip, one at a time. Vision goes first, then touch– hearing goes last. My pépère could not see during our last visit. His eyes were always pacing the ceiling, back and forth. Though he was still responsive to touch stimuli (he swatted my hand away as I tried to place it on top of his), I imagine that he isn’t today. I picture the nurse aids heaving his limp body onto its side to inject the painkillers. He is still ‘here.’ I know this because I am still waiting. And this is where things get hard. God picks us up and swings us onto her hip when the final ride is done. But why is her touch so crushing? Let us, though, listen to those who are in it. The most shocking thing I’ve learned over this last year is that people who experience a gradual death seem to choose exactly when the ride stops. Often, it is when no one is around.
During the last session of hospice training, I felt anxious. “What do you do,” I asked the group, “if someone dies in front of you?” The coordinator was quick to answer: “chances are, they won’t.” My Aunty, who is a hospital chaplain, echoed this response. Over the span of her practice, only one patient has come close to dying in front of her. The patient decided to pass when she had just walked out of the room, and a nurse was about to walk in. My Aunty also told me of one woman who had requested a priest and three musicians, alongside friends and extended family to be in the room as her husband died. After hours of the group praying and singing, and hours of her husband agonal breathing (a gasping that is not true breathing but a brainstem reflex, which can happen shortly before death), the nurses decided it was time to clear the room to ‘give the patient his painkillers.’ The nurses knew, from the longevity of the patient’s severe state, that he was simply not able to die in such a stimulating environment. Almost immediately after the room was cleared of everyone except the wife, the husband passed. Yes, this person decided to have their wife beside them as they died. Yet, many people don’t. My friend’s father passed away last year from cancer. He died when they were out for a quick bite to eat. “He was protecting us, like always,” she smiled. Of course, there are many beautiful stories of people dying in the embrace of a loved one. But during this pandemic, it is important to know that these stories are not the norm. Dying is not communal; no one can share the immediacy of a last breath. Dying is a slow dance with the divine.
Yet, in a way, death is communal–each person, in their dying, teaches the world something. As I sit here writing this very sentence, I have an incoming call from my Dad. He tells me it’s over– Pépère is dead. And while I can’t help but picture him laying in a dark and empty room for those last moments, jaw dropped and gasping, I also wonder if he would have waited for a moment like this anyways, where he felt free to fix on the summoning voice that pulled him in months ago. Though I’ve always wondered what we do when we sit with the dying, it took my pépère’s death for me to realize that we learn. Perhaps we ground our dying through the pain, maybe. Mostly, though, they ground us. They shock us bone deep to the fleeting present. They let us go. They point towards another place. Around the globe people are dying without loved ones near. But my pépère taught me something: the dying are never alone.