Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Fuzziness of Death

Last week, I was summoned to a patient room in ICU shortly before a patient was expected to die. She was a woman in her 70s, and when I arrived, several family members had gathered to be with her. I was there in the last few minutes of her life, and with her family well afterwards.

It was the first time that I had watched someone die.

Death is a strange thing. What was unexpected is that life is not an on/off switch. There was no precise moment of her death. It's not like in the movies where the heart just stops and there is a loud, continuous buzzing from the heart monitor. Even the heart does not just simply stop; residual electrical activity continues until it fades away almost imperceptibly.

Her death was more vague, more fuzzy and obscure. There was a time in which she was alive, and a time in which she was dead, and a softly-defined boundary in between. The systems of her body simply shut down, one by one. She did not die at one point in time, but rather faded from life.

It was something that I had not at all expected.

About a minute later, a fixed boundary was demanded from me. Another relative came into the room. It the midst of the confusion and chaos of the crowded room, it was uncertain what was happening. She looked at me and said, "What's going on?" The nurse said nothing. I had to make a split-second decision that (1) yes, the patient was indeed dead in every clinical sense and (2) to inform the woman of her grandmother's death.

For a while, the timing of death was vague and uncertain. Life did not turn itself off in the patient; it faded away like a receding tide. But then it was official, stated, and formal. The boundary between life and death had ceased to be fuzzy, and was not sharp.


Michael said...

Pretty awesome, John. I also witnessed an elderly lady pass from this life. The difference, however, was that she was one of my parishioners. Still, I was left somewhat awestruck to have witnessed such a thing and was left with so many questions as to be rendered virtually thoughtless. What I mean is that I was so overwhelmed that to this day, I still do not have the words.


Vicki said...

Wow. I've never experienced this before (and don't really want to at this point), but there's something almost peaceful about simply fading from life into eternity.

You're very perceptive and observant, as well as eloquent in putting this event into words. Thank you.

Scotte Hodel said...

My first experience watching death was, sadly, with my mother five years ago. After 2 months of treatment for cancer, she simply stopped; I saw her chest start to fall with her last breath, and I asked 'Is this it?" The nurse rushed forward and confirmed.

In the movie "Simon Birch" Jim Carrey has a short monologue that also illustrates the fuzziness of death: you don't lose someone when they die, you lose them by degrees. The smell of their clothes, etc., slowly fade. For many months I would realize that I'd just lost another part of her.

It's a part of life that is a challenge for those who are not prepared for it. (Well, that sentence has a lot more meaning in it than I had intended.)

truevyne said...

Dear John,
I had the very same thoughts at my grandfather's death bed. It was not quick, it was not slow, but with breaths becoming more shallow to the point I just couldn't tell. It's a holy thing to be present at such a moment. I actually had a moment where I told my grandpa silently that he was so lucky to meet Jesus in person before me.
AND FYI for you as a pastor. You need to know miscarriage is a process as well unlike the quick deal in movies. It can go on for days with the woman in uncertainty. Lots of times there is no line to cross that says, "I'm miscarrying now."

Chris said...

John, this is one of the most powerful aspects of our calling. To be invited into a room - into a family - during such a difficult time. It is a heavy calling...

God bless you in your journey.

Keith Taylor said...

Great post, John. I read and reread this several times.

Very good comments.

the reverend mommy said...

I'm sure you will witness more deaths. Some really are like the ones on TV. And some are so very painful and the gasping "death rattle" is so very hard to listen to. Each death, like each life in so individual.

Thanks for sharing this.

It's holy ground and a thin space. May God bless you in this journey.

John Meunier said...

John, thank you for sharing your experiences as CPE. These are really interesting and insightful posts.

God bless.

John said...

Thanks, everyone.

It's been a great experience to work with patients, family, and staff to find healing of the soul, as well as the body.