Today M died. In a nursing home I know this is not a rare occurance, but it’s still strange to see someone you sat next to and talked with only two weeks previous laying cold and lifeless in bed
It’s strange to search for the carotid pulse, the familiar drumbeat either side of the Adam’s apple, to find only the gentle rhythm of your own heartbeat in your fingertips.
At 93 M had lived a long and hopefully happy life replete with thirteen children, nine of whom made it to adulthood.
“M was a small woman with kind eyes and a gentle demeanour. She always wore purple”
I don’t know much else about her because dementia had robbed her of memory and concentration. Her speech was disorganised, faltering and always aimed just over your shoulder to the invisible someone from a distant past or place.
M was a small woman with kind eyes and a gentle demeanour. She always wore purple. Only five of her offspring remained and two held the bedside vigil when she passed.
“A death that is properly and sensitively handled and communicated effectively is an undertaking of which the [staff] team deserves to be proud”
I didn’t recognise it at the time but later a nurse told me M’s was ‘the perfect death’, and not just physically (she suffered little pain or distress), or spiritually (a kindly priest performed the last rites), but from a professional perspective it was ideal.
I don’t mean to sound disconnected from the emotion of the situation - I felt it keenly - but a death that is properly and sensitively handled and communicated effectively is an undertaking of which the team deserves to be proud. Everyone knew M was dying; there were no surprises as she deteriorated and the family were given time to get to her bedside.Good practice prevented unnecessary medication; for example, her respiratory secretions (otherwise known as the ‘death rattle’) were eased by carers who gently repositioned her, thereby easing her own and her family’s distress.
“It is small touches that make all the difference. These are the things which should be common practice”
I was overwhelmed by the dignity afforded to M in death. Nurses and carers alike continued talking to her as they would have when she was alive. They washed and dressed her and combed her hair with care and attention. I watched a nurse take M’s hand for a moment and note with sadness that she had started to go cold. One healthcare assistant told me the rule they have in this home: as soon as a resident passes on you must open the window and let their soul fly out. “After all,” she said with a smile, “she wouldn’t want to be stuck in here forever!”
It is small touches - such as the yellow flower sign on M’s door which subtly alerted passers-by to this resident’s imminent passing, or the comfort box complete with essential oils, balms and kind words provided to the family in the late stages to foster a peaceful atmosphere - that make all the difference. These are the things which should be common practice.
”I realised then that [her carers] were saying goodbye by giving her the only things they could: kindness and respect for the physical form she had left behind”
It was a privilege to share M’s last few weeks of life and her peaceful death. While my fellow student nurse and I watched the carers prepare M for the impending arrival of the funeral directors there was great solemnity to the rituals. They cleaned her body with dignity, gathered her best clothes for burial, smoothed her brow and arranged her form in a peaceful pose.
I realised then that they were saying goodbye by giving her the only things they could: kindness and respect for the physical form she had left behind.
Catherine Gordon is a current student nurse.