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'I didn't realise that after a person has died, it's hard to treat them as if they are dead'

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Prince was not sure how to feel about seeing his first dead bdoy, but helping with last offices helped him recognise the respect and dignity involved in preparing a body

When I heard a nurse ask for a bereavement pack, I realised now was my opportunity to see my first dead body - something I was anxious about.

So, I swallowed my nerves and asked my mentor if I could help with the last offices and we went together to the bay.

I was introduced to the nurses working there and went to the bed which had curtains pulled around. Then they let me look at the body. The lady was light yellow, looking up and her left arm was up in a surrendering position.

I was scared because it looked unreal and her mouth was open - I kept thinking she was going to sit upright.

We went back to the office and decided we were going give her a last bath. I got her washing bowl, soap and a comb and went back to the office to meet with the nurses so we could start the wash. Another student was getting the towels and the bed sheets.

I put my hand in the water and thought it was too cold, as I was about to go and change it when it hit me that she was dead. I didn’t realise that even when people die it’s hard to treat them like they are dead.

I could not imagine death although I acknowledge it’s real - I didn’t see a difference between a live and a dead person.

Even though she scared me, I still forgot she was dead and I went to get the water. We went into the bed space and I thought she was going to jump up and give me a fright and lay back down again - but that’s just horror movies.

I found it fascinating that she was declared medically fit just that morning, yet now she was dead.

She was still warm but her neck had gone stiff so she had quite an arch on her neck. That image and the tumour under her left eye still haunt me.

We started washing her, her limbs were floppy. As I was washing her face I realised she aspirated. I wiped her across the forehead and her eyes opened wide open, I was thinking words that I cannot write down for professional reasons but the nurses closed her eyes and held them shut. It was not like in the movies when they run their hands over a dead person’s eye and they close. After a few tries they managed to close her eyes.

We carried on washing her whilst talking to her as if she was alive, we spoke to her throughout and it may sound silly saying it before you’ve done last offices, but it’s dignified and it makes sense.

We finished washing her, changed the bed sheets and dressed her in a shroud. We wrapped her in a shroud from toes to head although we forgot to ask the family whether they wanted her arms straight down or across her chest.

Wrapping from head to toe is quite scary because when you cover the head lastly that moment stays with you; it is as if you’re shutting someone away for good.

She looked peaceful, holy and innocent.

We deflated the bed and called the porters and then we had to fill in the bereavement book.

Walking out the bed space, everything seemed vivid and it felt like deja vu.

The nurse I was working with told me stories, how you have to open the window to let the spirit out. Sounds like a screaming steam train! She told me about another case when a man called all his family members to his house and said his wife who had died a few years earlier was waiting for him at the door.

When people die respect and dignity does not go out the window. You still see them as that happy patient who was there, you see them for the good times when they were drinking tea, smiling and being joyful.

Last offices are very touching and sometimes you have to be strong because I could feel the heaviness in my heart. I felt pain for the family, it’s like someone pulling your heart down.

It was a very intimate and sacred procedure, but it left me scared at night - I felt she was going to come and ‘get me’! I remember the flashbacks and I told my mentor if I didn’t come in the next day it would be because of the nightmares. There is something about last offices that you cannot express but I will not forget my lady’s name and surely the day I helped get her ready for a better place.

Prince Arthur Nkala is a second year adult student nurse at Wolverhampton University

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