As a mother of three sons, it’s not often I feel nervous or worried about what I might encounter in my life. Then again, until now, I had never seen a dead body.
This was one situation I WAS concerned about and I had a genuine fear about how I might react. I hoped that I would be able to act in a professional and compassionate manner, but I worried that I would be frightened or, even worse, repulsed.
William*, who neither my mentor nor I had ever met, died in the afternoon and we were asked to carry out the last offices.
My mentor asked me if I was happy to do this and I agreed, feeling that it was something I should find out about as early on in my nursing course as possible. After all, you never know until you try.
“I worried that I would be frightened or, even worse, repulsed”
I could not have asked for a more supportive mentor and this was a factor in giving me the confidence to agree to carry out this task.
Although it sounds obvious, on entering William’s room the first thing I noticed was that it was immediately evident he was dead.
His “spirit” seemed to have gone.
As is the protocol within our NHS trust, my mentor talked to William as if he were still alive. Although I washed his face gently, taking care not to get water in his eyes and I removed his catheter gently and slowly so as not to “hurt” him, I found it impossible to talk to him - he was dead!
“My mentor talked to William as if he were still alive”
My mentor had forgotten something and had to leave the room briefly. She asked if I would be alright and I replied “I’ve brought up three boys, I can do anything!”
But alone with William, I felt spooked.
His eyes and mouth were open; despite my mentor’s attempts to close them, they had stubbornly bounced back to their original positions. I could not bring myself to look at his face (what if he moved?!) and I stayed motionless in the silent room, willing my mentor to come back.
At university, our tutors talk a lot about the concept of resilience. The Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as “the ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions”.
“Although I never met William while he was alive, he had a huge impact on me”
This is certainly a concept that has huge importance to student nurses who will come across many “firsts” during their three years of training. Resilience, or a lack of, no doubt contributes to the high dropout rates on nursing courses.
When I completed the Resiliency and Self Care inventory I scored low in three of the 38 questions, all of which were in the “personal stress” section (mother to three boys!). This highlighted changes I should try to make in my personal life to help me increase my capacity for resilience.
My mentor soon returned and we completed the last offices with no problems.
My meeting with William increased my confidence in my ability to carry out last offices. I hope that when I do this for someone I’ve cared for when they’re alive that I will have the resilience to care for them equally well after death.
Although I never met William while he was alive, he had a huge impact on me. I will always remember his (real) name, he will always be “my first” and I am thankful to him because he showed me that I really can do anything.
Tracy Blunt is