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PLACEMENT EXPERIENCES

Seeing a dead body for the first time: The calming effect of performing last offices

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Student nurse, Emma Corbett, recalls her first experience giving last offices, having never experienced working with a dead body before

Emma Corbett_SNT

First year student nurse, Emma Corbett

 

I started my nurse training in September 2013 and performing last offices was not an aspect of the career I was looking forward to. I’d been fortunate enough to have never experienced a close death but while I felt apprehensive, I was also intrigued about what the process entailed.

On a recent shift I overheard the nurses saying that bay 1, bed 3 had died. I wasn’t working in that bay but I plucked up the courage to ask the nurse in charge if I could go and see the body. I thought: “just get it over with -reflect on the experience”.

“It was so nerve-wracking waiting for that curtain to be pulled back”

My mentor knew I was nervous so came with me for support.

As we walked down the ward to bay 1, bed 3, my heart was racing. I felt tense and kept my arms tightly crossed the whole time. It was so nerve-wracking waiting for that curtain to be pulled back and to step into this patient’s place of death.

The body was tucked in bed and looked perfect. Only the face revealed that the patient wasn’t sleeping. I had learnt that when someone is dying, you should consider propping a pillow underneath the jaw to keep it closed as the jaw can drop open and lock like that in death. This is what had happened and it scared me.

My mentor kept telling me not to be scared – “they’re just sleeping” – but I had frozen and couldn’t take my eyes off them. We’ve all heard the horror stories of the dead making sounds, twitching, leaking bodily fluids and I kept thinking that the patient was going to sit bolt upright in bed with their arms held out just like a classic zombie!

I could not stop thinking about the body. I felt scared and sick. A newly qualified nurse took me to the staff room for a time-out and shared her experience of death in her culture with me. She was from Zimbabwe and really opened by eyes as to how different beliefs treat their dead. Her description of a funeral was happy, festival-like, and made me think how morbid the approach to a funeral was in the UK.

“I felt scared and sick”

So, big deep breath, I went to help with last offices.

We had to wash the body, dress them in a shroud (a white gown that reminded me of what a traditional church boy would wear), wrap the body in a white bed sheet and leave identification tags for the porters.

When I was preparing for the wash, I talked to the patient just like I would have if they were alive and this helped me to feel less scared.

The body was cold and their blood had started to sink. Rigor mortis had not set in yet so the body was floppy and was difficult to move around when washing. They looked empty, just like a shell, as if the person inside had just disappeared and left behind what they no longer needed. Their eyes were unfocused and the body was so unnaturally still.

I’m not a religious person but this experience did make me reflect on the afterlife and whether there is one. Perhaps that patient did live on.

We covered the head last when wrapping the body, said our “rest in peace”s and called the porters. Covering the face was the worst part for me: it seemed so final and that was the very last time I saw the patient. After last offices, I felt much better and no longer felt scared. I felt a sense of peace and continue to reflect on the experience to this day.

“I felt a sense of peace and continue to reflect on the experience to this day”

My advice to a student in the same position as me is to take that leap of faith and experience what scares you most. Talk to your patient as you normally would and treat them as you would want to be treated in your death. You never know: you might find your own sense of calm like me and contemplate the meaning of the afterlife.

 

Emma Corbett is in her first year of studying Adult Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Hi Emma
    I am just at the end of my 2nd year, I had experienced death in my personal life but not had the privilege of under taking last offices until last week.

    Like you I spoke to my patient all the way through the process of washing and dressing, I am sure the other student with me thought that I was `crackers`! but I found that it really helped me.

    I am a firm believer in respect and dignity being shown right through to the very last moment. I know that I did this and will never be afraid again.

    Good luck with you training Emma

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