Shit’s gotten real.
Recently, a dedicated, loving sister-in-law who visited her dying brother-in-law for hours every day asked, “How do you do this work? I’d be crying all the time.”
Let’s see; I think I’ve been asked this about five million times. My kneejerk response is “Oh yeah, I’m just an unfeeling, cold-hearted bitch who enjoys torturing herself forty hours a week. Want to know what the schmutz on my scrubs is? Oh, it’s just a little bit of the copious flood of infected pus that came out of bed twelve’s lungs when we turned her. No worries! Fun! So what it is you’re asking dear?”
But I know why they say these statements; they are trying to be kind. I feel the same way when I walk through an office lined with people working in cubicles. Or past the desk in a pet rescue. Or for someone who litigates all day arguing that they are right and trying to destroy the expert or the witness. How anyone emotionally survives working in those environments is anathema to me.
To those who Google everything we who are caring for your loved one say, and are updating Instagram photos of them visiting their dying grandmother, and updating their Facebook page reaching out for condolences, I want to say “Put the damn phone down; shit has gotten real. Real. If you want me to help you out with this experience, you better hurry up and pay attention. Put the fucking phone down. I know you’re in a situation you’re not used to, but you may want to watch me and listen up. Geez.”
To the people who have zero instincts during witnessing the dying process I want to say, “Hello? Anyone home? Hello? Tune in. Tune IN. You don’t tune in by looking outside of the person who is dying. Let me show you how to touch, listen, be quiet, actively see your loved one, what to say, what not to say…” Sometimes I can sense that the family/visitors/friends are beyond communicating. They’re so dependent on their outside form of support and communication that they’re just going to have to go through it and see how it goes.
You want to know a couple of common comments to the dying that make me shake my head and suppress a comment?
Here are the most popular:
- “You look great!” To that I want to say, “Oh he’s real strong; just look at those big biceps and bright eyes! Wow! Let’s check for the washboard abs!”
- “Stay strong!” I want to say to those people “Strength has nothing to do with this. How about honoring him or her for being courageous enough for simply being here?”
- “God doesn’t give you anything that you can’t handle.” This is utter cruelty to say. Tell the sixteen-year-old who’s eye is bulging from the brain tumor how fair this “god” is. Please stop saying this. It’s mean.
- “You have to stay positive!” Sure, asshole, that ten-year-old patient who’s brain in gelatin is trying real hard to think of ocean breezes, Barbie’s and Disney World, I’m sure. Just sit next to them and send them love from your heart to theirs. That helps.
- “Where there’s life there’s hope.” I sometimes say that to get their attention when the patient asks me about their disease progression, but I think the word “hope” implies doubt and is not nice.
- “Pray for a miracle.” I almost always ask, “Is this something your loved one would have believed? If not, please stop imposing your belief system on him/her.” (Like many of our nurse aides who seem to love the evangelist stations or the conservative news stations blasting in the patients room while they take care of them.)
- “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle.” Now c’mon. God is love and that’s just not nice to say to someone. Think about it before you say it, geez. God has lost a lot of followers because of this belief.
I could walk around my life being sad 24/7. But I refuse to. There’s so much beauty in this experience. Dying young people can be so precious and respond to humor. They love it when I’m goofy. I want to do a happy dance honoring them. There’s always a pall of sadness around their home, but when I arrive, there’s lots of love and lots of gentle humor.
Here’s some of the things I’ve whispered in their ear:
- “Your visitor is really sad and trying to pick the right words. Forgive her.”
- “Oh God don’t you hate that advice?”
- “I’ll keep her away from you, don’t worry.”
- “I just want to scream at him. Do you want me to try it in your voice? C’mon! It might be funny.”
- ‘You keep sleeping. They just need to know you’re comfortable. I’ll handle this.”
- “I’ll laugh at that one for you.”
- “Hey, thanks for being on this earth. You’ve done a very good job. Go in peace, my friend, go in peace.”
After they die, I’ll sometimes ask,
“Say Hi to my sisters for me.”