We Are Born, We Experience, And Then We Die

I was talking with Richard and Bill on their The Healing Power of Grief Radio Show yesterday about how and when to talk about dying and death. We Americans don’t talk about dying and approaching death when we NEED to talk about it (doctors hesitate to tell patients they can’t be fixed, families hesitate to talk with a loved one about the possibility of dying and approaching death). 

If we can’t talk about dying when it is paramount to do so how can we expect people to talk about dying and death, to make plans for their own death, BEFORE they need to? We are such a death denying society. We believe other people die, but not me or anyone close to me.

YET, and I purposely put yet in capitals, we are all going to die someday. Our bodies are programmed to die. It is how we are made. We are born, we experience, and then we die. Nothing lives forever. From the time we came into being the physical body was made to die. There is a process to the body dying, that has not changed EVER. How we as individuals and societies deal with the body dying has changed over the eons and will continue to change.

Basic dying 101: there are only two ways to die, gradual or fast. Fast is a heart attack, accident, suicide. A person is alive one minute and dead the next (or within days and hours. Covid seems to be fitting into that category).

Gradual death has a process to it. It doesn’t just happen. The process is the same for both old age and disease, but with old age the timeline is different. In this article I'm going to talk about the dying process and timeline from the disease perspective, from when the disease begins robbing the body of its ability to function and eventually the body dies. 

The dying process basically has stages to it that begin months before actual death occurs. We can address the stages as months, weeks, and days/hours. 

Looking at a few guidelines you can determine if a person has entered the dying process. Important to note: just because a person has a life threatening illness does not mean they have entered the dying process.

Months before death changes begin in eating, sleeping and social interactions. Weeks before death changes occur to alertness, ability to interact, breathing, and eyes are generally partially open while sleeping. Days to hours further changes in breathing, body coloring, and blood pressure occur. The person is now non responsive. (All of this is more detailed in my booklet, Gone From My Sight.)

In the days to hours before death, even an unplanned-for death, the signs of the process for days and hours kicks in and you see the process unfolding.

Now, back to why I started this blog: if we would educate ourselves before we need the information, before someone we care about is dying, before we are faced with a life threatening illness, or before someone we care about dies a fast death we will have “tools” to guide and support us through one of the most challenging experiences of our lives ——the dying and eventual death of someone we care about and even our own dying.

Knowledge reduces fear. Knowledge allows us to approach an experience with information. Knowledge supports us, keeps us from, or at least reduces, our floundering.  

Contrary to superstitions many of us carry, knowledge does not make something happen sooner and lack of knowledge does not keep something from happening. However, knowledge does make an experience just a tad gentler to live through.

Something More... about We Are Born, We Experience, and Then We Die

In my book, The Final Act of Living, Reflections of A Hospice Nurse, you will not only read about experiences I have had in my 40 plus years caring for the dying. There is a chapter that goes over advance directives. 

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6 comments

Shelly C.

Barbara, this was awesome. I was told in 2016 that I was dying. As a result, I hurriedly put together a living will and advanced directives. It was appropriate for the time, but then I got better, so I revised them to be more appropriate for the longer term. Somewhere during this process I began thinking about how little we talked about death and dying and communicating what we would want that to look like when we did in fact die. I realized how little any of us knew or thought about all of this, let alone talked about it. I came to the conclusion that when our children, now suddenly adults, graduating from high school and were receiving their diplomas, that they should be required to think about what they might want to have happen if they became ill or injured to the point that they couldn’t speak for themselves and to fill out the appropriate paperwork before they could receive their diplomas.

I know that that sounds rather rash, but it would get the conversation started, and it would require families consider truths, even if they didn’t talk about it together, as some wouldn’t, but it might begin to turn the tide in how we treat the concept of death. The graduate would of course have to understand that they could change what they wanted at any point, and that the real point of the matter was to get them to start thinking about it.

And for those people that think I’ve fallen and bumped my head, and what a wildly inappropriate concept this might be, consider that your child is in a car accident and is on life support. Do you know what they would want you to do? Personally, without having had that conversation with my child, I could never had peace in my heart no matter what decision I made. If I had them take my child off of life support, I would live in constant agony and guilt that maybe I gave up on them sooner than they would have wanted me to. If I left them on life support and they somehow miraculously (I use this word very loosely here) survived but required constant care, and couldn’t communicate, and drooled down themselves, etc… I would always wonder, knowing that I would personally NEVER want to live that way, should I have just my child peacefully pass on.

And please, understand, I’m in no passing judgment on anyone for any decisions they have made! I’m merely looking for a way for our country to learn how to talk about dying in a real and meaningful way, and by the way, our children can be phenomenal teachers for us adults sometimes. They will very often handle things much better than we may. They have fewer conceived notions about things than we adults do.

I just remember when I had to try to have this conversation with my family 5 years ago, I very much felt like I was driving a train wreck. But now, the conversation has been had. I’m VERY open about what I want and that I expect it to be respected and my wishes be followed. Has the rest of my family addressed this issue for themselves? Not that I’m aware of… It’s not talked about… Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could teach a generation to start doing what we ourselves seem to be to afraid do. I’m not saying that my idea is the right one, but it’s at least an idea… Can we talk about it?

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