Saturday, December 17, 2011

Death Surprises

Having both parents die in under two months has brought some surprises to The Complete and Total Loser.

My father two days before his death.
  • Even with palliative care and a high number of morphine doses, there is pain when dying.
  • They have to turn you every now and then in a hospital bed even when there is zero chance you'll ever leave that bed. If they don't, your bones will push through your skin and you'll bleed and ooze and die horribly. As gentle as nurses can be, this jars the patient and upsets him even when you think he's completely unaware of physical sensation.
  • When dying, you often breathe through your mouth and it gets dry. In my father's case, it got so dry his tongue split open. The nurses do what they can with their sponge swabs and ointments but there are limits. Too much water and the patient can aspirate. I was telling a nurse that I was surprised no one has come up with a better way to hydrate a mouth. She said, cheerfully, that this was my chance to change that.
  • You won't see many doctors but you will see lots of nurses. If the hospital is at all good, nurses are gold. Where I was the nurses were fine about being addressed by their first names. Be good to them and don't treat them like their hotel maids. Not that you should treat hotel maids with any less respect than you treat anyone else, but you know what I mean. 
  • They say the last thing to go is hearing, so talk to each other and the dying as if he can hear you. I slept in the room with my father on his last night and talked and sang songs. I spoke in normal conversational tones. Told him things like how pretty his nurse was (true) and that the house was being well looked after (also true). Everyday stuff like that, and memories.
  • You might find that you can do things you wouldn't have thought you could. Like feed your father ice cream, put a straw in his mouth, hold his hand, touch his face. I didn't do the body washing and things like that but I have no training and I'm not sure if I could have done it well. If the nurses weren't there, I think I'd have figured it out.
  • When with the dying, at the end it's all about the breathing. When it gets down to under ten times a minute the end is near. Counting the respiration rate gives you something to do and makes you feel involved. At some point they disconnect the monitors.
  • You'll feel awful if you chat on your cell phone or use your iPad to check your Facebook page. Maybe not for years, but you will one day.
  • Bring something dry to read. Serious fiction or, better, nonfiction. I read "Longitude," which is about how the first clocks accurate enough to take to sea and use in calculating longitude were made. A fascinating book, by the way. I'm not done it yet.
  • Bring something to write in and a pen or pencil. You'll have thoughts you'll want to remember and writing them down is still the best way. For example, I realized for the first time how best to measure someone's worth to you and it's also the simplest way to do so.
  • That method is this: How do you feel when that person comes home from work or wherever he or she was? In my father's case, we were always happy.  

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