Years ago, I heard a news story about how removed from death we (as a society) have become. We have a harder time dealing with the finality of death because we aren’t exposed to or spend time with dead bodies anymore. People die at the hospital, a nursing home, a hospice unit and are taken away and we don’t have the chance to get our final goodbyes at home.
When I was younger, I thought that was a good thing. I was terrified of death, the thought of finding a loved one dead, dead bodies at funerals, even my own family members (grandparents, great uncles and aunts, etc) and I wouldn’t get close to the casket, let alone actually touch the body.
At some point in my relationship with Greg, I had the thought that someday I would see him die or find him dead. I know that’s a morbid thought but it popped into my brain and I thought, “Well, yeah – since he’s 11 years older than me that’ll probably happen…in my 70s or 80s.” And I kind of terrified myself by that thought. Of him dying…not really, because it was going to happen when we were much, much older. But I was terrified by the thought of his dead body. I had never been very close to a loved one who had died so I guess I just assumed it would be like the other deaths I had experienced.
Turns out that assumption was wrong. And I’m so glad I was wrong.
The evening of Greg’s death, his bed was surrounded by our friends and family, talking to him, crying with him, calling loved ones who live far away. We all stayed up late to sit with him but at about midnight, after a hospice nurse had come to check on him and confirm that he was ‘actively dying’, I decided I’d like someone to be in the room with us, to take shifts. My sister-in-law (J) and I stayed up, quietly sitting and laying with Greg, trying to stay awake. I lay on our bed which was pushed up against his hospital bed so I could be as close to him as possible while J took a spot on the floor. I held his hand and talked to him. His breathing had become so labored and it was beginning to be painful to watch how much he struggled to get a breath.
I tried to stay awake and Greg started to call out after awhile. It was hard to understand what he was saying. I thought he was saying, “Red” and “Mariah” but I really didn’t know for sure. His legs were restless and I got a little scared that he was in pain so I helped make him comfortable and gave him a boost of his medication.
I lay back down and then it was quiet. I’m not really sure when it happened but I think we may have fallen asleep because Greg had gotten quiet. I felt bad that I hadn’t been awake for his last breath but when I woke up shortly after, I was still holding his hand. And it was warm; warm but limp. And I didn’t want to let it go. In fact, I couldn’t stop touching him. It was like as long as I was touching him, he would still be here with me. Maybe I wanted to touch him as much as I could before I couldn’t anymore. Or maybe because I had missed touching him during the couple months he was in so much pain and we couldn’t squeeze him for fear of hurting him. Or maybe I was scared that when I stopped, he would become that dead body that I was afraid of. But that didn’t happen. I was never scared.
It was about 3 a.m. when Greg died so while we waited for the hospice nurse to come and clean him up, the chaplain to come to talk with us, the funeral home to take him away to be cremated, I just kept touching him. He slowly became colder. He died with his mouth and his eyes wide open. It should have been scary to me but it wasn’t at all. It was how he slept the last few weeks so I was used to seeing him that way. The hospice nurse told me that I could ask the funeral home people to keep his face uncovered until he was out of our house. So I did. And as they carried him down the stairs and to our entryway, I gave him one last kiss and touched his face as it peeked out from the body bag. That lifeless body that had been so good to me, to him, until it eventually failed.
Death, ghosts, the dark – they’ve always scared me. I know that becoming a mother has made me much more brave. Because how can you be scared when you have to kick some ass (ghost ass, intruder ass, mean kid on the playground ass!) to protect your kids?! But now that I’ve witnessed a loved one – my loved one – die, death seems more like a friend. Not something scary at all but something very natural, almost comforting. Because he is there and he has done this first, for me, so I don’t have to be scared anymore.