They Go: Lessons Learned While Caring for the Dying
by Laura Anne White
Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great.
—Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road
A life of love crafts a death of support. Friends and loved ones flood in day after day, nurses take time to stop by for a word or prayer on their breaks. A person embraced by but a fraction of the warmth they have created for numberless others through their days on earth surely leaves no aperture for remorse. How can regret exist in consideration of the life that manifests within and on account of them?
For ten weeks I have had the privilege of working in the Summer III program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. I have spent my time as a nurse extern on an oncology and hospice unit, working with patients who face death and are all too familiar with its friend: suffering.
The difference between those who have generated life in their living and those who have not takes on immense clarity as they near their flight from this earth. It is a divine luxury to encounter these persons in the hospital.
Hello! Boy, am I good to see you.
I am good to see you, too, I reply, harnessing no control over the grin that covers my face. I reach to feel the warmth of her hand squeeze through the layer of vinyl that surrounds my own. Almost immediately, I am engulfed by cushioned arms; my cheek against hers. You are like my own daughter, she says, our eyes brimming. I rest safely in her embrace, emotion surging my entire being.
This, the first of many goodbyes to beloved friends. Once a sick patient, now family. Once, are you in pain upon entering, now a hug required before questioning can begin. And her soul will forever live in part within mine. I am lifted for knowing her, I am more good because of her goodness. To say goodbye with a prayer, to be received with warmth, to be cared for by those I am by job description required to care for. Their light brightens the room, their sadness deepens the space, their love widens it so everyone can fit.
How can I express the gratitude I have for these encounters? How can I begin to comprehend why it is me who is granted them?
I am confident that any of the nurses on the unit share my sentiments. These moments do not happen on a continuous basis. But when they happen, they pulse with permanence, branding the mind forever.
At the start of nursing school, I thought I would remember every patient: their names, their stories, their pathologies. I aimed high but quickly realized this is neither realistic nor attainable. As any nurse will tell you, particular patients never leave your memory and often for no concrete reason.
These patients become memory for others because of their vibrancy, which can look like benevolence, cursing, joy, despair, love, even hatred. It is evidenced by any number or combination of things. It is strong. It is passionate. However it presents, to be memory for others because of your vibrancy is enchanting. These patients are fighting, they are feeling, they are living.
I admire the nurses who go out of their way to generate vitality for patients. I have met dying patients who are more alive than those with decades left on their time card. These patients do not want to talk to us about how sad it is that they have cancer. They want to be entertained by us; they want to hear someone say, “What you’re going through sucks.” A gifted nurse on our unit described a situation in which she worked to motivate a particular patient to get up for a shower, a walk, to order food, engage with others; really live through his last days.
After being encouraged generously by medical staff, a patient on our unit made the autonomous decision to no longer pursue treatment of her cancer. She told me and a nurse when it is my time to go and be with my Lord, I will go and be with my Lord. Until then, I just want to snuggle my grandbabies. After analyzing her position, she opted for quality of life over quantity of life—not a particularly popular choice. Though a challenging conclusion to come to, she came to it nonetheless. Prior to being discharged, she listened to her favorite music, ate good food, and irradiated the unit with her boldness and spunk.
Really living does not entail feigning happiness. It does not include playing make-believe. Really living means feeling feelings, including anger, fear and sadness. These make room for others—such as joy, peace and contentment—and sometimes they do not, which is living, too. When we are presented with difficult circumstances it would often be easier to avoid considering them, to slide down into our chair and shut the world out. It takes an ample amount of courage to confront one’s situation directly.
I have met some of life’s most courageous this summer. How beautiful these spirits are and continue to be. I can only hope to emulate a scrap of all they have illuminated for me.
I recall wondering, how will I change? prior to coming to Minnesota. Knowing with certainty that I would change, I pondered, how?
Since then, I have found the treasure that lies in doing hard, worthwhile work. I have learned to be enlivened by my desire for knowledge. I have discovered that wonderful humans exist everywhere; that if you look for bad, that is precisely what you will see, and if you look for good, you will see that too. I have learned that negativity is a virus; it is malignant and debilitating to all. I have learned to lighten a space with joy, to be eager to help, and rather than merely tolerating people I do not like, to strive to understand them.
The power of asking what do you think? The beauty of diversity. The gift of touch. The magnitude of the moments preceding death. And I can attribute no piece of this education to my own efforts.
May these lessons be implemented consistently as my days accumulate. May I lack regret for the way I acknowledge those whose paths intersect mine. May an appetite for wisdom be my indelible companion.
It is rather satisfying to consider the place I have been privileged to live in, the program I have taken part in, but most of all, the people who have colored these weeks with their vitality.
“The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air…I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.”
—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
About the Author
Laura Anne White is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing.