One of the things I keep saying but that is so incredibly true right now is that I am loving my work. I love working with the elderly more than anything in my life. I love that I have been given the gift of being there for people in the end of their lives and during the times when they often feel most alone and needy. But people often ask how one stands working with the dying all the time. Isn't it depressing? Never, for me. There is a statistic that few people survive 5 years in nursing homes, but if you do it is unlikely you will ever change fields.
Before I finished therapy school I was certain of one thing: no nursing homes were in my future. But on my first clinical I discovered that I was actually good at this. I had a unique experience as a student; my supervisor's father was dying in the place I was training. She let me in on this personal experience, which occurred during my first 2 weeks. I learned that death is not terrifying as I'd always thought, nor is it horrific. Because I told her my fears of really sick people she helped me conquer them, doing small projects with hospice patients and at the very end sending me into the ICU for the first time all by myself. That was a humbling experience; I have no idea what I even did for the patient. It was an errand, so probably it was providing a splint or something. Regardless, I remember tip-toeing into the room, feeling like I absolutely did not belong, and trying to figure out how to approach this very, very sick man, surrounded by a lot of machines I didn't have any understanding of. Since that was my only foray into ICU in my career, I suspect that feeling would still be present.
Oddly enough, I don't remember the first time a patient I was close to died. I guess you get used to it quickly. I remember the first time I was within a few feet of a body. I was on a dementia unit and there were several people roaming around the hall outside the room where someone had died. I could see the funeral home person in the room lifting her onto the stretcher. As happens each time I see someone who has just died I was struck by how limp she had become when life left her. I knew I had to keep the residents out of the way and unaware so I did while the body passed beside me; it was hard and didn't feel right.
Near the end of my first year doing this a woman I was close to was dying on New Year's Eve. There wasn't enough staff to sit with her and she was agitated when alone. She had no known family. I stayed with her for several hours. It was one of the more humbling hours of my life because I was afraid and yet she needed me.
Several years later I had just started at a new job and the nursing home had a hospice room. I happened to walk by moments after a woman had died, while her daughter sat on the bed holding her body and rocking as she cried. It was horrible to see, far too private.
Another woman in another place bravely faced her death for months from cancer. It was a horrible variety and she was very ready to go, and frequently asked why she just couldn't go. She'd had lots of time to make peace with it and it didn't happen. One day she told her favorite nurse that she would drop a feather from heaven after she died and the nurse would know how happy she was. Several days later I walked past her room and she had just died. In many places now after people are cleaned immediately following death (and when the family is ready to leave) the body is left in bed as if sleeping until the funeral home comes, which is generally much longer than you'd think. I saw her and I have never seen such peace. Her death though will always stick in my mind as the awful funeral home. She was tiny, yet he wasn't careful enough to cover her little feet, so that is all that could be seen as she was wheeled out. The neat thing though was that the feather did come, within days, as described.
There is a webpage I just came across that shows pictures from a photo project done by German photographers. The pictures are pairs, each depicting someone during the months before death and very soon after death. They are incredible. The brief interviews beside them explain much about how the dying often feel, and the 2nd picture shows the peace that always, always seems present after death. I highly recommend looking, but it is not for everyone, obviously. To me they are beautiful. I don't see anything to be disgusted by or afraid of. Everyone may not see it the same.
If you would like to look, go here.