In church this morning I was talking to a friend, a physician, and I’d mentioned that on Friday we had buried Don. She asked me if that made it feel final for me. I told her that I did Don’s post-mortem care at the hospital when he died, so it felt pretty final for me then. She said, Good for you.” She meant that. I understood.
If you didn’t know, I used to be a nurse. I suppose I still am a nurse. I mean, I still have my RN license, although I haven’t worked in nursing in a while, and I haven’t worked as a nurse in a hospital since 1996 (when I became a nurse practitioner). Why is that relevant? Well, I’ll tell you.
Once upon a time, people died at home. Death was understood as a part of life. Families understood what happens when people die, and families took care of the dead. But then hospitals came about, and more and more, people started dying in hospitals and nursing homes and places other than home. And the job of caring for the dead became the job of nurses and others who weren’t the family.
When I was a nurse, sometimes my patients died. Sometimes they were very old patients. Sometimes they were babies, and sometimes children. Sometimes it was expected, and sometimes not. When a patient died on my shift, it was my job, as the nurse, to clean up the patient, put on a clean gown and place the patient on clean sheets, so that when the family came in to pay respects and say goodbye, they could see their loved one looking clean and as peaceful as possible. It was important to me, because doing that last job for my patient also gave me a chance to say goodbye to my patient. There was finality in it.
When Don died, most of the family was there. We sat with him all day. We sang to him. We rubbed his arms. We played music for him. We talked to him and hugged and kissed him. And then he died, and we cried and held each other. The children went home, and I asked the nurse if it would be all right if I stayed to help with the post-mortem care. After all, I’ve done this for people who were not my husband. This is what families used to do all the time.
We (western society we) have a tendency now to try to remove ourselves from everything that we think may be unpleasant or sad. We don’t want to mourn – instead we want to celebrate! We won’t have a funeral, or a memorial service, we’ll have a celebration of so-and-so’s life! After all, “[insert name here] would have wanted it that way!” Really? [name] wouldn’t want you to be the least little bit sad that he/she is dead now? Ya think?
We can do all the stiff-upper-lipping we want, but the truth is, we still grieve. It’s important. If we don’t grieve intentionally, it will still come out.
My three oldest grandchildren came to the graveside service. They walked behind the caisson. They each placed a rose on the coffin and touched the coffin. No one made them do this. They were mourning their grandfather, and they wanted to. Sure, to some degree they may have been mimicking what they saw the adults doing, but there’s power in that.
The thing about doing the post-mortem care is that it wasn’t just care for my husband’s body. It was care for me. And since I’m still living, I’m still in need of care. A different kind of post-mortem care, if you will.
In our fast-food, instant-everything world, perhaps we ought to consider slowing down a bit more. We can’t rush grief. Perhaps we should make more intentional space for it. Perhaps hospitals should make a practice of asking if family members would like to participate in post-mortem care. Perhaps we should rethink the whole “celebrating a life” thing.
That’s my mite – it’s all I’ve got.