At the Bedside: What’s It Like?

In the Victorian era, birth and death happened at home, so people knew more or less what to expect. But that’s not true for us! And because we don’t talk much about death and dying we are left with whispered stories, scenes from movies, and random bits that cross social media.

So this month, WYD is sharing some of the stories we have come across about what happens at the bedside of those who are dying, a daughter’s journey to understand what is happening to her mother’s body as death nears, and some helpful advice in the form of a checklist.

Let’s start with this 27-minute BBC Radio 4 program “The Vigil”—a discussion with an array of people who talk about their experiences both in the care-giving and at the death of a parent.

“In my fantasy of my mother as an old woman dying, I always hoped I’d have a bit like in the films,”

says presenter Julia Eisner. “We’d have a moment when I’d hold her hand and she’d say, ‘I love you’ and tell me intimate and wonderful things, and I’d say wonderful, intimate things back. But of course…there wasn’t anything like that.” When her mother stopped treatment for metastatic breast cancer, Jennie Dear learned what happens to the body as it shuts down. Talking with James Hallenbeck, a palliative-care specialist at Stanford University, “First hunger and then thirst are lost. Speech is lost next, followed by vision. The last senses to go are usually hearing and touch.” In the last few weeks of her life, Jennie’s mother drifted into a half sleeping half waking state. And her daughter learned that for most dying people, waking dreams of reuniting with lost relatives or friends, or dreams of travel were a comfort that helped them to overcome their fear of death.

Lastly, we share Paula McCann’s thoughtful checklist of things we can do to help comfort a loved one who is dying.

We notice a thread that runs through all of these stories. That is, no matter how this chapter of our life goes, it will shape us, and the people around us, like nothing else can. One thing we’ve learned from these stories and others is that death is profound in its ordinariness. There’s a strange comfort in that. One of the definitions of the word “mundane” is “of this world, earthly.” We’re all part of this world. Maybe it makes sense, then, that when any one of us is set to leave, those “mundane” moments become the gifts from the dying, which the living can hold and carry on with.

But don’t go yet! We hope you’ll take six more minutes to listen to one last recording: Vikki Kelleher’s poignant, hilarious, heartbreaking, seriously funny experience of saying good-bye to her dad as he died in hospital.

Stay tuned for when we share stories about how the arts and humanities can enrich our lives right up to the very end.


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