Outside, it was a rare, January day of cloudless sunshine. Instead of enjoying it, I sat on a bench towards the back of an art gallery in a vacant storefront, where I estimate thirty artists sat in a circle talking about death and dying. I was there because the artist moderating the discussion is a friend of mine, and because I wanted to hear what people who are not health care professionals have to say about death and dying. Their ages ranged from twenty-something to seventy-something. Some had family members who are terminally ill. Some had lost parents, grandparents, siblings or friends. No one said they were battling life-threatening illness themselves, or had in the past. A couple of the artists were studying physics. As far as I know, I was the only artist working in health care. Because of that, I decided to listen without participating in the discussion. As an oncology nurse, I get to talk about death and dying all the time.
People shared their experiences of death, and then quickly shifted to ideas about their own deaths. One thirty-ish looking man admitted that he thinks about it all the time, and is saving money for cryogenics. He wants his body frozen when he dies. Another person, older than middle-aged, said he hoped to convince a friend or family member to drown him should he be a victim of dementia. Dementia seemed more feared by the group than pain. Another person thought you couldn’t really know when you’ll wish to die until it happens to you. Several people said they have signed POLST forms. I found it interesting that no one brought up physician-assisted suicide, which is legal in Oregon and Washington states.
The topic of caring for dead bodies was lively. Most of the group couldn’t imagine washing a dead body, and a few insisted that they don’t care what happens to their own remains. This was the part of the discussion I found keeping my silence difficult. I have lost count of how many bodies I have washed and dressed. All of them have been infants or children. I was a pediatric intensive care nurse during that period of my life. While it was always sad, I feel that washing and dressing those small patients for their parents and families to hold and say good-bye to was the most sacred service I have provided my patients.
A young woman said that she learned in an anthropology course there’s a culture “I can’t remember the name of,” which believes each of us dies three deaths: First, we die physically. Secondly, when the last person who knew us dies, and lastly, when our name is no longer spoken. I’m not surprised I heard this for the first time in a room full of artists.
There was one statement I considered profound. An artist said she doesn’t know if there’s an after life or not. “If there isn’t, there’s nothing to be afraid of, but if there is, I am not afraid of that either, because in that case, I have already been there.”
I came away from the conversation believing that the people who know the most about death and dying are the dying themselves. Now that I work in outpatient adult oncology, I no longer attend at the bedside of the dying like I did as a PICU nurse, but many of my patients share their thoughts about their impending deaths with me. Most are at least a little frightened of the unknown. Some have said it all went by so quickly. I have heard young patients say that their bodies have become burdens of maintenance and they look forward to being done with them. The last time I saw him, an elderly patient said to me, “My Juliette, parting is such sweet sorrow,” and he made me cry.