An engaging and powerful episode of This American Life: Death and Taxes features segments about death in Act I. It’s a repeat episode, but that’s okay. The message is timeless. That message is essentially that everyone is going to die. Therefore, wouldn’t it help everyone to get more comfortable with the subject?
You may be surprised to know that learning about the dying process won’t leave you feeling depressed. People actually feel better after they learn about how we die because they realize it’s not nearly as bad as they thought. It actually contributes to a healthier society on a number of levels and this podcast explores some of that.
Fun fact: The featured hospice nurse, Pattie Burnham, is Bo Burnham’s mom.
Since you are going to die someday and, before that, might care for someone during their final days – a parent, partner, or other loved one – here is vital information this invaluable podcast covers.
1. The dying can often hear you.
When people have near-death experiences, in other words when people have died and come back, they often talk about what they heard. Often, they repeat conversations between loved ones or doctors. These are conversations they heard despite the fact that their hearts and brains had stopped working.
This is why medical professionals believe hearing is the last sense to go.
So we talk to our dying relatives. It can sometimes make the caregiver feel better to read a poem, prayer, or just talk softly to the person. To fill up that silence with something meaningful. I encourage family members to say simple sentences, such as:
- “I love you.”
- “I’ll remember you.”
- “You’ve lived a good life.”
I also encourage relatives to repeat their names with these messages of love, so the dying person knows who’s speaking to them.
Many times hospice workers, doulas, and other deathwork professionals will suggest that you tell the person it’s okay to go when they’re ready. We can point to countless anecdotes where people die once loved ones give them permission.
2. Terminal agitation is common, but the cause is sometimes hard to find.
Terminal agitation is when a dying person seems anxious or restless at the end of life. This results in distressed behavior that can include:
- Tugging at IVs, bedsheets, or pajamas
What do these symptoms suggest? It’s hard to say. Hospice nurses, doctors, and doulas will often try to find out. For example, we get close to the person’s face and ask simple yes/no questions.
- Are you in pain?
- Do you have to pee?
- Do you have to poop?
- Are you uncomfortable?
We can sometimes, like in the podcast, investigate and try to figure it out ourselves. This is especially true if the dying person no longer speaks. In the podcast, Pattie Burnham put a catheter in, and that immediately provided relief for her patient.
3. Loved ones like to tell stories about the person who’s dying. This is called a life review.
Often, loved ones will tell stories about the person who’s dying. They’ll talk about the person’s childhood, when they met, or what they were like as a parent. There’s this real sense of wanting us to see that the dying person in the bed was fully alive once.
Some life reviews are simple with stories that help convey the life this person has led. The tales feel wistful and tender. Other life reviews are dark.
“Not every death is the end of a well-lived life,” says This American Life producer Nancy Updike.
How to help those people? Listen. Look them in the eye and make sure they feel heard. Sometimes that’s all we can do, and it’s more than enough.
4. We may have more control over when we die than we realize.
When someone is dying, often times their family will schedule themselves to be there round-the-clock. They don’t want their loved one to die alone. And then, when they step outside to talk about something, that person quietly slips away. This is a common occurrence.
Other times someone can be on the verge of death, with mere hours to go. And yet, they’ll hold on sometimes up to a week until a beloved sibling or child gets there to say goodbye. Then they let go.
This seems to indicate that we may have some control in the end.
5. Never forget: it’s not about you.
When people ask me how I do this work, I tell them: with humility and respect because I know it’s not about me. Pattie Burnham tells the podcast’s producer that one of her strategies is never to imagine herself in the place of the dying person or their family members. She tries not to picture her husband or her kids.
This is vital.
When that producer thought about her stepfather’s death, she said, “ I think part of my clumsiness around (him) and my mother was my barely-suppressed terror at the thought of my own husband dying. I pictured myself in my mother’s place all the time. Every morning before going to her apartment, I pulled out a piece of paper, and I had to read the words on it out loud in order to make it out the door. ‘Your husband isn’t dying. This is not about you. Your mother needs you. Go to her apartment now.’ It was my own little serenity prayer. God grant me the wisdom to know the difference between my fear and her reality.” (emphasis added)