An engaging and powerful episode of This American Life: Death and Taxes features segments about death in Act I. It’s an older 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 feel better after they learn about how we die because they realize it’s not nearly as bad as they thought.
Normalizing the conversation around death actually contributes to a healthier society on several levels and this podcast explores some of that.
This American Life Gets It Right
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. They repeat conversations between loved ones or doctors. These are conversations they heard even though 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 or 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 permit them to do so.
2. Terminal Agitation is Common
Terminal agitation sometimes happens when a dying person seems anxious or restless at the end of life. The reasons can be difficult to ascertain. The distressed behavior can include:
- Tugging at IVs, bedsheets, or pajamas
What do these symptoms suggest? It’s hard to say. Hospice nurses, doctors, and death 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 This American Life 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. People Engage in Life Reviews
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.
Other times the dying person will engage in life reviews. Silently or out loud, they will spend time reviewing their good times and bad while making peace with the fact that their life is ending.
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 Some Control
When someone is dying, oftentimes their family will schedule themselves to be there round-the-clock. They don’t want their loved ones to die alone and will sit vigil for days. And then, when they step outside to talk about something or use the phone, 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 for days 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 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.”