Death is never a welcome visitor.
This past summer, I interned at Serenity Hospice in Portland, Oregon, working with patients and their loved ones. One could call my job a companion, a cleaning lady, or simply a listening ear—they would all be accurate. Many times I have been asked about exactly what I did in a hospice, and usually I offer the responses just mentioned. Yet, if I am to be truly honest, I was a merely a friend to those patiently awaiting that long-expected visitor.
One of the most pronounced lessons I took away from this experience concerned not death itself, but the manner in which we respond to it. At the hospice, co-workers and patients who mentioned “death” and all its variations with as much ease as their own names surrounded me. However, after leaving Serenity and returning to Stern, I became acutely aware that the mention of death is astoundingly absent from colloquial conversation. The topic of death, however, is more than just absent. It is fastidiously avoided—a tacit taboo.
In all fairness, this avoidance makes a lot of sense. We are all young, vibrant women at the cusp of adulthood, preparing to venture off into the world with goals, dreams, and hopes. Naturally the idea of the possible termination of such a world is hurriedly thrown out of the doorway, and the door is quickly locked and barricaded lest it returns, knocks, and tries to forcefully enter.
But the question still remains: why must death be so forcefully cast away in conversation? As morbid as this may sound, not only did I interact with and get to know my patients this summer, but I had the chance to sit down and become acquainted with death as well. The value of such an experience was immeasurable.
Early one morning, a week before I returned to Stern, I received a call informing me that one of the patients I had visited every Monday had begun to “transition,” meaning the end was near. I headed over to Serenity immediately. Upon my arrival, I saw a woman—a shadow of the person I had seen just a few days ago. She was lying in her bed, atop her pink pillowcases lined with lace. Here was a woman on the verge of death; yet, surprisingly, with every surge of her chest, I could see a faint smile appear on her face.
Death is often personified negatively. He is an ominous figure cloaked in black, who causes us to run away whenever we hear his name mentioned or see a glimpse of his shadow. What I learned through this experience is that death is not a man of terror. He knows that his visit is undesired. A guest always knows when he is unwanted.
Death is not the enemy. The more we treat the topic of death with fear and unease within our own lives and conversations, tiptoeing around the topic, the more difficult it becomes to confront this unwelcome visitor when he calls. And he will call. Beginning to confront the topic of death with openness and maturity is the first step to accepting what we all know, but don’t truly believe: we’re not going to live forever.