My brief life with death

By Anna Magdalena Claus, November 2012

© Sven Jungtow

“I will probably never knot a tie with such a peculiar feeling again,” I reflect and pull the wide end of the tie through the loop. Done. He looks good the way he is lying there, in his best suit and the wreath of roses around the pale, folded hands. Diego died a few hours ago at the age of 62. Diego was not related to me, we weren’t friends either. Nevertheless, my contact with him recently was very close – I nursed him until he died. The reason for that is my four-week work placement in a hospice in Zurich. I can’t say exactly why I particularly wanted to spend these four weeks with terminally ill people. I think I was interested above all in gaining an insight into life situations which were alien to me. Whereas I am young and have a thousand wishes and plans for my future, life for the inhabitants of the hospice will end in the foreseeable future.

No one dares to plan for the time after death. I imagined that people about to die would have an exceptional view of life. That is what I wanted to get to know. So I prepared myself for a period full of emotional situations and profound conversations with the patients.

Each day I learnt to know the inhabitants of the hospice better and was able to get an idea of their situation through the patient files to which I was also given access. In the first few days I first of all had to get used to the unusual bodies which I saw and touched in nursing the patients. I got an inkling of the futile struggle raging between body, spirit and illness in advanced stages of cancer.

My tasks at the beginning included waking patients up, helping them to wash their face and upper body, and making breakfast. In the increasing contact with patients and nurses it very quickly became clear to me that terminal care is not an activity filled with sadness, darkness and heaviness.

One of the many strategies for coping with the terminal situation was humour. Nevertheless, when I arrived each morning and had closed the front door of the hospice  behind me, I first looked at the large candle on the ground floor which was only lit when a patient at the hospice had died. If the candle was not burning I went happily to the cloakroom to put on my work clothes and then to the sole nurses’ room on the first floor. There I read the notes the night nurses had made about the patients in the patient files.

I easily got into conversation with the patients at the hospice. With one old lady I talked a lot about the texts from the Bible which I read to her now and again. I also had a longer conversation with a younger patient, Lisa, as I was cutting her pony tail. We spoke about hairstyles and that we both had dread­locks two years ago. These conversations were often of an unexpected light-heartedness and simplicity. I was never the first to start talking about the finiteness of life and approaching death and the patients rarely mentioned it. An avoidance strategy? Lack of trust in me? Perhaps a mixture of both. But in my eyes above all a serenity and humility in the face of death which – I don’t know why – seemed right to me. But by no means everyone was able to accept death as something which offered a perspective. Of course not, because death remains an uncertain state for which we have no context in a time in which a satisfactory answer can be found to most questions with a click of the mouse.

There was Marcella, for example, Diego’s wife, who refused to accept her husband’s serious illness. The nurses told her on several occasions that Diego would die in the next few days. She reacted with accusations and threats. When her husband had died, she told in tears how her husband had only become ill because of her. I tried to dissuade her from such thoughts. Drained, it became clear to me that my words could not help her. Caring for family members such as Marcella is also a task of the nursing staff and sometimes, like in this case, a great challenge.

Now Diego has died. The door to his room opens and some nurses enter. Staff from the hospice’s administration and kitchen have also arrived. Together we stand around the bed of the deceased to take leave of Diego one after the other, in silence or recounting something about him. In order to be able to let go of what I have experienced, I remember some situations with Diego and his family one last time.

I remember how I sat at Diego’s bedside and was shocked by his bloodshot eyes, the result of his poor blood values. I remember how I innocently started reading a short story to him which I had picked at random out of a fat book which just happened to be about a girl who bled out of her eyes before her death because of poisoning. My heart starts to race as I recall my inner struggle trying to decide whether or not to read out aloud the section with the description of the bloody eyes. Is it now my task to tell him his fate through this story? I cannot help myself and simply omit the two sentences.

It’s over. I let the memory go as best I can. I leave Diego’s room together with the others. Dying is as individual has the people are different. From “she was released” to “he had to die” we can express the passing of a person in very different ways. What remains is the questions in the mind for which there is no answer. Or is there a meaningful reason why 29-year-old Lisa had to die of a brain tumour? No, in my view there is none. There was nothing I could do except look at Lisa, sense how I feel, and tell myself: “That’s just how it is.”


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