Hello SE friends, Gwen with you today to tackle a sensitive and complicated topic.
With our world turned upside down because of COVID, most of us are unsettled. We think about “things” we’d rather not entertain. Tomorrow used to be a day we planned for, but now it’s a question mark on a calendar. What will happen when the sun rises, am I safe – anywhere?
These thoughts and more prompted me to consider a series of questions over the next three posts. How do we as writers address the final moments of life, or the question of life after death, and who or what is God?
Most of us tiptoe around these mysteries because they are emotionally charged. They deal with personal beliefs, with religion. When we write, we often shelve our thoughts and scribe for the unknown reader. Some of us try to create an undefined middle ground.
Over the next few posts, I hope to add dimension to that middle ground. As a start, I’ll focus on the final moments of life.
Many of us include death scenes in our books. Sometimes our characters die suddenly through an accident or a murder, other times the dying process may be prolonged through natural causes or a disease. Irrespective of how our characters die, writing about death can be challenging.
If we haven’t sat bedside with someone who is leaving this life or we’re not a first responder, we may not know what our character experiences when he or she passes.
Most likely, we are all familiar with the crushing emotions that can accompany this hallowed time. We’ve lost loved ones – a friend, a neighbor, a family member. We’ve sunk into despair; we’ve cried ourselves to sleep. But in our anguish and our preoccupation, we may not have been aware of the stages of dying. With this post, I will review some of those final steps.
As a person begins to let go of life, there are three common reported phenomena.
- They often lose consciousness. Even though unresponsive, it’s likely they remain aware of others in the room. Very often they can hear conversations and may have tactile sensations. Though they may be unable to acknowledge us, our words to a dying loved one or the simple touch of our hand can bring great comfort. These one-way conversations and embraces can help the dying truly rest in peace.
Research affirms the above, but I also have a story to share. Years ago, when I was an administrator at a university, a student nearly drank himself to death. He broke the highest recorded blood alcohol level within the State of Connecticut. I sat bedside to this unconscious young man for hours. Though I didn’t know if he could hear me, I told him that he could not die. His family would arrive soon, and they loved him. Over and over, I said that he needed to live because he was meant to do wonderful things. When he finally emerged from this state, the medical team was shocked. They expected death. Wanting to introduce myself, I said to the eighteen year old, “You don’t know me Joe, but …” He interrupted me with the following. “I know who you are. I recognize your voice. You kept telling me I needed to live.” He had heard everything I said while unable to respond with even the slightest movement.
- Another common phenomenon of the death process is skin color changes. As blood circulation slows, the hands and feet grow colder and can look bluish. If the dying person is alert, he or she may ask for blankets. Even if they cannot speak, those nearby may turn up the thermostat and cover their loved one to keep them warm.
When my mother’s time grew near, she was beautiful until her last breath, but her extremities grew cold and her skin appeared almost transparent. We knew she was leaving and tried to keep her as comfortable as possible – sometimes with lingering embraces. And as we sat close, we shared stories and talked about her celestial family.
- A third development involves breathing changes. The breath may become noisy because the person cannot cough or clear the airways. This “death rattle” slows and becomes more irregular as the end approaches. For most loved ones, this is a mournful time.
When my dad’s time neared, my sister and her husband (both nurses) began tracking the time between each inhalation to determine the actual moment of passing. I sat beside and shared family stories until the end. After I told him that there was no need to worry about mom, that we would take care of her, he took a deep breath and let go of life. Though a profoundly sad experience, to say our final goodbye to someone we love is a gift for both the receiver and the giver.
I hope this post offered a little clarity and perhaps some dimension to a process we all face. I’d love to hear if any of it rang true to you and if you’ve tried to incorporate these elements in your scenes.
With my next post, we’ll consider the question of life after death. I’ll examine current research for clues as to how we might add this theme to our writing – should we have interest in doing so.
I hope you have a wonderful week!