The day before. my immaculate body in the North Sea
Reflecting on death
I was not allowed to see my grandfather after he died, even though this happened in the house both he and I lived in. So it wasn't until I was working as an auxiliary nurse in Enfield in the early 70's that I encountered death - as a process and as a final result. The first time, it happened in the evening. All day, the patient had been ill and complaining of how poorly she felt. I hate to say it, but I think people were not aware of just how ill she was: she was a woman who was seen as a moaner, a person who liked to complain (is this true? poor woman). Stoicism was massively over-rated on this ward. I was the lowliest staff member, the auxiliary who did all the dirty work, but nevertheless, I might sometimes find myself alone on the ward. In my memory, this was the case on this particular occasion. I was at the end of the ward, drawing curtains around beds and tidying up when a draft of air, some kind of swishing movement ruffled the curtains and passed me by. I thought perhaps someone had opened a window. Then I realised - it was very quiet on the ward. I walked back to look in on the poorly lady and she was dead. Mouth open, eyes open. No breath or chest movement. I got Sister in quick but there wasn't any doubt in my mind. I think (it's a long time ago) I felt relief on both her behalf and my own. But I remember that shift of air and the stark change of status from living to dead.
After that, several old ladies died in that ward, usually in the aftermath of a broken hip. Traction, then an aneurism. It did not look like a bad way to go. I helped to lay these old ladies out, and was not appalled by the process or the body after death. Maybe as a twenty year old girl, death seemed too far away to have any relevance to me. But it was done respectfully and tenderly with older women instructing me and instilling this notion: think of this person as your own mother or grandmother. It would not happen now. The body would be whisked away to the funeral parlour, and cared for professionally. I feel privileged to have had this experience, at an early enough point for me to come to terms with death without it seeming too frightening or overwhelming.
Since then, other deaths. I worked as an auxiliary when I was studying at university, in my mid-twenties, and again, witnessed several deaths: this was an elderly mentally ill ward. But by this time, laying out was no longer done on the ward. Then a long gap until more recently, as elderly relatives, and some younger friends, have become ill and died. I would say I am more anxious about death now than I was as a young woman. I am not sure what exactly I fear - except all of it - the process, the moment, the extinction. Maybe all three.
by Jo Colley