A Darker Side

No One Knows Where Our Path Will Lead

No One Knows Where Our Path Will Lead

Being a Hospital Nurse’s Aide

I thought it would be a good experience for the nine months before I started working on my B.S. in Nursing.   And it was.  In fact, it exceeded my expectations. I had the advantage of being with people, intimately, during times of extreme vulnerability.  The most important part of my job?  To ensure that they retained their dignity.


My empathy and compassion get pretty stretched and thin when I come across  ‘helpful’ but rather facile hints about preparing for death.  Examples: appoint a health care proxy; write a living will; tell your loved ones how you want to die. And, most recently, the exuberant exclamation from one who had recently done “all the work” by talking with his family, and letting them know that he wants to die surrounded by them. No ugly messes to deal with. Everyone on board. And finally “Now that that’s done, I can really start living.”

And I’m thinking…still am…”you don’t have a clue what you’re asking, let alone anything about how you’re going to die.”  I’m not into romanticizing, or glorifying, the process of dying. We can hope it goes the way we want but we’re kidding ourselves if we’re counting on it.  I’ve been with too many individuals and families to believe that fairy tale.

Just One Death: for the Dying and Caregiver, Alike.

It was the second day that, as a Hospital Aide, I was assigned to a crusty and quite colorful VietNam Vet.  He was hospitalized because one of his friends found him on the floor of his apartment, in a pool of urine and unable to get up.  Yesterday he was singing old rock songs and telling stories. Today he was covered with his own feces.  Likewise covered were his bedding, floor and wall.  He still had a good set of lungs and made it abundantly clear that he wanted no part of me near him and threatened to cover me with what was already covering him, including his Z Z Top-like beard.

Was I compassionate? Empathetic? Patient? I remember the smell and the disgust I felt. Feeling sorry for myself that there was no one around who wanted to help. It took tremendous effort to stay with him, to persuade him to let me clean him up. “Leave me alone and let me die.”  “I will” I replied. “But I’m going to clean you up, not for you but for your roommate and for anyone else who has to carry your sorry ass out of here.”

We did get everything clean and later that evening he died, quietly and alone.  His family and friends were appreciative that they didn’t have to deal with it.  It’s hardly easy to care for a dying person.  Yes, I’m very fortunate that compassion and empathy became part of that experience. But you know what friends and family thought about my being a Hospital Aide?  It was ‘Dirty work”; it was ‘beneath me’.  To this day I am grateful for the many experiences of being with people during their most vulnerable time, and in such an intimate way.  But, I had the physical strength to do it. And I also had life experiences and maturity to prepare me. And, at the end of the day, I could go home to a clean house and a healthy husband.

But what is it like if you’re 75 or 80 taking care of a more frail, demented 90 year old? or when you’ve been taking care of your 27 yr old disabled child? The death is but a moment. The dying can feel like forever.

“A Life Too Long”

is an article published in the “Tricycle” magazine and is adapted from the book “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death” by Katy Butler. 

It describes the 15+ years that Ms. Butler’s Mom was primary caregiver for her husband. In beautiful prose, she describes the consequences of what appeared to be, at the time, a simple medical intervention.  I hope to post the entire piece but I strongly encourage taking a look at the book as well.

Light as a feather?

A solid commitment to practice compassion and humility can put our hearts through a wringer. But it’s a dependable base from which to live each day as though it was our last.

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