A couple of weeks ago my 96 year old nana fell over in her rest home and broke her hip. It was a bad break and the doctors said that though they were very unhappy putting her under and operating because of the risk, they couldn’t just leave it as it was. So she then underwent an operation. We were advised of the very high risk of both surgery and recovery for Nana.
This has all happened ‘coincidentally’ (if you believe in such a thing) while I have been here in NZ for the first time in years….so I have gotten to be part of it all.
In the hours after the operation they thought Nana was going to die as her heart rate slowed right down. She didn’t. Then again a few days ago they called us saying that she had become non-responsive and they weren’t sure if she was having a ‘funny turn’ or dying. It seemed to be a funny turn as she snapped right out of it by the afternoon and went from non-responsive to ummmm…overly-responsive. (I take my hat off to nurses who have patients trying to hit and even bite them while crying out about conspiracy theories and being a prisoner, and manage to keep some degree of patience!)
There have been, of course, many conversations with doctors, specialists and nurses….but….and here’s what inspired this blog….not once has anyone in the hospital said the d-word. Noone has said “she might die”, “she could die in surgery or recovery” or even “we hope she doesn’t die” or anything like that. They’ve completely avoided the word or even any of it’s unhelpful euphemisms like ‘passing away’ or ‘losing her’.
It might seem that it is respectful or gentle or something like that to not say ‘die’ or anything like it….but it’s really just fear. No-one wants to say it out loud. The ironic thing is that almost every conversation with the doctor or specialist IS about death. Often accompanied by that stereotypical lowering of the voice and tilting of the head just slightly to the side and sentences that taper off…..
“We’ll just have to watch and see what happens over the next 48 hours…..”
“Has the family discussed how they feel about resuscitation….?…..”
“Even for a woman her age who didn’t have dementia and a weak heart this would be risky….so for your grandmother……”
“This is a”, very deep head-tilt here, “very risky operation soooooo…..”(turns palms over to face upwards in a bad-things-might-happen-but-I can’t-say-the-word type of way).
And, my very favourite, on the day they thought she was dying last week so called us up….”You might want to come in…if you’re the type of person who would want to come in and see her….” I wish I’d played devil’s advocate, pushed the doctor and made him say the words. ”See her before what? What exactly might happen?” I could’ve asked. But…and this is really daft…because no-one else is saying the words….neither am I! Now I am aware of it I will cut that right out.
The d-word is a bit like ‘he who shall not be named’. Voldemort Voldemort Voldemort. Yeah I said it. Death die dying die dead dies died…and all other deadly style words.
‘It’ That Shall Not Be Named
Just like with ‘Lord Voldemort’….avoiding saying ‘die’ or discussing death in any way won’t stop it happening and isn’t positive thinking. To talk about death isn’t negative thinking. Death is natural and very important and it WILL happen to you and to everyone you know and love at some time or other, whether you talk about it or not. To not say the word is simply denial. And for the hospital not to be saying it is fear disguised as ‘consideration’ and ‘sensitivity’. So it looks gentle and polite…but it’s still fear. Likely they have been guided what words and phrases to use….and what not to….but that is still fear – society’s fear. Refusing to use the word is kinda the same as standing in the corner thinking people can’t see you if your hands are over your eyes…..so take them off and have a good look around.
To say ‘death’ is to look the situation straight in the face…and why shouldn’t we? When we get clear that Nana might die we can think about what time we might want to spend with her, and what we might like to say to her…instead of living in a denying state of fear, hoping the unsaid won’t happen…and generally taking for granted that we have the luxury of tomorrow. Maybe we do…but maybe don’t. And this doesn’t just apply to a 96 yr old women with a weak heart and dementia recovering from a hip op in hospital.
It might also seem like it’s sensitive to Nana not to say the words….but how does that help her? As she said herself a couple of days ago “everyone has to go some time” and trying to hide from her the thing that she knows is true isn’t helpful.
“Fancy all this fuss just to keep someone alive!” she said after being seen by 4 doctors at once, choking down all her pills and almost coughing up a lung in the process. Well, fancy all this fuss just to hide from the reality that we will all die.
This is the ultimate Death Cafe. The perfect opportunity to talk about death.
My Nana had an operation and almost died. She may still die from it. We all thought she would die….but now it looks like she might well live for quite a while. I am open to either as either could happen.
DEATH. Say it out loud. Look it in the eye. Face the truth. Name the thing you are afraid of. Realise it is not your enemy, or unnatural, or a punishment or something you can avoid. Spend some time with it. Because it is much easier to cherish the time you have with someone when you quit pretending that you have time and realise that every single breath is precious.