Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Life Lessons: Heaven, Death & Dying

Lessons in Life: from the Elderly Community
Part 2: Death & Dying

Inevitably, one of the first questions I get asked by someone learning that I am employed in the world of assisted living is, “But isn’t it just so depressing?”

I always blissfully answer, “No! It really isn’t!”

Yes, I get attached, sometimes deeply, to residents and yes, they pass away. Often.

In my three years working between the two buildings I have met and said good-bye to hundreds of residents. Even though I always grieve for the family’s loss, I have never grieved for the resident’s fate.

I have learned so much from being around death & dying, and it is purely inspiring, and incredible. Even supernatural.

Even though I have always been somewhat faithful, I have always been stumped by the pure seemingly insane idea of heaven/afterlife.

When I was young child, I remember grasping the concept of reality and infinity and like many children and teenagers enlightened by the idea felt suffocated. It wasn’t long before a mental claustrophobia set in imagining my lifeless body in a box in the ground. I would stay awake for hours, days, agonizing and scrutinizing the utterly awful and horrific prospect of forever.

Then, as a young adult, my logical brain put death/afterlife into two categories. The first: heaven (or something like it). The second: pure nothingness. Neither idea was terrifying. Sure, one more desirable over the other, but at least I had grasped the second concept of the “forever death” enigma which is the inevitable cease of consciousness. There was some comfort in that.

That was the mindset that I owned upon entering the assisted living world. Of course, before then, I had never known someone personally who had died.

Then, after being around people who were, let’s be honest, closer to the end of the race than the beginning. Weird things started to happen.

Like, no-way-can-be-coincidence type of things.

Below is the lesson I have learned from spending time with those at the finish line.

There is undoubtedly, undeniably, 100%, absolutely, positively, for realsies, a heaven.

I know for a fact there is an afterlife now.

Not once. Not twice.

BUT EVERY SINGLE TIME that someone passes the following happens (I swear):
(Timelines are different for each people. Some people I’ve seen in certain stages longer than others. But the following is still a repeated path I see ALL THE TIME. OF COURSE, all people are different in their journey and this is no way represents every single person on planet Earth, okay?!)

#1) The person acquires a sort of calmness about them.

Some people are in this stage since they’re born. Some residents you can really see weeks to months before they pass an overwhelming calmness take hold of their personality. Sometimes it’s seen in exhaustion. They’ll say things like, “I’m just so tired.” Or people who were always annoyed when people wore slippers to the dining room just don’t care anymore.

In more extreme cases, this is seen as actual excitement to pass on. There was a resident a while back who, when you would ask, “How are you today?” She would jubilantly respond, “Good! Did you hear I’m dying?!” And there would actually be days where she would just shake her head and ask disappointedly, “Why aren’t I dead yet?!” She was genuinely disappointed to not be in heaven!

That amount of faith to me is awesomely inspiring.

It’s incredible.

#2) The person receives visitors.

This is where it gets AWESOME, because these visitors are of the not-of-this-world type. These visitors include angels, family members, and even passed away pets!

There was Clyde (*name changed*) who lived to be 105 at one of my communities. It was all that he could do to make it to the dining room, and at 105 that was quite a feat. He loved sharing meals with the other residents, so, he would come to the dining room at breakfast and stay through dinner!

I remember walking past him through the empty and desolate dining room and he (who almost never spoke) motioned at me to come near. I did.

He raised his voice louder than I had ever heard, as if talking over other people and glancing in the far corner, “Can you shut them up please?"

I responded, “Who, Clyde?” (you never argue with a resident’s reality).

He looked at me like I was insane. “Those d*** fellows playing those instruments and hollerin’!”

I just started laughing in my head!

God had sent his heavenly choir to come and sing him home and he just wanted them to shut up!

Clyde passed the next day.

I’m positive the heavenly choir sounded better in the right atmosphere.

Then there was the resident that played a full on poker tournament with his military troop for an entire week while hospice allowed him to pass painlessly (they would never take his money though that he owed them).

There was the resident who wanted a full shave despite his frail and almost transparent skin because his wife was sneaking in through the window at night. She never liked his five o’ clock shadow. His wife had been dead for decades.

#3 No fear.

I am continually inspired and so thankful for the incredible gift that these residents have given me.
God has answered the prayer that lingered in my seven-year-old-self’s bedroom walls.

Lord, make me unafraid of death.

No longer is death this great unknown and foreign nightmare.

One of my co-workers’ husband passed away this year. He was on life support for months.

She remembers him seeing their old family dog at the foot of his hospital bed ready to jump up on him. He sat up thinking he would shake the sensation. He told her that he witnessed plain as day their dog ready to play and snuggle.

She remembers him saying that his mother, a very Christian woman, always told him that she was going to be the one welcoming him into Heaven. He said he was concerned that the dog was going to jump in front of her!

In the days before my co-worker had made the horrific decision to cease life support for the love of her life, she was explaining to barley lucid man that it would mean that he would pass on. His response was three weak words: “Got to go.”

Death is a hard thing. It’s a time of mourning the loss of the relationship. For those who have lost someone close to them it can be Earth-shattering; especially if the death was unexpected or early.

Please do not take this as me slighting the loss of a loved one.

This is simply me saying from the depths of my heart.

There are greener pastures. For realsies.

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