People do different things when confronted with grief. Some people dig in and stay, hunker down. Some run and hide. Some get nicer. Some get meaner. Some cry. Some laugh. Some sing. Some play guitar and sing. In my experience the immediate human response to acute loss is unpredictable. I have seen this working as a nurse now for many years.
Once, when I was working in hospice, I was paged to a home at 2:00 in the morning. The moment I walked inside I knew J, the patient, was actively dying. Her breathing was shallow and irregular and sounded like gasping. J’s spouse knew it was happening and was not ready. Who is ever truly ready? J’s spouse did not want to hear about it, could not hear about it.
Within minutes of my arrival to their home, she decided she could not be there when it happened. It was as if I could see her thought process. Instead of it being internal and silent the panic and preparation to flee were in her eyes and swirling around her. J’s spouse looked at the hospital bed in the middle of their living room. She looked at me standing in the doorway, just past the threshold and hardly into their home. She looked outside into the night beyond the door.
Moments later J’s spouse announced she needed to buy groceries. At the store. Any store. Right then. No matter what. She left. After telling me where the supplies and medications were, she left. Purse, shoes, nightgown, coat of grief.
I sat with J. She was comfortable. Her labored breathing became less labored. Shallower and softer. Her face was peaceful. Her hands were cool and purple. Her body was covered in quilts that had been lovingly made at some time. If J’s spouse were there I would have asked about the quilts. Time ticked on. I could hear a clock somewhere in the quiet home. Thirty minutes passed. J’s breathing slowed, eventually she took a few short, gasping breaths. Then it was done. She was gone.
Sometimes I think dying people know or are aware of what is happening around them. Though they cannot respond or engage I think they are aware and sometimes they wait to die. They wait for the “right time.” They may try to protect the people they love. Sometimes.
I believe J knew her spouse could not be there when she died. And she waited until I was there and her spouse was gone. J waited and died at the right time for her and for her beloved.
I sat with J until her spouse came back. My hand resting on J’s hand, not quite ready to cut that connection. J’s spouse walked in the door with two bags of groceries she set on the floor. She knew too. I watched her slowly take off her shoes. She walked across the living room and climbed into the bed still wearing her heavy coat of grief. She held J, her beloved, for one last time. Not ready. Not ready. Not ready. But finally accepting this horrible thing that had happened anyway. Regardless.