Why Is Death Taboo?

A manifesto from a palliative care nurse practitioner. 

 

This is something that I have had a hard time understanding, but let me first preface this by saying that I think working in hospice is a very specific calling. Also, I understand that not everyone views death as I do. I mean, if you’ve ever spent time around someone who has worked bedside in palliative care or hospice, you have probably noticed that we have a very sick sense of humor and outlook on life in general.

We have held the hands of dying patients, comforted new widows, and even called the parents of the dying to explain that they may not make it in time to see their only child's last breath.

These are not happy moments.

So what do we do to survive?

Well, we laugh.

And we make light of dark situations.

It’s not cold.

It’s merely a survival technique and coping mechanism.

Even if at times it seems in poor taste.

And please know, this humor is never displayed in front of patients or families.

We have an incredibly high respect for the dying process – emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

This is just a cathartic act that is only done when we are surrounded by peers.

And there is often a mixture of tears and laughter, though not always in equal parts.

This is because there is no “recipe” for coping with being the caregiver for a dying patient. 

(Boy, I wish there was!)

Now, back to the question I have a hard time understanding – why is death a taboo subject?

Why is the word “hospice” often accompanied by shudders and whispers?

Everyone dies. Right?

If more people would talk about death,  it would give more people the opportunity to die with grace, dignity, and closure.

Questions such as:

What does death mean to us?

What do we want others to know when we die?

What does a “good death” looks like to us?

These questions allow us to learn more about how to guide our patients across the bridge to the next life. 

Funny how we send flowers and food to both those involved with death and those involved with new life (Births).

However, the approach is completely different. 

 

When someone is expecting a baby...

“Congratulations!”

“When are they due?”

“Can we come visit?”

 

When someone is dying and goes on hospice...

“I’m so sorry.” - Accompanied by nervous hushes and awkward silence.

 

What if we reframed our response? 

“I’m sorry to hear there is a new direction in care. How do you feel about that?”

“Sounds like there may be more time to spend with family and doing things you love!”

“No more doctor visits or tests. How does that make you feel?”

The important thing is to talk about it.

To show support.

To refrain from allowing it to become an elephant in the room.

The person is still a person.

They deserve to have both a say and an opinion.

Death is not fun.

It’s an end to someone’s life and a complete shift in many others’ lives.

However, hospice is a beautiful gift!

Palliative care should be spoken of often and offered to all.

We must give our dying patients an opportunity to make his or her own choices, spend time with family and friends, and direct his or her OWN care in the end.

Please.

 

- Jaymie Wilson, APRN-CNP

 

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