I work on an ambulance where lives are lost every day. Some die peacefully, some from purposeful acts of violence and some from simple bad luck. Here are a few things I’ve learned by being present at the end.
1. The shock felt when confronted with the finality of sudden death is overwhelming, but not forever.
Sometimes there is no hope. The fight was over before you even knew it had begun. And the reactions to sudden death vary greatly. Some people refuse to believe, others break down in tears, and many shout in anger. Human connection is incredibly important in the aftermath of sudden death. All of the different emotions that arise are easier to bear when there are others to lean on. Support is all a person who just learned that somebody close has died has, and it is everything. The importance of not being alone cannot be overstated. At that moment nothing you can say will ease their grief, but you can listen, and absorb some of it for them.
2. The living need to know the truth.
People who are suffering from sudden loss need to find peace. It’s important to them to know about the last moments of the person who is gone. Knowing what happened helps when the shock retreats and grief, guilt, and anger take over. Eventually, acceptance will come. It is better to know, and process what has been learned, than to imagine the worst.
3. There is peace at the end.
The final moments aren’t like the movies. Rarely are they filled with dramatic screams, confessions or claims of undying love. When it is time to go, the mind and body simply shut down and retreat within. The official term is ‘loss of consciousness’, but I believe it is far more than that. Heartbeats weaken, breathing slows, struggling stops. When the heart stops, it ends. Even the most horrific circumstances that lead to a person’s demise do not take away the serenity of the final moments. I have witnessed it, have been actively involved in life-saving efforts during it, and it never fails to amaze me how through the madness, CPR and other interventions designed to prolong life the mind, body and spirit are able to find peace during the final moments.
4. It’s not fair, but it can’t change.
You have lived with them. Shared your life and dreams with them. Laughed together. Planned your future together. But now, their last moments are shared with somebody else. There was an accident, and they’re gone forever. Maybe you didn’t kiss her goodbye, maybe you don’t remember the last time you said “I love you,” maybe you can’t remember the last words he said to you. Life ends suddenly sometimes, and there is always something left unsaid. Always. The relationships we forge are our own doing, and it is we who decide who we spend our time with, no matter the length of it. The person you love may be gone, but while they were here, you said enough.
5. Grief is for the living.
At the end, the deceased felt no regrets, no anger, and no resentment. The person who died knew that you loved them, or once did. They were okay with what you had, and their last moments were not spent in anger. they were spent trying to live, even if for just a few more seconds, then accepting what we all have known all along; someday, it will end. There is never enough time. We trick ourselves into thinking we will live forever, and that the problems we face can be put aside until it is convenient to resolve them. The events that bring on sudden death may be horrific, but the dying is not.
In the end, there is no ‘aha’ moment. Those are saved for the living. Great things happen while we are alive; it is up to us to embrace them. Now is the time to find peace with ourselves, our relationships and our faith. If that elusive peace can be found, and held close, then even sudden death and the emotional upheaval that follows can be alleviated to some degree. We, the living, all of whom could die unexpectedly, owe it to those we might leave behind to find it.