Registered nurse Kari Stiles weathered a couple of losses this past weekend, her uncle and a patient under her care, and it got her thinking about death.
I understand the urge to follow with the knee-jerk reaction of, “NO, LOVE WINS!” or “Life wins!” I get it. I do. There was a time in my life when my friends joked that in my brain at all times murmured an upbeat Disney song because of my ingrained positivity and hope, the belief that good will always win versus evil, the glass is always half full, we can always make a positive difference, and on and on and on and on. But today my brain hears the voice, calm, firm, reassuring, confident: death always wins.
Death is a fascinating presence. It is often completely out of mind, jokingly referenced, laughed about thanks to Monty Python’s skit with “Mr. Death” as the grim reaper enters the scene. There are times, however, when it is always present, perhaps in our gut, in our fears, surrounding us or those around us. Accepting death as “the inevitable” is part of my career as much as we desperately try to prevent it, or at least manage it. Death stands waiting knowing his turn will come eventually.
We can cheat death, taunt death, gamble with death, avert death, stare death in the eyes. There are times when we wish for death as a savior, a gift, a release from the body imprisoned by disease, illness, or diminished capacity of many varieties. Death can be a freedom. We always, always wish for death to be peaceful, painless, and kind. Sometimes it is.
Death can be swift and shocking, long and drawn out, life-shatteringly tragic, or breathtakingly beautiful. Death may spring forth like a lightning bolt out of nowhere and terribly efficient. Death may be a seed planted that slowly grows, like a small ember given enough oxygen to slowly consume the space it’s been offered until it is all encompassing. But death is still death.
Working with death, I’ve realized that there is a stoicism that often, but not always, develops as a coping mechanism. Acknowledging that it is truly the one thing we cannot control 100% of the time can be very empowering or crippling as some desperately try to do so with every ounce of their soul. Death wins, always.
I’ve realized that in dealing with death in my own life that same stoicism leads, calm prevails, emergency brain kicks in with, Who is affected? Who will be suffering the most? Who is taking charge of the details? What is my role to impact this positively and offer my skills and knowledge to support this transition for all those involved? Keep it together, Girl, coming undone now does no one a service. Then, the child peeks out from around the corner with tears in her eyes asking, “What’s happening? Help me understand? How can they never come back? Why can I never see them again? How am I supposed to go on?” begging for the adult to reconcile this for her in ways that make sense. It doesn’t make sense. Sometimes it cannot be reconciled or justified or made “okay” even with all the best education, experience, explanations, love, or wishes. The child in us and the adult in us may need to cry, grieve, throw things, write letters to death or the departed in order to process through what death leaves for us. Death wins.
Death may take those departed to many different places depending on faith or belief systems. It may offer utopia, heaven, running in fields, reunions with those that death has already welcomed, and more. Death’s possibilities are endless. But death still always wins.
Our belief systems, our faiths, our concepts of “after death” or “after life” are all very different. I think that perhaps what we need to believe in order to process death is a morphing presence always willing to try to adapt to what we need in the moment. Death moves with us, adapts for us hopefully, and death helps us come to terms with it. Death can also turn those living into bitter souls; living toxic lives as a result of the loss endured by their loved one’s death.
Death always wins as it serves as professor, teacher, mentor, and master educator: “Do this, don’t do that.” Death offers medical students experience like no other experience they face. Death finds nursing students and nurses, hospital volunteers, and random folks on the street and says, “Hey, this experience over here is for you to be part of. There’s something, or many things, you need to learn from this. Be respectful. Be patient. Be kind. This is someone’s love.”
Death always wins as it has a mischievous way of building bridges, mending broken fences, gathering those who let too much time pass between conversations, family holidays, loving hugs. Death helps to create charitable foundations, new research projects, and communities of people who gather to share in their common bond of death. Death may offer the Gift of Life for several who glean brilliant life-saving measures from the one who passes. Death can be life.
Death wins as it draws out priceless, precious memories, old photos or movies between people with a shared passion and respect for death’s newest member. Death sneaks out belly laughs, hand holding, “Tell that story again!” from a group of heartbroken souls who are at once distracted by death both in grief and in celebration. But if we’re not actively living, making these memories, sharing in life’s day-to-day ridiculousness, then where will the stories come from? Living an engaged life, choosing to share our time with others, our abilities with others, our love with others, what have we then? Death always wins.
I am reminded again to get out. Make memories, call loved ones, mend fences, build bridges, give hugs, share long conversations about everything and nothing, try interesting foods, learn new dances even if you’re not graceful, make jokes, laugh often, smile until those bright teeth and crow’s-feet can be seen in the rearview mirror in the car ahead of you, do the things you always talk about doing. Because, death always wins.