Traumatic Death

From "The Wild Bunch"

From “The Wild Bunch”

I’ve seen many traumatic deaths.

Haven’t you?

Most were on television or in a movie theater. But I also “killed” thousands in video games until ceasing to play all violent video games after the Columbine High School massacre in April of 1999.

As a kid enamored with cowboys and western films, there was always a good guy confronting the villain. The soundtrack thundered with edgy music. Shots were fired. There might be a close-up of a drawn pistol, smoke curling from the barrel like a chimney in winter. The bad guy would tumble to the dusty street, as a dead as . . . well as dead as an actor could be while lying stock-still on a movie set. There was rarely blood. While there are earlier examples, director Sam Peckinpah’s mythology-bending The Wild Bunch (1969) dramatically changed death in the western. Gallons of “blood” were spilled in the climactic shoot-out between the bad guys and the bad guys.

We’ve all seen terrible deaths.

Or have we? No matter how realistic, Hollywood is never real.

As a mid-twenties pastor, I saw my first death in a hospital. The patient’s bed filled a narrow room, barely allowing a couple of visitors. He was the ex-husband of a church member and I was there to support her. In the dreary room with its thrumming medical equipment, nurses silently entered and exited while tending to him. I stood between his ex-wife and his daughters and then, without fanfare, his breath ceased. Seconds before his eyes had randomly fluttered and his skinny chest—covered by a thin hospital sheet—rose and fell.

His disease-riddled, worn-out body was alive . . . and then not.

Quiet, almost mundane. Dying . . . death.

Years later, a hospice chaplain, I entered a patient’s bedroom with one of the nurses.

“You don’t need to in there,” the nurse cautioned. “What the cancer has done to her is nasty. I can take care of her first, clean her a little, and then you can come in to pray with her.”

A gentle, generous nurse, she cared about her patients and colleagues. But I chose to hold the hand of the woman dying in the bed, softly talking with her, praying for and with her, while the nurse tended to her “wounds.” I did not see the patient die, but I saw the terrible cost of cancer wrecking the inside and outside of a beautiful human being’s body. It was, to be polite, grim. There was blood and body fluids everywhere . . . but not like the bleeding bad guys in The Wild Bunch. No amount of room freshener or open windows could mask the room’s stench from her dying. This woman I prayed for, who’d led a vibrant life, died a few days later. I recall she was in her fifties. In her bed, in that dismal room, she looked a thousand years older. She died a miserable death.

Once, driving to visit a patient with another nurse, she asked me to check her back seat. I was riding shotgun.

“Did I bring the blue towels?” she asked. “Could you make sure?”

towelI glanced back. Her car was loaded with medical supplies, including a stack of blue towels. I told her they were there.

“Why blue?” I asked.

“I have a patient that could bleed out when he dies. I wanted to make sure the family was ready in case that happened.”

I’m dense. “Why does the color of the towel matter?”

Eyes on the traffic, one hand flicking on the turn signal, she replied, “The darker blue means the blood won’t be as obvious on the towel. If he does start bleeding, and we have to use towels to clean things up, it won’t be as disturbing for the family.”

Dark blood. Dark towels.

I have seen a few deaths. I have discussed thousands of deaths. In hospice care, with compassionate doctors and dedicated nurses, nearly all deaths are rightly described with “peaceful” or “comfortable.” While there aren’t guarantees, hospice care—in a patient’s home or at a care facility—typically leads to a relatively pain-free death. Families have opportunities for final goodbyes. They can hold hands and reassure with loving whispers. Another of the average daily 23,000 in-and-out breaths begins . . . but then becomes the final breath.

Though infrequent, terrible things do happen. The hospice nurses will usually instruct families that this type of cancer or that kind of surgical wound may—may—lead to a difficult death. But even a hospice nurse or doctor can be shocked by an unexpectedly “bad” death. Families may panic. A caregiver will call 9-1-1. Regardless of how fast a hospice nurse could arrive at a home after a frantic midnight phone call . . . his or her response won’t be enough. Every decision the family makes will be a blur.

Why write about a highly unlikely event?

Because, though a family or the hospice staff would never want a loved one to experience a traumatic death, these upsetting final moments occasionally happen.

If you’ve read this far about this troubling subject, you still won’t be prepared. Nonetheless, my hope is a few receive these words and understand the worst kind of death shouldn’t automatically lead to guilt from a family’s decisions/actions or blame for a hospice’s care.

The dark blue towels in the nurse’s back seat were rarely used. But she tried to be ready.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. I wish I had known this before we chose to have my husband pass away at home. It was traumatic and I will never recover from the experience.

    • Connie: thanks for your responses . . . though they are heartbreaking. While I obviously know none of the details of your traumatic experience, it may be helpful to talk with a grief counselor. I sometimes use this quote from Rev. Fred Rogers (television’s Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) in the grief groups I lead:

      “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

      A traumatic death of a loved one will likely always remain an anguished memory. But, sometimes, talking about it with a compassionate professional can help lessen how you recall that experience. Several counselors at the hospice where I work use EMDR to help clients deal with traumatic memories.

      No counseling, and no particular “technique,” will guarantee your healing. But I think one of the worst choices is to keep all the pain only to ourselves.

      Again, thanks for responding, for your courage in sharing on this website.

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