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What is it like to watch someone die?

What is it like to watch someone die?

I spoke to a woman last week whose husband died earlier this month.  She said that no-one had told her what it might be like to watch him die – I mean actually be present at the moment of death – and that it would have been really great if someone had. She hadn’t known what to expect and found the event a little more confusing and scary because of this.

So here I go.

I’ve seen plenty of dead bodies, but actually seeing death occur is a very different thing.  I have been present at one death of a family member and heard plenty of stories from clients and others who also have.  And there is one thing to know:  most of us have seen too much TV and watched too many movies….and expect our loved one to smile one last time at us, sigh gently, then close their eyes and let their head fall slightly to one side.  This is how we know they are gone.

Now it might happen like this sometimes….but it definitely isn’t always how it goes.

Coming into this world isn’t that easy.  Why would going out necessarily be?  To be born is physically and emotional a bit stressful.  And generally going out can be too.  The body can react to death in all sorts of odd ways.  So does the mind.  Right before death people can become confused, delirious, they might hallucinate or become aggressive. They may also be very placid and peaceful.  Anything is an option here.  Likewise with the body – it could be very quiet and calm…or it could do some odd or worrying or even frightening things.  This doesn’t mean the person you are with is in serious pain or fighting too hard and wanting to stay. It is just part of the process, like birth, of a huge transition.  It can be a bit scary or unsettling to see…or maybe not.  The death I witnessed was not pretty – my grandad’s body did some strange things – but I’m glad I was there for it and I feel it was a great honour to have been present and been able to witness the closing of his life.  I don’t feel like he was suffering or that it was necessarily traumatic for him.  But it takes effort and a bit of struggle sometimes for the butterfly to get out of it’s cocoon, even though this is the most natural thing in the world for it to do.  Likewise the spirit releasing from the body is going to take a bit of effort….and that effort might show up physically.  It certainly did with Grandad.

Not to say the experience is for everyone though.  Again, straight out of the movies is the idea that they die with us around them holding their hands…and that this is the way it should be.  If you have guilt about not being present at a death in the past…or fear of being at a future one…here is a blog I wrote a while ago about why it isn’t the right thing for everybody.

So if you know you are going to be present as someone dies (and most of us will at least once in our lives) then just be prepared for whatever might happen.  It might be a quiet eventless passing…or the opposite.  Know you are present at a massive event in someone’s life and that, like all great transitions, it might not look easy.  That doesn’t mean it is awful or wrong or even as traumatic for them as you might imagine.




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