Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Death. Ghosts. Obligations.

She was a nursing student, pale and slight, swallowed up by her oversized dark green scrubs, but what I remember about her the morning the man died in my hospital room was the way she rushed in to take his hand, and her keening near-shout when he was dead or near it: “You are NOT alone.” 

A lie, but a beautiful one.

I never saw his face. I did hear his voice, and it was gentle and cultivated. You could tell that, as muffled and distorted by the ravages of disease and dementia as it was. When they asked him some questions to assess his mental state, he spoke in a bare whisper, summoning the date, and then, with some struggle, the name of the hospital (though he used a version of it that has been obsolete for 30 years). He said he wanted help later so he could call his son. Then they gave him a little morphine to slow down his heart rate and, instead, the drug stopped his heart. It happened so fast, they couldn’t get me out of the room, so I was privileged enough to witness the end of a life.
Not so much recently, but early in the illness, after it became clear how the story was eventually going to end, I would imagine fantasies in which the story did not end, in which part of me remained to watch and help my wife and children as they made their way through life. I couldn’t – can’t – bear to imagine them going through the struggle without me, so I would sometimes catch myself conjuring ghost stories in my day dreams.

But it is the living who must embrace ghosts. From Scientific American Online:

The dead stay with us, that much is clear. They remain in our hearts and minds, of course, but for many people they also linger in our senses—as sights, sounds, smells, touches or presences. Grief hallucinations are a normal reaction to bereavement but are rarely discussed, because people fear they might be considered insane or mentally.

One study, by the researcher Agneta Grimby at the University of Goteborg, found that over 80 percent of elderly people experience hallucinations associated with their dead partner one month after bereavement, as if their perception had yet to catch up with the knowledge of their beloved’s passing. As a marker of how vivid such visions can seem, almost a third of the people reported that they spoke in response to their experiences.


Only a minority of people reading this article are likely to experience grief without re-experiencing the dead. We often fall back on the cultural catch all of the “ghost” while the reality is, in many ways, more profound. Our perception is so tuned to their presence that when they are not there to fill that gap, we unconsciously try to mold the world into what we have lived with for so long and so badly long for. Even reality is no match for our love.
I often think that is the obligation of living to care for the dying, to keep them warm and rub their feet and moisten their cracked lips, to tell them true and loving things and smooth their passage from this terrible, beautiful world. 

I often think this, but it is wrong, at least in part. It is perhaps more true that we the dying must care for the living; we must ease regrets, soothe hurts, and build bulwarks of memory and love to offer some protection against the terrible, pressing absence ahead.

1 comment:

CEC said...

I've been reading your blog voraciously since getting home last night and have been touched in a variety of ways by a variety of posts. This one has spoken to me on a very personal level.

Your compassion for those around you is so beautiful. If I can offer any perspective as one who lives with the ghost (and so much more--he is still fully present here with me and the kids, in a way I couldn't have imagined possible before) is to taking care of each other in the way you describe is a permanent gift. Say and do it all, together.

You are always in my thoughts. All of you.